Televisual Factual Festival: “Iraq, Syria and Libya in one year was a bit of bridge too far for me – I’m getting old!” says Ross Kemp, as he lists some of the eight countries he has travelled to for his latest Sky1 series Ross Kemp: Extreme World.

But it looks like the former EastEnders star is going to be travelling just as much in the next 12 months, as Sky has just greenlit Extreme World for a sixth series.

It’s over ten years since Kemp swapped Albert Square for life as a documentary maker, winning a Bafta along the way for Ross Kemp on Gangs and a nomination for Ross Kemp in Afghanistan. He’s since made 75 films, which have won widespread acclaim for bringing current affairs to a much wider audience.

This is partly because of the proximity to extreme danger that Kemp often puts himself in. His latest series, for example, sees Kemp and his crew pinned down by sniper fire on the front line in Syria, with bullets visibly ricocheting off a wall above him.

He also manages to earn the trust of and ask challenging questions of interviewees who are rarely seen on camera, including a Columbian assassin who calmly explains how he tortures and kills his victims (it begins by scratching their eyeballs out with a needle). 

Kemp makes his documentaries through his indie Freshwater Films. Each film is usually shot over a two-week period by a six strong crew on the ground – Kemp, plus a cameraman, soundman, a producer, fixer and director. Back home, two or three researchers will research each programme for roughly five weeks, with two further weeks of research on the ground to secure access. Post production, which takes place at The Farm, usually lasts six weeks.

“It says Ross Kemp on it, but it is very much a team effort,” says Kemp, getting out his mobile to show pictures of him and his crew on the ground in Libya. “I own the company but I feel like I work for it and they tell me what to do…I get bossed around!”

As the years have gone on, he says it has become easier to gain access to stories. “It is because we are trustworthy,” he explains. “Always leave the country that you are in – the fixers, the people on the ground and the ones you have interviewed – in as good a state as you can. Then you will get asked back.”

He says his research team starts with a big pool of possible locations and stories, narrowing them down to the ones where they know they can gain access. “Access is the most important thing,” he says.

But why do many of the people on camera want to talk to him at all, particularly the likes of a Columbian assassin? “It happens a lot. We spend a lot of time convincing people that their message is important. He thinks he is going to die at any second. So it becomes a cathartic moment for him.”

Kemp’s trademark style is to take the audience with him on a journey into danger zones. And that is very deliberate, he says. “Audiences don’t want to be talked down to. They want to be informed but in a way that is inclusive and they feel they are part of the journey.” He describes himself as “the conduit to the story.”

It means asking direct questions the audience would ask. But once the interviews start, he says, the most important thing to do is to listen and not to judge. “My mum was a hairdresser, so I grew up in a hairdressing salon. I spent my time listening to the ladies and their stories – and I loved it. You’ve got to have an honest interest in human beings.” The series, he adds, is “about understanding human beings.”

It’s also, of course, about venturing to hostile environments. So what about security? Again, he pulls out his mobile, to show a video of him and his crew crossing the Libyan desert in a 4×4. Under his feet, in the passenger seat, is a machine gun. “This is our security,” he says. The crew also had an ex-army security advisor with them in Syria, Libya and Iraq “just in case we get in to trouble.” It is the first time he has had any advisors, he says.

Kemp spends more time on the road making films than he does at home with his young family. So how does he decompress? “White wine is a good one,” he laughs. “I like going to restaurants and chilling out with my friends and family. There is no deep psychosis.”

He and his team also practice a support technique called TRiM (Trauma Risk Management), which is used by the British Army to help soldiers cope with traumatising events.  “We just sit round a table at the end of the day. No matter whether it has been a harrowing interview or you have been shot at or witnessed someone being killed, we all talk about it individually – camera, sound, myself and the director. And that is a very good way of escaping Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or other kinds of trauma related things. You have got to talk about it as soon as you have witnessed it and share it with other people. Otherwise you trap it at the back of your head.”

Ross Kemp was speaking at The Televisual Factual Festival this week

Age 52
Education  Shenfield High School, Webber Douglas Academy of Dramatic Art
1990 Makes first appearance in EastEnders
1999 Leaves EastEnders. Signs two year deal with ITV, appearing in various dramas
2006 Sky’s Ross Kemp on Gangs wins Bafta best factual series award
2009 Ross Kemp in Afghanistan and Ross Kemp: A Kenya Special both nominated for Bafta awards
2016 Commissioned to make sixth series of Ross Kemp: Extreme World

Tim Dams

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