ROSS KEMP arches an eyebrow as though I’ve made a startling revelation. “You’re a smoker?” he asks. I have just apologised for popping some gum in my mouth to disguise my Marlboro breath.
“I haven’t smoked in two years,” he says. “The last time was in Pakistan after a round went past my head.” He slices the air with the blade of his palm, marking the trajectory of an imaginary bullet.
“There wasn’t any alcohol around, so I had a ciggie instead.” He laughs and I find myself liking him immediately. He seems like a good bloke. He has put me at ease. It’s a measure of his skill as an interviewer — although I’m supposed to be the one conducting the interview.
The actor and documentary-maker, who played Grant Mitchell for 10 years in EastEnders, is here to promote the third season of his Extreme World show on Sky 1. Since 2006, he has patrolled with squaddies in Helmand, chased pirates, hung out with gang members in LA and been held up in Papua New Guinea.
The previous night, I had watched an advance episode where he hits Northern Ireland. What does he think of our island?
“I love coming here. I generally get a good reception. It’s relaxed and the people are very friendly. One of my first ever jobs was in Ardmore Studios in Bray. I wrote a short story about the Hellfire Club which is nearby.”
There’s something you may not have known about Ross Kemp. He’s a bestselling author. When he’s not dodging bullets, he’s writing novels and non-fiction books about his travels.
Here’s something else you didn’t know: Kemp could play soccer for Ireland, if we had a great-granny rule.
“My great-grandfather came over from Ireland and opened a pub in Plymouth,” he says, revealing some pride in his ancestry. Great-grandaddy was a pub landlord in the time of Queen Vic. Ross was landlord at the Queen Vic.
This quintessentially London bloke is part Paddy. It’s another surprise from a man with the most surprising career in TV.
Ross has gone from being King of Albert Square to award-winning documentarian. He is the only person ever to have been nominated Sexiest Male at the Inside Soap awards and to have won a Bafta for best factual programme. He used to spend weekends with his ex-wife chatting to Tony and Cherie Blair at Chequers. He returned from the frontline in Afghanistan to do panto. (That HAS to be a first.) If his life was a soap plot, you’d say it was too far-fetched.
Kemp plays the tough guy but comes across as a well-educated, middle class boy. He is uncomfortable with this assessment.
“Lower class, I would suggest, if there is such a thing. I had working class grandparents. I don’t really talk about my background and my family, to be honest.”
It’s a very polite signal that he won’t be talking about his ex-wife, former Sun editor Rebekah Wade (now Brooks), and THAT incident, which we’ll come to presently.
Ross James Belshaw Kemp was born in Barking, Essex, in 1964. He had a normal childhood, playing rugby and boxing and getting into the usual scrapes. His dad, John, was a police officer and his mum, Jean, ran a hairdressing business from home. His brother, Darren, is a journalist with the BBC.
“I’ve always loved TV. Most people want to be movie stars when they’re a kid. I wanted to be on the telly. I used to re-enact scenes from my favourite shows on our road with my friends. Shows like Banana Splitz and The Flashing Blade. I knew what I wanted to do from an early age.”
He went to drama school and joined EastEnders in 1990 as Grant Mitchell, playing opposite screen brother Steve McFadden and ‘mum’ Barbara Windsor (Peggy Mitchell). He made 2,000 episodes before leaving for ITV on a £1.2m transfer deal in 1999. When he returned in 2005, an extra 3m viewers tuned in.
He says that EastEnders was good to him and he would never turn his back on it. “Never say never”. He still has a soft spot for Barbara Windsor. “She’s so sexy.”
And strong. He’s attracted to powerful, successful women. His second wife is Renee O’Brien, a corporate lawyer from Australia.
His first was the aforementioned Rebekah Wade.
Ross’s tough guy image took a battering after an ‘incident’ with Wade in 2005. She was arrested on suspicion of allegedly assaulting him after he called police during a late-night row at their home. She was later released without charge. It was embarrassing for both parties. I ask him if his marriage to Wade had any bearing on his decision to become a journalist.
“No, it was totally by fluke. I was at lunch with some people and a call came through asking one of them to make a documentary on America’s obsession with handguns. He couldn’t do it. Then my phone rang. It was the same producer. ‘Ross, we have a show we’d love you to do. You’re our first choice’.”
Although he doesn’t say it, the refusenik was AA Gill, the dandified food and TV critic of the Sunday Times.
“While making the documentary, I met a guy who had been shot 27 times. He was a bright boy and made it up in the Bloods [LA gang]. If he had been born a few blocks away he might have been a journalist or a politician.
“I decided to spend the night with him and his family. He didn’t have a glamorous life. No pneumatic blonde wife — it wasn’t Ferraris and Tupak. He had kids and a blocked toilet. It totally flew in the face of what we had been fed on MTV or in that movie Colours. We’ve glamorised gang culture. It’s not Robin Hood. It’s about survival.
“When I got back to where I was staying I had an idea for a new series. I wanted to show the reality of gang life.” Hence Ross Kemp on Gangs.
Kemp has been gassed four times and shot in the face once. Does having such a generic tough-guy look help?
“It can work both ways. When we were in Compton, which is one of the most dangerous areas in the US, we were stopped straight away by the sheriff’s office. They thought I was a member of the Aryan brotherhood coming to shoot a local.”
Kemp’s gangs show won him a Bafta in 2007. The following year, Ross Kemp in Afghanistan made his name as an insanely brave frontline reporter. Brave because he’s so obviously scared crapless and yet still chooses to work under fire. He prepared by learning self-defence and how to use a SA80 assault rifle.
“No book, no film can prepare you for war. You can’t explain what it’s like to have air pressure around you and the sound, and that there’s someone out there who’s aiming at you and trying to kill you.”
Why put himself through that?
“I felt that we weren’t hearing the story of the ordinary soldier.
“I wanted to hear how he coped with war in a far-flung part of the world — what it was like for a cosseted young Brit in that extreme situation,” Kemp explains.
He was accepted by the military. Has he now been accepted as a journalist by his peers?
“It depends on who you talk to. There are some who wouldn’t consider me a journalist. I’d probably call myself a ‘reporter’. I have some advantages that journalists don’t have: because of the acting I’m very camera-aware, having done thousands of episodes of EastEnders.”
This camera awareness helped him while making the new series of Extreme World. In Papua New Guinea, he was held-up at gunpoint.
Instead of submitting to his kidnappers, he turned the situation around and interviewed them.
He’s seen some harrowing things in his travels. And not always in far-flung places. In Glasgow he met a welfare-reliant man “who pulled off six of his toes because he drinks too much and he keeps them in a jar by the TV. The money given to him by the state he uses on drink. He’s just waiting to die”.
In Kenya, he came across a rubbish tip inhabited by semi-naked orphans addicted to glue-sniffing.
“One girl had a four-month-old baby in her arms and a glue bottle in her mouth. She dropped the infant on its head, picked it up and stuck the glue bottle in its mouth. Then she stuck it back in her own. I’ll never forget it.”
He is keen to point out that he makes his documentaries without any agenda. “It’s not my job to judge. In the Northern Ireland programme, we dropped two politicians from the final edit in favour of two taxi men. One was Protestant and one was Catholic. We got more sense from them.”
He interviewed the men on Bombay Street — one of the flash points where the Troubles began. Later in the show, he is at the heart of last summer’s loyalist rioting in Ardoyne.
It’s odd to see Kemp The Lion of Afghanistan reporting on the internecine struggles in our tiny back yard. The show is kind of ‘Belfast for Beginners’. It has to be as viewers across the water have not been educated about the Six Counties.
“If you’re Irish then you understand what happened, but if you’re from Somerset you won’t be aware of it. A lot of young people don’t know about the bombings on the mainland, let alone Omagh and all the suffering on both sides. We have to be aware in the UK of what took place there.”
How did he rate the North in terms of other places he has visited?
“It’s obviously not on the scale of Papua New Guinea, but when I saw those peace walls, I thought ‘This is fairly extreme. Even now; these communities have to separate themselves’.
“The Good Friday Agreement has made it a better place. However, you won’t change people overnight.”
Kemp accepts that some may find fault with the Northern episode.
He clearly cares about this but “tried to treat both sides as equally as we could”.
It’s at this point that I lob a grenade into his fox hole.
One small quibble, I say. You gave a figure for the people killed by the IRA, but you didn’t mention the number of civilians murdered by the other side.
He looks crestfallen. Very, very crestfallen in an ‘Oh shit’ kind of way.
“Thank you for telling me. I appreciate criticism.”
I feel bad for upsetting him, but I had to say it.
Outside, I light a cigarette and ponder the nature of machismo. I’ve just unintentionally hurt Ross Kemp’s feelings. He’s one of Britain’s most famous TV tough guys, but in reality he’s an affable softy.
Then I remember him telling me about the last time he smoked. After the bullet whizzed past his head in Pakistan.
Somehow, I think he’ll get over my comment.