TV

Accidental journalist Ross Kemp: 'People think I take myself very seriously. They don't know me'

Ross Kemp on discovering deep sea treasure, snot blocks and his surprising journey from Albert Square to Afghanistan.

Ross Kemp - Deep Sea Treasure Hunter

Ross Kemp - Deep Sea Treasure Hunter. Image: © A&E Television Networks

It must, you think, be weird to be Ross Kemp. One minute you’re a TV mechanic married to Martine McCutcheon, the next, you’re in LA talking to some kid who’s prepared to go to battle to the death with a rival gang and wondering, “How did he end up like this? Why him and not me?” A few years later, and you’re looking a warlord in the eye in the Congo, then shivering on a Cardiff street, posing as a rough sleeper as everyone pretends not to see you. Then you’re presenting a primetime Saturday night celebrity quiz show, and then you’re diving the site of the most British shipwreck of all time, Henry VIII’s Mary Rose, and worrying because your nose is too squishy for the “snot block”. 

“Yeah, the snot block,” says Kemp, demonstrating for me. “When you’re diving, normally you pinch your nose to equalise the pressure in your ears, but we use full face masks, so obviously you can’t. So they have this thing called a ‘snot block’, you press your nose against it to create the seal so you can equalise the pressure, only…” here he pushes in his own nose, which does, indeed, squish down against his face. “My nose is too squishy for it. Great if you’re a boxer, rubbish if you’re a diver.”  

With Steve McFadden as Phil and Grant Mitchell. Image: Boldizsar/Shutterstock

Snot blocks. Wreck diving. Maritime history. It’s just another set of skills picked up by the closest thing British television has to a Swiss army knife. April 10 sees the second series of Kemp’s latest documentary series, Ross Kemp: Deep Sea Treasure Hunter, come to Sky History, in which the actor/documentarian combs the sunken mysteries of the deep, exploring shipwrecks around the world. This series takes him from the resting place of the Mary Rose at the bottom of a freezing Portsmouth harbour to risking shark attack as he searches the wreck of the SS Carnatic in the Red Sea, to the coast of Normandy to explore vessels sunk on D-Day.  

Kemp, who became a fully qualified and accredited diver for the project, might seem a weird choice at first for a show that is primarily about archaeology, but as with all his documentaries, that’s exactly why it works. He may have got the diving down, but he’s no historian and as he picks through the past, learning as he goes, so do we.  

Ross Kemp: The Fight Against ISIS
Ross Kemp: The Fight Against ISIS. Image: © Dave Williams / Sound Ltd

“My job is to be a conduit for what Mallory is saying,” he says of his marine archaeologist co-star, Mallory Hass. “I’m there to contextualise what she’s saying and pass it on to an audience.” It’s a responsibility Kemp finds thrilling. “I do find it kind of annoying how many times I go ‘wow’,” he admits, “but I don’t think you can lie about the excitement that you feel when you find something or touch something, particularly on the Mary Rose. You’re touching something that hasn’t been seen or used by another human being for 500 years. For me, who grew up as a lover of history, it’s like shaking hands with ghosts. And it’s all tangible storytelling – real history happening in front of you. Everything we find is genuine. You couldn’t fake it.” He stops for a second, and in a deadly serious tone that is pure accidental Alan Partridge, adds “It would be against Ofcom regulations.”  

These days, Kemp is as well known for his documentaries as he is for his time on Albert Square, where he played mechanic/landlord/unstable hardcase Grant Mitchell for over a decade. He fell into the documentary game almost by accident. Fresh from EastEnders, back in 2002, he was asked to make a series about America’s gun problems. “I met a member of the of [LA gang] the Bloods, who had been shot 26 times,” he explains. “He befriended me, I befriended him, I worked out that if this guy had been born somewhere else, he’d probably been a skilled schoolteacher or a doctor or something and maybe have more value to society than a gang member.”  

Kemp was there to bear witness and, just as he’s doing two decades later with watery artefacts, relay the story back to us at home. It was, it turns out, something he was naturally good at. This was just another form of storytelling. He became, as he says “the accidental journalist, the accidental documentary maker. It’s not what I set out to be, it’s not what I wanted to be, it’s just what I evolved to be”. It’s that “accidental” element that makes his shows compelling. He might be in a warzone or an ICU or the bottom of the sea, but ultimately he’s still an actor with a squishy nose worrying about Ofcom. “There’s always that moment,” he says, “like laying in a ditch in Afghanistan with bullets zipping over, and thinking ‘you were in EastEnders, right?’”  

In the ensuing 20 years, his “accidental journalism” has taken him around the world several times, and rarely to the places you’d choose for a two-week all-inclusive in the sun. “Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Congo, East Timor”, he ticks them off, “definitely Guinea, Brazil four times, Colombia four times, you know, America 21 times. And I’ve done a lot of docs in the UK. That’s a lot of television. It’s a bit of an emotional roller coaster. Diving on the Mary Rose isn’t the same as, you know, looking in the eyes of Dr Mukwege in the Congo [a Congolese gynaecologist that specialises in helping victims of sexual violence], who’s just finished sewing up a woman who’s been raped by someone using a bayonet. They’re different things. But it’s the ability to translate that information to an audience that engages them with the subject, no matter how sometimes unpalatable that subject might be.” 

What connects those stories, one horrible, one merely historical, is that we see both through the eyes of Ross Kemp. It’s his fascination with the good and the bad of humanity that makes his massively varied body of work feel surprisingly cohesive.  

“I’m totally fascinated by the way that we operate,” he says. “And I don’t think I could have made the transition from actor to a documentary maker, if that’s what I am, without having a curiosity and a fascination around why we behave in certain patterns, why we do certain things, how cruel and, again, how kind we can be to each other. The sacrifices that, for instance, I saw in the ICU when I was making a documentary in Milton Keynes. And then also, some of the brutal cruelty I saw a number of times when I was in Libya. I remember this Egyptian, and I don’t know whether he was operating on behalf of the smugglers or not, but the Egyptian Coast Guard, effectively their military, caught him, and they basically kicked him to a piece of mincemeat down the cobblestones, naked. And you know, you see things like that, and they’re not going to leave you, ever. I’ve seen extreme cruelty. You know, people bashed over the head and terrible things.” 

With officers from the West Midlands Tactical Firearms Team for In The Line Of Fire With Ross Kemp
With officers from the West Midlands Tactical Firearms Team for In The Line Of Fire With Ross Kemp. Image: ITV/Tony Ward/Shutterstock

You’d think it would give him a jaded view of his fellow humans. Thankfully, Kemp’s outlook is more nuanced than that. “I’ve rarely really met people who are ultimately truly evil,” he says. “I’ve met a few, but not many. Most people end up behaving in a certain way because of the environment that they exist in, and they often have no choice. A lot of gang members I met, for instance, around the world would have no choice. That’s one thing I also will say about us: we’re not learning very well from our own mistakes,” he sighs. “Which is a definition of stupidity, isn’t it?” 

Deep Sea Treasure Hunter, on (or rather, under) the surface would seem a different beast entirely. This isn’t gangs, prisoners, or soldiers, it’s not the stretched resources of a busy ICU or the uncertainty of life sleeping rough. It’s history. Cosy, old history. But here, again, is that same pattern of violence, stupidity, repeated mistakes, cruelty, and hope – the only difference is that it happened in the past. Facing both the best (D-Day) and worst (the slave trade, the empire) of Britain has helped Ross to examine his own relationship with his country. It’s an important story.  

“If you get back to what I was taught in history at school, it was all very much on the good side. No bad was mentioned,” he explains. “Germans were bad, we were good. The French were bad, we were good. Obviously, we know that life is far more complicated than that. There are lots of greys in between.” Again, it comes down to storytelling. “If you can tell a story in a digestible way, that exposes all those finer details, not granular, but the finer details in terms of nothing in life is simple, then you create awareness. The more awareness you create, the more understanding you create. That’s why we did the programme about homelessness a couple of years ago [Ross Kemp: Living With Homelessness in 2019].”  

The gangs of the past, armies, slave ships, and pirates, aren’t really that different from the gangs of the present, then. “It wasn’t any simpler then,” says Kemp. “In fact, it was just as complex as it is today.” Another pause. “It’s just that they didn’t have modems.” Through the horrors of the past and the present it’s Kemp’s fascination and his pragmatism that guides us through the story. “I like to think that my work is completely honest, truthful, and down the line,” he says. “When I’m scared, I’m scared; when I’m having a laugh, I’m having a laugh. I’ve enjoyed friendships created out of doing things in hostile environments, and working in water at depth is a hostile environment. There’s a sort of dark sense of humour that a lot of people have in those situations. People think I take myself very seriously. They don’t know me.” 

Ross Kemp: Deep Sea Treasure Hunter airs Mondays at 9pm from  April 10 on Sky History 

@20thcenturymarc 

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