EASTENDERS fans are in for a treat, as Mitchell family matriarch Peggy, played by Barbara Windsor, gears up to return to the Square for a special 30th anniversary episode next month.
But, setting aside hopeful rumours, Ross Kemp, who played her hard man son Grant Mitchell from 1990 until 2006, says he’s too busy tackling real-life drama to go back to Walford. “I can’t join her,” he says apologetically. “It’s just about space in my diary.”
Kemp is just finishing up filming his fourth series of Extreme World, the hard-hitting documentary strand that’s seen him meet child soldiers in the Congo, investigate sex trafficking in Mumbai and, last year, held at gunpoint in Papua New Guinea.
The new series is no exception to events that have left the 50-year-old gob-smacked. In next week’s first episode, he travels to eastern Ukraine to meet the neo-Nazi militia, whose ultra-right ideology is gaining worrying influence. Next, he heads to South Africa to investigate a national rape epidemic that is claiming 500,000 victims a year, nearly half of whom are children.
“It’s not my job to judge, but it’s very difficult to be non-judgemental when it comes to rape, or child rape, particularly when people are openly admitting to it and high-fiving about it while you interview them. You can see on my face, I’m completely blown away by that.
“I keep asking them, ’What about the victim?’ Each time, they bring it back to themselves: ‘Oh we worry she could go to the police, we worry she could give us HIV.’ My mouth was on the floor.”
Though visibly aghast at the memory of these chilling interviews, Kemp is clearly besotted by his work. He calls his production team “the real heroes”.
“We arrive in Ukraine, and I’m out of the hotel and we’re in a march!” he recalls. “The next minute we’re in a full-blown riot, chains are being hit against police, flashbangs grenades are going off at my feet, rocks and paving stones being broken up and hurled at the Rada the Ukrainian government building and I’m going, ‘Hang on, I haven’t even had my breakfast yet!’
Born in Essex and trained at the Webber Douglas Academy of Dramatic Art, Kemp has moved on from his Mitchell days to earn a stellar reputation as an investigative journalist. He won a Bafta for his adrenalin-fuelled Ross Kemp On Gangs series, and his work in Afghanistan was so comprehensive that a British ambassador in the country once described him as “the best war reporter” of all.
Now that British soldiers are finally home after 13 years of combat, what does Kemp think about it all?
“Was the blood and the treasure worth the lives? I would suggest not. I don’t think you can ever quantify what other people have been through. It has certainly changed my life,” he says.
“There have definitely been improvements in terms of education, particularly for girls. There’s still chronic unemployment, the country is still divided, as it always will be, between certain ethnic groups. It’s great the elections have happened. I have a great admiration for the people, and I would go back there tomorrow if I could.”
With the extreme human trauma the actor has witnessed, it’s hard to imagine how anyone could forget about it each night, but Kemp is reassuringly smiley and composed.
“A lot of people say I should seek counselling,” he notes. “I think that’s probably a good idea at some point, but I haven’t got time right now. I think anyone who goes through a lot of trauma should do that — but I’m not really in it, I have an escape route.”
When it comes to relaxation, he says he is happiest at home, and when he’s not working, he enjoys going for walks in the country, the odd glass of wine, and, all-importantly, sleeping.
“How much longer I can do this, I don’t know,” he confesses. “Not from my mental capacity, but in terms of the fact that I’m 50 years old now! I enjoy being with my family.”
Once married to ex-News of the World editor Rebekah Wade (later Brooks), Kemp also has a four-year-old son with a former girlfriend. In 2012, he married Australian corporate lawyer Renee O’Brien.
It's confirmed...#ExtremeWorld Series 4 starts on Thursday 22nd January on @sky1. Hope you can tune in— Ross Kemp (@RossKemp) January 8, 2015
While the rest of his family is “quietly proud” of his work, Kemp insists they don’t allow him a swollen ego.
“My brother has made lots of films in hostile environments, my father was a soldier and police officer, so there’s no bragging rights in our household, that’s for sure.”
Cryptic philosophies aside, for now, he’s relishing the opportunities that Extreme World has given him. In this series, he rides a Harley-Davidson with the Rebels Motorcycle Club in Australia, from Melbourne to Canberra then Sydney.“Luckily I was wearing a crash helmet, or my bald head would have burnt to a crisp!” he jokes.
“The freedom that we have is just unbelievable. How lucky am I, to have had a career as an actor and be doing what I’m doing now?” Kemp adds.
“Don’t think for a second that I don’t thank my lucky stars every day.”