When I find myself in times of trouble, I turn to Richard Blackwood for wisdom, and most specifically his appearance on Celebrity First Dates (he did not get a second date). "EastEnders on a bad night gets seven million viewers," Blackwood explains, while casually zesting a lemon just to prove he can do it. "Like: once you do EastEnders, the next big thing after that can only be Hollywood." Richard Blackwood is telling himself this, more than anyone else. Richard Blackwood is trying to convince himself that he didn't have to settle, that EastEnders is his dream gig, as good as it gets, Babylon. But he also knows this is sort of the end of the road. So many have tried – Sean Maguire, Michelle Ryan, Rob Kazinsky – but nobody has really, truly cracked a post-EastEnders career. Apart from Ross Kemp. Ross 'Gangs' Kemp. Ross fucking Kemp.
Ross Kemp, your dad's old army mate who you always had to call "Uncle Ross" growing up, and now you find yourself sat opposite him under a veranda in your parents' old garden slightly fancying him, slightly fancying the fact he looks like he could headbutt you to death but while also having a favourite Shakespeare play. Ross Kemp, whose physique is the very definition of the following word: "trim". Ross Kemp, Britain's Hardest Egg. Ross Kemp, whose latest documentary, Ross Kemp: The Fight Against Isis, sees him dodging sniper fire, making it further than any filmmaker ever has across the Euphrates and into Isis-controlled Syria, and sketching out the best 'Beginner's Guide to… Isis' you could ever hope for.
Because you know Isis is bad, but it's hard sometimes to have a finger on exactly what is happening in Syria, which power struggle is pushing in which direction, and who controls what. Kemp vs. Isis: Let's Just Nut The Fuckers is Kemp's greatest documentary yet: a nuanced look behind the Kurdish line of resistance, a human portrait of a mother whose almost-entire family was taken by Daesh, a celebration of the women's YPJ group who have given up lives as teachers and students to join the fight against terrorism, and a weirdly affecting bit where Ross sits in on a multi-faith, multi-ethnic council in a ruined Syrian village as they try to rebuild from the democracy up, and end up squabbling over the new post-Isis price of sugar. In a world where the Syrian conflict is painted in extremes – morbid videos of British aid workers being beheaded, 'Jihadi John' types in balaclavas condemning the west, grainy video footage of blood on the sand – The Fight Against Isis shows the effects that a very real and immediate war is having on the innocent people living through it.
"I think it's the best thing we've made," Kemp says, when I meet him at an office in central London. "It compares to Afghanistan, the first series of Afghanistan, which was well received. I think the reason that it went well is an accumulation of things that you have to happen: you need to be there at the right time, and you have to get the access. The access is mainly, ultimately, down to the fixers you have on the ground. The guy who was our fixer in Syria – not to knock our fixer in Iraq – was exceptional with his connections. Some fixers can get you to a certain point – you can go out and do a nice bit of PR for the YPG, you can show women fighters firing bullets out into nowhere, all of that – but no one can get you past the road blocks, no one got west of the Euphrates, no one got across that dam, no one got to Abu Layla – the honourable, lovely man that he was, sadly dead – and for us to get that close… I mean, there were dead bodies just the other side of where we were, about 100 metres away, because Isis had launched a suicide attack earlier in the day and been killed."
Once in deep, Kemp makes the most of his access. He even speaks through a translator with a captured Isis fighter who, despite the image you have in your mind as Isis being some great, over-equipped hyperarmy, is essentially just a slightly out-of-shape guy in a tracksuit who only joined up because they paid him. Particularly harrowing is a conversation he has with Maha, one of 7,000 women captured by Isis, who lost four of her children over a year-and-a-half of Isis captivity, and was separated from her husband – feared dead – before she made her escape. How does Kemp mentally consolidate stories of such horror when he's out and amongst it?
"I got used to it, I think," he says. "I think if you try and bring all that home with you you're going to end up, you know, living in a bar drunk for weeks – I tried that, and it doesn't work. If you don't face your demons straight away you get used to them, and so we use a thing called TRIM – Trauma Risk Management, which we learned out in Afghanistan with the Royal Marines. What happens is if we've had a particularly harrowing day – you know, the day of a firefight, or a particularly tough interview – we all sit down and we all have a talk about it. We don't talk for long – and it's not over beers, because we're in an Islamic country – but we all have a tea and a sit down over our food and we just discuss it, just talk about it. It's just a really good way of offloading your particular feelings. one of the team may feel a little bit guilty because they didn't pull their weight at a certain point, or they couldn't get into the position so that particular part of their job wasn't as good as it could have been – and that goes for me and for everybody else, we're a very small team. So we always openly discuss stuff and that's a good way of offloading before you come home rather than baggaging it.
"Baggaging, as we know, is really bad for a person, that's how PTSD and stuff like that start. So offloading as best we can is something that I encourage."
Another problem when you're making a film about Isis is quite increased odds of getting shot – there's an amazing sequence in The Fight Against Isis where Kemp does a stiff-legged full body armour run between two bombed out huts, just about dodging distant sniper fire, looking curiously chill about the fact that inch-long bullets are whizzing past his feet. How does he – how you say? – how does he not constantly shit himself, to death?
"Umm… I think that it appears like that, but I was shitting myself like anybody would do. I think the more time you spend in hostile environments, the more used to it you get. It's just like anything, if I was a typist, if I did it everyday, I'd get quicker at it. I think you just get better at assessing just how dangerous it is. But sometimes you can't – Abu Leyla, who we met in the film, is dead, and I mean he was there every day, every day night and day. We would pop in and pop out of people's lives. That's one thing that I'm just consistently remind myself about, for a reality check – that it may look dangerous on camera, and it possibly is, but it's not a sustained six-month tour of Afghanistan. I would go for a month and a bit and then get out. And trust me, the longer you stayed there, the more your chances of getting hurt increased. We're not embedded for six months fighting against Isis: we were there for three weeks."
The film, though, does offer hope that the war on Isis is becoming a successful one. Kemp spends time with the Kurdish resistance, who are pushing Isis back from the border of Turkey to declare land there as its own territory of Rojava, and they are a curiously cheerful army making inroads into Isis tactics and defying assaults (there's a great bit towards the end of the documentary where a member of the YPJ witheringly puts down Daesh's tactics as mortars explode around them: "The tactics they used have stopped working. They fail militarily then just send suicide bombers."). I ask Kemp if he thinks there's a chance Isis could be conquered, and he uses the opportunity to flex his deep and encyclopaedic knowledge about the conflict (Kemp isn't just one of these drop-in-and-do-a-voiceover-about-lizards documentary makers, like that fake-ass Attenborough: he lives the research for his films):
"Potentially, and I think that's what the film is about. It says that it could possibly have turned a corner. It's not just the pro-Kurdish propaganda, it's not about that, it's about a time and a place in history and about how Isis have been fought back against on the ground by a bunch of people who said enough is e-fucking-nough, excuse my language.
"The biggest issue for the Kurds, for instance, is not necessarily what Isis are going to do next – its Assad and the Turks. You know, they have fought these people back but it is Assad decides if he wants that part of Syria (Rojava) back, and he doesn't want them to have their own. They are not even looking for their own country – they are looking for an autonomous region inside greater Syria, but that would have to be negotiated.
"And in terms of the future of Isis, I think the whole point of the caliphate and the proclamation of the caliphate would be that it would expand and that there would be an apocalyptic war between the armies of Rome, the west and whatever the state wants to call itself presently. That hasn't happened: the caliphate has shrunk and that's mainly due to the airstrikes that are cutting off the main supply routes, it's to do with the Russians coming in on Assad's side, it's to do with the NATO air strikes and it's also to do – a lot of it's to do – with the fact that wars are won on the ground. No matter how many bombs you drop, you have to take the ground after the bombs are dropped, otherwise the ground will be retaken, and, because of the Kurds and what they've done there, they've had a massive influence on the shrinking of that caliphate. The more that caliphate shrinks, the less attractive it is to other Jihadists to go and fight there, because the proclamation has not come true. So that, for me, is making a significant difference."
Still that's all a bit heavy, so here's Big Rossy Kemp with the war story banter:
"There is a sense of humour that has developed over the years and it in some places is quite dark. One of my crew members is called Dave – I've worked with Dave for years – but it just so happens that three rapists that we met in South Africa all chose the pseudonym of 'Dave'. That wound him up.
"So we were in Haiti this year, meeting a guy who chops people up while they're alive – he tortures them, he takes one of their eyeballs out with a fish hook then he cuts their fingers off then he electrocutes them with car batteries and then he finally chops them up while they are alive. The last bit is done to create terror inside the neighbourhood. No different to decapitating people or crucifying them, its about spreading terror and fear, so you have control.
"And we were in a sex hotel doing this interview because we're in this small narco-run fishing village, and it's the only place where people can't see you going in and out, and it is hot: we had to turn the air con off because of the sound, and it was 44 degrees with about 98% humidity – we're all jumpy, we're all on edge, I'm sweating like a shower, and this guy never even moves: even when a camera case knocks over and we all jump out of our skin, he doesn't move an inch. At the end, he's putting all his jewellery back on – he's covered in rosaries, identifiers, things like that – and I say, "We can't use your real name – what would you like to be called?" and he fixes me with a look and says, "you can call me Dave". We all pissed ourselves. He had no idea why we were laughing. In the minivan back, Original Dave – he gets a very high voice when he's upset – starts going, "why is everyone called Dave?"
Ross Kemp's banter is darker than your banter. Ross Kemp's banter could go to hell and come back unscathed. Ross Kemp's banter has survived mortar fire and cannibal torturers. Do not try and step to his banter. His new documentary series starts on Thursday on Sky1.
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