Ross Kemp: ‘Me, macho? I have many female viewers!’
Ross Kemp is telling me about residual nitrogen time and blood absorption at depths below 30m. At length. Frankly, I’m getting the bends just listening to him. “Stop!” I cry. “Enough with the nitrogen! I want to talk about your new series, Ross Kemp: Deep Sea Treasure Hunter. Oh, and I don’t want to hear more about helium, either.”
But Kemp, 58, doesn’t stop. He can’t stop. Like every mansplainer on the planet he has to finish saying his piece or else – actually, I wonder what would happen if he didn’t? But we’ll never know folks, because mansplainers always do. Boom-tish! “Sorry,” he says sheepishly, and not in the least bit sorry. “Diving is physics and I get quite enthusiastic about things.”
He does indeed and, truthfully, it’s been the making of his career, post-EastEnders. Having played tough nut-cum-cultural icon Grant Mitchell for the best part of 10 years from 1990 to 1999, and then the occasional re-appearance, he emerged from the soap bubble not quite sure what the future held.
Kemp knew his stuff, having gone to the Webber Douglas Academy of Dramatic Art, and starred in TV dramas such as Without Motive, which was recommissioned, and legal drama In Defence, which wasn’t. But what his future ultimately held was an ingenious pivot from Albert Square hardman to global documentary-making hardman; his name always, astutely, above the titles.
A swift recap: four seasons of Ross Kemp on Gangs, which began in 2004 and won him a Bafta for Best Factual Series; 18 episodes of Ross Kemp in Afghanistan; Welcome to HMP Belmarsh with Ross Kemp, and Ross Kemp: Battle for the Amazon. Plus the rest. And you know what? He was great in them. Inarguably brave. Authentically scared. The real deal.
He brings an audience with him and, if you’re into random stats, when you type Ross Kemp Gangs into a search engine, up pops the facticle that 84 per cent of Google users like what they see. “That’s a lot of machismo,” I observe, mildly.
“What do you mean?” he counters, to my surprise. “That’s a bit of a generalisation. What do you mean by machismo?” “Ross, your programmes have titles like Ross Kemp in Search of Pirates and Ross Kemp: Extreme World,” I reply. “That is the very definition of machismo. It’s Ross Kemp on Gangs, not Ross Kemp on Mindfulness.”
“Aha!” he cries, triumphantly. “Well in El Salvador it was the mothers and the sisters who were the worst at…”
I find myself yelling at him again. He takes it in good part. Maybe it happens to him a lot. He was fabulous in Extras, hamming up his hired-heavy image, fibbing about SAS-training and then getting bullied by Vinnie Jones, so we know he has got a sense of humour. I try to reassure him that “macho” isn’t a criticism, merely a genre. But he is having none of it.
“There’s only a two per cent differential between the number of male and female viewers,” he points out. I don’t dare admit women enjoy a bit of testosterone from the sofa now and again, because I have a feeling it won’t end well. So I steer him back to his career and all is good.
“I feel very privileged but sometimes quite bewildered about how I got to be here,” he shrugs, with a grin. “I feel lucky and I think it’s crucial to be grateful for that. Acting is important but let’s be real here; it’s not on a par with working in ICU during a pandemic.”
Kemp, needless to say, has done that too, filming Ross Kemp and Britain’s Volunteer Army. He got special permission to enter Milton Keynes Hospital’s coronavirus intensive care unit with a cameraman. “A very simple premise but really powerful. There was no autocue, just me reading from a piece of paper Blu-tacked to the camera,” he says. “When people discovered that, I got a lot of criticism because families weren’t able to see their loved ones. But when they saw the programme, they realised what we were doing was simply showing the truth.” His eyes swell up and it’s a genuinely moving moment.
“Some of them [those in intensive care] will never know the love and the care that was lavished on them in their final hours. It was humbling,” he adds, dabbing his eyes with a napkin.
For Kemp, born in Barking, Essex, to a detective superintendent father and a hairdresser mother, family is central. Having famously married tabloid editor Rebekah Brooks in 2002, they divorced in 2009. He has a son, now aged 12, from a subsequent relationship with make-up artist Nicola Coleman, before meeting and marrying his Australian wife, Renee O’Brien in 2012. They live in Berkshire with son, Leo, eight, and twin daughters, Ava and Kitty aged five.
“When I was filming before, I didn’t have any responsibilities so I could be quite selfish,” he says. “My bag was packed and I’d just pick it up and go. Within hours, I’d be in a Chinook and then find myself in an ambush or whatever. I’m an old dad but so glad to be one. Now when I get back from filming in Glasgow or wherever, my wife makes me do double time with the kids to give her a break.”
The thing is, despite the mansplaining – I end up trying to shout him down twice more without success – or, Dear Lord possibly because of it, Kemp, with his big muscular arms and deceptively winning smile, makes for an affable telly companion.
He’s an Everyman, or maybe an Everybloke. If you’ve noticed how your other half starts animatedly and authoritatively bonding over Rawlplugs every time a contractor with a drill comes into the house, you will know exactly what I mean. Kemp just gets stuck in – and it makes top telly.
“If you said to me three years ago that I would have an advanced HSE scuba diving qualification, I wouldn’t have believed you,” he tells me. “When Sky approached me for the first shipwreck series, I just thought, ‘what an adventure, I’d be up for that.’”
That was called Ross Kemp: Shipwreck Treasure Hunter, but this second series has been given a sexy-and-dangerous rebrand and is now called – ta-dah! – Ross Kemp: Deep Sea Treasure Hunter.
No, me neither, but regardless, in the first episode Kemp and his team gain special permission to dive to the last underwater remains of Henry VIII’s flagship, the Mary Rose in Plymouth Sound, and they actually find (spoiler alert) an old Tudor plank. Kemp’s excitement, even inside his helmet, is almost absurdly infectious.
“When you find something, touch something that hasn’t been handled for 500 years, there’s an electrifying connection with the past,” he says. “It’s like shaking hands with ghosts.”
If that sounds a bit deep (in every sense), rest assured: Kemp will soon be returning to more familiar territory with the forthcoming Channel 5 four-part thriller Blindspot, in which he plays a disaffected detective. It is his first acting job in seven years.
“It was daunting, albeit in a different way to documentary-making,” he says. “For a start, there were just so many people – make-up, wardrobe, cameras – when I’d grown used to a very pared-down way of filming. But once we started I remembered just how much I love acting.”
Will that be enough to satisfy his thrill-seeking alter ego, however? After so long on the road, it might be hard to give up the adrenalin rush. “I’ve not been to a war zone since lockdown,” muses Kemp.
I’m not sure if he is being wistful or not. All I can say is I would definitely tune in to watch Ross Kemp on Mindfulness.
Ross Kemp: Deep Sea Treasure Hunter begins on Sky History on Easter Monday at 8pm