I’ve blogged about Ross Kemp before a couple of years or so ago, with a reaction to a particular episode of his ‘on gangs’ series for which he won a Bafta in 2007. Kemp is no stranger to the limelight, being the telly hardman we all know and love – Grant from Eastenders. His acting back catalogue is dwarfed by the role for which he is best known, yet his documentary televisual pursuits on Sky have thrown him back into the fray over the past few years. At first glance, these are a fairly typical fit for the larger than life, no nonsense, balls of steel personality (Ross Kemp on Gangs, Ross Kemp in Afghanistan et al), and it seems that Kemp is merely the face of some intuitive insight into some of the worlds more engulfing and complex problems.
However, you have to question how much of all this is Sky’s doing, or their suggestion at least. Kemp’s first trip to Afghanistan was born of frustration of war coverage on mainstream TV at the time and it seems there are plenty of pressing issues perturbing him behind all of that tough exterior. The GQ TV Personality of the Year 2009 is up there in my mind as one of the countries leading journalists, a daring and genuinely engaging foreign reporter.
Moving on from all this sycophancy, the reason for this particular piece is Kemp’s latest documentary offering Ross Kemp’s Extreme World. This 5 episode series explores some of the world’s more problematic concerns – the astonishing murder rate in Jaurez, Mexico; Chicago’s heroin addiction; the devastation that still remains after the Haitian earthquake last year; the deadly current warzone of Congo and problems closer to home by the shape of modern day slavery in the UK. Kemp aims to get to the root of these problems by exploring every facet and leaving no stone unturned. He gets up uncomfortably close, personal and at times fairly confrontational with some of the worlds more unsavoury characters.
This aggressive style of journalism can only really work with a formidable physical presence such as his, but it is Kemp’s relentless pursuit of this root of the problem which makes for compelling viewing at times. We are taken to Haiti in one episode and shown a wreckage of an island that was torn apart by an earthquake in 2010. Whilst the natural disaster was well documented and a considerable cause of concern for the rest of the world for some time, it seems at first glance that aid has since dried up – yet when questions are asked, there are implications that help offered by the rest of the world is being gobbled up by shady sorts in the Haitian government, with little of it being seen by the population of a country merely surviving in veritable famine.
There are refugee style camps for the general population as a temporary fix while structures are rebuilt – It becomes apparent that even drinking water is a luxury here, and reports of cholera outbreaks are rife. There are of course longer lasting offshoots of destruction caused by the quake. Take the island’s prisons for example, many of which had crumbled to the ground, with the obvious repercussion of this meaning that haiti’s most dangerous roam the streets. Kemp shadows a swat police raid on a squat suspected of housing one of these escaped convicts. Sure enough, they find what they’re looking for, but instead of watching the arrest take place and letting the visuals speak for themselves, Kemp can’t help himself. He goes about questioning the assumed convict, asking him whether he is indeed an escapee, and further probes him, attributing the island’s increased crime rate to the on-the-loose criminals. We get a defiant response, as we find out he’s American not Haitian, and that he carries a .38 revolver so he can ‘buss me a nigger’ if necessary. I assume the gun was the icing on the cake for the police involved, and they take him away.
So we see Kemp clearly unphased by the prospect of talking to criminals featured in this series, but more pertinently he walks a fine line between journalistic tone, and accusatory – and this often begs more of a response. When in Chicago, he’s allowed into a chop house where Heroin is chopped into smaller batches and mixed with other substances. The addicts who work there are not allowed to wear clothes, to ensure they don’t steal produce. He probes the chief ‘pimp’ if you like into the working conditions and ethic behind the whole operation. Kemp also goes further to meet Mr Big, one of Chicago’s biggest drug dealers, someone who would have had Kemp killed should his identity be revealed. It’s this ardent, commited and courageous approach to his work that makes the entire series so compelling and insightful. In choosing to probe and question these characters, we get a sense that Kemp is always working toward a goal, not just a denouement for the program, but a shared aim in restoration and reprisal.
Yet no matter the personality and depth to his work, there is a feeling that the issues explored throughout this series show no signs of going away. Whilst in Juarez, Mexico, there were a total of 76 deaths in the mere three weeks they were there filming, proof if needed that these are complex problems very much in the here and now. Kemp’s parting words from this mission are ones of anger, frustration and maybe regret, at perhaps not being able to have done more. Without him though, we’d be none the wiser – “Who are we to judge these people? They have ended up as they are for a reason. All I can do is show what is happening – even if we would rather not know.”