If you were to mention to the average Brit that The Discovery Channel is showing ‘The Ross Kemp Season’, chances are they’d say ‘What, the Ross Kemp?’ And not in a good way, either. Because to a sizeable chunk of the UK’s populace, Kemp is inextricably linked to EastEnders, the long-running soap opera in which he played Cockney thug Grant Mitchell for nearly 10 years, first from 1990 to 1999, then briefly from 2005 to 2006. But while his talents in the ’90s didn’t extend much further than bellowing gruffly and looking like an angry egg, his post-EastEnders career revealed a side to the man that surprised many.
In 2007, Kemp hosted Ross Kemp on Gangs, a documentary series that played on his hard-man persona while dipping him into violent pockets of Rio de Janeiro, California and London, introducing him to organised criminals, gun-runners and neo-Nazis. It ought to have been terrible, lowest-common-denominator fluff, but Kemp’s honest questioning and excellent access made it compelling and enlightening TV. Since then he’s also recorded documentaries with the US Army and Taliban factions in Afghanistan, and one in which he meets modern-day pirates.
But the big question is: why? ‘The thing that probably turns on David Attenborough when looking at animals is the same thing that turns me on when meeting interesting people,’ he says. ‘I’m fascinated by what makes certain people tick.’ But Kemp admits that Attenborough has it easier. ‘I’m far more scared of humans than I am of animals when I go out on trips. The unpredictability of the human being, the human species, particularly when under the influence of narcotics or alcohol…’
The fact that Kemp can get so close to notorious – and dangerous – criminals continues to surprise, even when watching this fourth series of the show. But Kemp is matter-of-fact about the danger. ‘I have very good researchers that work with these people, and so far, in everything we’ve done, we’ve never gone to the authorities. These people can spot bulls*** a mile off. They’ve grown up in an environment where people have lied to them all their lives. I think it’s a matter of me being very honest, giving them some dignity and being genuinely interested in what they have to say. I only go to places I’m interested in and I think human beings pick up on that. I think that’s a massive advantage.
‘And I also go out and I socialise with these guys. You don’t get interviews overnight. You have to spend days, sometimes months, going to the bar, meeting the family, sitting down for dinner, getting to know their kids, whatever.’
Not that he glamourises the criminals. Indeed, he’s all too aware of the horror of their lives. ‘Seeing people get raped while you’re filming off camera is not nice,’ he says, grimly. ‘Once we couldn’t get into El Salvador prison because they’d cut off somebody’s head and were playing football with it. That wasn’t nice.’
But despite having a list of ‘not nice’ things as long as a severed arm, Kemp says he’s gone past the point of quitting, despite having come pretty close on occasion. ‘I’ve got a mortgage to pay like everyone else and it’s become a job for me. So, if you’re lighting someone’s cigarette and a bullet goes between you and the cigarette, that’s close enough, isn’t it? If you’re laying flat down in a field and you know someone is scoping you out and the rounds are going between your shoulder and your helmet, and you know the only reason he hasn’t [shot] you is because he isn’t shooting as well as he should do, then that’s close enough, yeah? That time has come and gone, mate, it’s what I do for a living now. So I just get on with it, really.’ James Wilkinson.
The fourth series of Ross Kemp on Gangs begins on The Discovery Channel at midnight on January 31. This and other Ross Kemp documentaries will continue until March