I’m just an ex-tap dancer trying to make documentaries laughs ex-EastEnders actor Ross Kemp
- Credit: Archant
Actor turned award-wining documentary maker Ross Kemp talks about his East Anglian roots and the end of his Extreme World series
“SIT DOWN,” Ross shouts down the phone. I do it immediately. “Sorry, I’m not talking to you” he adds. “I’ve got a dog that’s just going to jump in a very muddy pond and is getting in the way of my wife and son.”
Phew I tell him.
“It happened (to me) recently in the West Bank where I was in the back of a vehicle with my cameraman and soundman when the Palestinian major in front of me just pulled out a gun and started shooting at a drug car behind us,” laughs the actor turned BAFTA winning documentary maker.
He makes this, and later stories, sound so matter of fact; like he’s describing popping down the shops for a loaf of bread.
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“He didn’t tell us he was going to do it and we all piled out. I went to get back in the vehicle with my team and I’d been replaced by a shot drug dealer so I couldn’t get in. I went to get in the other vehicle; the other Palestinian police were in there and told us to ‘GET OUT, GET OUT’ so I did. No-one ever jumps when I say it.”
Hopefully Ross, famous for playing hard man Grant Mitchell in EastEnders, will have an easier time when he opens the Go Outdoors Ipswich superstore June 10. He’ll be at the Anglian Retail Park shop from 9am and will cut the ceremonial ribbon before welcoming customers and taking part in a question and answer session.
Driving up and down the A12 and A11 is something he’s being doing since a kid. He grew up in Essex, attending Southend Tech before going to drama school in London.
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His late granddad was in charge of the shunting at Ipswich for about 10 years and his nan is in a British Legion home in Cromer. Ross’ dad, who was in the Royal Norfolks before becoming a Scotland Yard detective, and mum live in Knapton; just outside Mundesley. He played rugby in Essex briefly when he was a kid, for Eastern Counties, and went to Afghanistan with the Royal Anglian Regiment twice so still has friends across the region.
“It’s a nice part of the world, nice people,” says Ross, who actually got his Equity Card at The Palace Theatre, Westcliff-on-Sea.
“Those days, you couldn’t work unless you had a card but to get a card you had to work. The only way really was through the repertory theatres, those weekly or twice weekly plays where the company would exist for six months of the year and everyone in the company would play different parts.
“It was a brilliant training ground to be an actor and I’m really glad I went through that experience, even though it was quite tough. The first play in the run wasn’t part of the company; it was a preview for an attempted West End run. I played a very small part and was assistant stage manager but I got to know the fantastic Richard Wilson and brilliant John Thaw quite well.
“I was there for 38 weeks to get my full card and then one of the two times I’ve done panto was at the Cliffs Pavilion so I think I’m going to be buried in Southend - I’ve attempted to get myself buried in Southend already some of the performances I put in,” he laughs.
Ross has become well-known for the BAFTA winning Sky 1 series Extreme World which sees him explore everything from illicit trade to drug addiction and violence to poverty.
“There are still a lot of people who pooh-pooh what I do and don’t like it because they’re snobs. Obviously they train very hard to become documentary makers and have made lots of sacrifices - well so did I really, I just did it a bit later than them.”
Ross had left the BBC to go to ITV. It was hard when filming, but he wasn’t doing the same hours he’d been doing at Elstree with EastEnders for nearly 10 years and found he had time on his hands when someone asked him to present a documentary about America’s relationship with guns. Having family with a military background he thought it’d be great doing something different. He also confesses to being bored.
“Doing that I met a gangster who had been shot 26 [separate] times; [he was] a member of the Bloods, in those days people hadn’t heard of the Bloods or the Crips… this guy was the antithesis of what I was seeing on MTV at the time... from America; the gang and rap scene...
“But he was very bright. He didn’t have a blonde supermodel for a wife; he had a very large black lady with two kids on both hips and a blocked toilet. He was living in poverty and fighting for his life; the way he did that was by selling drugs on the corner. I couldn’t help thinking this guy, had he been born 20 blocks in another direction, could’ve been a teacher or something.”
Ross went back to London and sold the idea to someone he knew at Sky’s documentary department. It agreed to make three programmes which were watched by a lot of people. They went on to make 27 more programmes in that vein and another 50 odd documentaries about topics.
He’s passionate about what he does.
“You have to [be] don’t you in life? I’ve been very fortunate to have had two careers and both of them have been enjoyable and I’ve been passionate about both of them. For me, documentary making has a bigger resonance because it’s real.”
No matter how seriously you take acting, when someone says cut or the curtain comes down you go home. When you’re on the ground in Syria, Iraq or South America you’re on call 24/7.
“You know you’re risking the lives or your team if you say we’re going here to make a film, they put their trust in you that you will help bring them back in one piece; it’s a joint venture. That’s something I love, that’s it very much a team.
“I’m not saying acting can’t be a team experience, but you don’t go through those experiences and not bond.”
Midway through last year they were getting shot at by an ISIS sniper. It comes with territory when you’re interviewing people on the frontline.
“You don’t think about it really until afterwards. I’m too busy making sure I’ve got my head down, making sure my cameraman is safe going through the buildings, the rubble, trying to get out to the frontline and then when we’re there making sure my piece is half coherent and not just a load of hyperbole.”
Once the dust has settled, they always trauma risk manage which they learned from commandos on the ground in Afghanistan who learnt it from sailors. Basically after a traumatic episode the crew would get together in their cabins and discuss what happened from their point of view.
“We do that every night whether over some chai in a war zone or a couple of cold beers in Compton. It keeps us on the straight and narrow. The way we run it, it’s virtually the same team. You become a family, it’s impossible not to, so we talk to each other very openly and very candidly - sometimes too candidly for other people around us, but it seems to work.”
He says the first time they get on location, most crews will be getting to know each other - does the presenter go on action or take three steps to speak; is he a bit sensitive about his double chin. Ross and co hit the ground running the first day. An example was their story about a crack epidemic in Brazil before the World Cup.
“We spoke straight to the drug lord. He said ‘yeah, you can go in there. They smoke crack all day, we keep them there with a supply of water so they don’t upset everybody else in the favela [shantytown]. We just went straight through a door into hell.
“I’d say [there were] 60 to 70 young people all smoking crack and had been for about 36 hours. [They were] in a state of frenzy when we walked in. We managed to control the situation through [director] Marta’s great Brazilian Portuguese and I managed to find an English speaking person among them who was trapped there. We got an interview and shot three discs in three hours without really pausing for breath.”
Making series like this, you often see the worst of humanity. Ross recalls being in an “awful mess” seeing young children and women with shrapnel injuries, some of whom were stopped from being treated and bled out. He also remembers interviewing a human trafficker in India, whom he calls Mr Khan, who thought he’d killed between 300-400 girls.
“He started crying because he was feeling sorry for himself. If you’re capable of killing that many people in cold blood feeling sorry for yourself is not something I think you should be doing... but the good I’ve met far outweighs that [the bad].”
Ross cites a doctor working at a hospital on Lake Kivu, on the border between the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda. He treated girls who’d been captured from villages during the infamous conflict. They were raped, mutilated and even fed from burning plastic bottles heated up over fires. It took days to get him to agree to talk to the crew.
“My God, an emotional moment for me when he actually did and I saw the work he’d done. His life was under threat every day; there’d been numerous assassination attempts. When you meet someone like him you realise true good does exist in the world and one of him is worth a thousand Mr Khans.
“It’s humbling and gives you a better perspective on life at home... you come back with a different mindset after you witness certain things.”
Known for his hard man roles in EastEnders and Ultimate Force – “it’s about time I played a hairdresser – which I’d love to do,” he laughs - ego aside, Ross jokes, he’s never been injured. He says his wife, an Australian, had a stepfather who was in the Australian Royal Navy, doing dangerous stuff around the world so she’s very pragmatic when it comes to what he does.
“Obviously it’s quick goodbyes, long hellos and getting harder as the kids get older but it’s what I do for a living. She didn’t know me as an actor, she’d never seen EastEnders, didn’t know I was in it. She met me after I’d had about five pints after coming back from Afghanistan, God knows why she ended up getting married to me,” he laughs.
Ross has the utmost respect for our armed forces. He’s not sure he could do what they do.
“I am what I am, an ex-tap dancer trying to make documentaries. I worry about the cuts being made, particularly to our frontline troops in terms of the numbers and assets they will need if they are deployed again. Who knows what’s round the corner particularly in the unstable world we live in.
“It’s incredibly worrying what happened in Manchester... Disastrous and your thoughts go out to the families of those young girls.”
In terms of making a difference for the people featured in his reports, he hopes they’ve drawn attention to their plight. The aim was never to be judgemental, but to present an audience with facts in a balanced way and trust them to draw their own conclusions.
“Obviously some people come to them because they are extreme in terms of the location or the points of view some people are allowed to take inside the documentaries... I’m hoping to inform people who would not necessarily have come to current affairs shows normally. I think it also encourages a lot of young people to become interested in what’s going on around the world. It’s also an interesting demographic, I think it’s 55% male, 45% female and that’s rare for programmes of that ilk.”
He’s disappointed the sixth season will be the last, with Sky deciding to shift its focus from factual shows to entertainment programmes.
“I hope its decision wasn’t based just on how good or bad they though Extreme World was. It’s been everything to me, it’s my baby; my company has made it. Nothing lasts forever, not many things get six series but I’m looking forward to doing other stuff with other people.
“I’m not intending to stop making documentaries so I will endeavour to look for a new home for (it), the team... at the same time I’m hoping my relationship with Sky will endure, it’s been 15 years and I’ve loved working for it.”
He promises the final series, airing in July, is a good one.
It sees him explore the potential for a race war in America, the killing of thousands of suspects in the Philippines war on drugs, the feuding gangs of Naples, the bandits of Madagascar, the drug epidemic sweeping through Palestine and the plight of migrants braving the journey through war-torn Libya.
“We were there [America] just after [the election] and were in a riot in Austin between white lives matters protesters and left-wing demonstrators… They were carrying an AR13 with 200 rounds of automatic ammunition and were surrounded at certain points by 800 police officers, state troopers on horses, riot shields; snipers on the roof.
“All of those guys were armed and the opposing demonstrators... one group turned up with hammer and sickle masks on, four of them carrying AK47s... thank God in this country we haven’t got the access [to weapons] they have.”
Ross has no plans to return to acting or write more books at the moment, before adding never say never.
“I’ve got a family that needs supporting and a mortgage like everybody else. As long as it’s something I feel passionate about then of course.”
He was nervous at returning to EastEnders for Barbara Windsor’s exit storyline. He hadn’t acted for a very long time and gotten very used to being a documentary maker, working on his own terms. Acting, you’re just a cog in the wheel.
“There’s an expectation for you to be as good as you were when you were doing it every day of your life. I’d just come back from Mozambique trying to avoid being shot by poachers and eaten by lions in full 53 degree heat. The next minute I’m doing exactly the same thing only as Grant in EastEnders, trying to avoid being snapped up by the critics.
“I had two days there and then I was off to Mongolia, risking being beaten up by right wing Mongolian Nazis so it was a very odd filling in a sandwich between two different jobs.”
Ross is very happy to be associated with Go Outdoors. It’s the kind of store he finds difficult to walk past anyway. Whether you’re in the middle of a jungle or up a mountain, walking in the Lake District or camping with the kids; it has everything you could possibly need. He gets all his documentary gear there.
“I might have been in my younger days a great shopper at all those fancy clothes shops where you’d save up all your money to buy one top; [now] I’m a bit of a geek. There’s everything there I need for my job.
“My six-year-old and two-year-old absolutely love it too. We sit in the garden and put a tent up, cook some beans… they’re more likely to enjoy that meal than if I cook them a roast dinner.”
He’s a big fan of being outdoors.
“I think it’s mentally good for you to get outside; particularly if you’re cooped up in an office or a factory most of the week. I think in society we’re needing more and more to get out. I always feel better after a walk. I’ve just done a really good run. I’m not saying I run every day but...”