Ross Kemp

Ross Kemp

This first appeared in the Sunday Independent in January 2008.


For some strange reason my interview with Ross Kemp is to take place beside the lift in a Dublin city centre hotel, which is hosting any number of hen nights. Approximately every thirty seconds there is a loud screech over my shoulder as yet another herd of sequinned matrons recognise ‘him from the telly’ and stampede towards us, digicams in hand. In between maulings Kemp grins sheepishly telling me it ‘can be a bit of a hassle’ but clearly loving the attention all the same. He dutifully poses and photos of him with his arms around any number of slightly tipsy revellers make their way back to Manchester, Birmingham and Liverpool.

The familiar shaven dome makes him all too easy to spot and up close Kemp, while certainly not as big and beefy as he looks on camera, is far from the scabrously bitchy portrait painted of him in last year’s Telegraph which raged about his ‘big banana fingers … the chest that seems to start at his knees and end just under his chin’ and ‘his little baked bean head that sits atop it all.’

‘Oh yeah I remember that’ he grins when I mention it. ‘She was a right cow, that one. She hated me on sight for some reason. And she talked about my appearance – you should have seen her. She had fat feet which sort of bulged out over her shoes.’

It’s not massively difficult to see why Kemp would be given a hard time by the British media. He is, after all, married to Rebekah Wade – the flame-haired, hard-nosed editor of the Sun – and thus seen as utterly fair game. Fleet street went into paroxysms of pleasure a few years ago when it emerged that she had been arrested for allegedly assaulting him at their home – all in the same week that the Sun began a campaign against domestic violence. He refused medical attention for a fat lip and various rumours did the rounds (most of them unprintable) as to what had caused her to lose it. It was reported in Private Eye earlier this year that the pair had separated and Kemp fills me in on just what the story is but then remembers himself and quickly insists it’s off the record. ‘I really can’t talk about my personal life to be honest.’

He more means his contemporary personal life however, as he’s more willing to talk about his early life, growing up in Essex (‘oh yeah, I’m an Essex boy and proud of it’). His father was a policeman and wanted the young Ross to follow him into the force. ‘I went to drama school and got some ad jobs – one of them for the Irish lottery actually.’ His first big break is probably still the role he is most famous for: He did a screen test for Grant Mitchell from Eastenders and the following week he was on the set.

The character – one of the all time hard men of the soap world – was a huge hit, thanks largely to a series of electric performances from Kemp. He shakes his head when I ask him if he had much in common with Grant but like all long running characters he found himself conflated with onscreen alter ego (more than once I catch myself almost calling him ‘Grant’). In addition to the women giggling at the ‘bit of rough’ (forgetting he’s an actor: possibly the furthest thing possible from ‘a bit of rough’) there were reports of men squaring up to him in pubs. ‘Yeah you know very occasionally you might get something like that, but there are ways to calm those things down. I didn’t really have people picking on me.’

In his early years in Eastenders he tells me that he did have a bit of an ego. ‘But you know that’s a youth thing as well. You get over that a bit when you get older.’

The image of him as a hard man won’t have been altered much by his other successful venture, Ross Kemp On Gangs. It’s a BAFTA Award winning series in which Ross travels around the world and interviews violent gang members in different countries. He denies that the series, which is now the subject of a brilliant new book, was setting out to ‘prove any point’ or that he was ‘some sort of journalist’ but nevertheless the programmes did graphically show the extent of macho subculture that exists in many societies. He tells me that the gangs in Poland were probably the worst, although he had a close call in Brazil as well. I ask him if he has any plans to come to Limerick. ‘Not as yet.’ He laughs. ‘Perhaps we’ll have to look into it.’

His flight was delayed and he has a date with Pat Kenny any moment so my time with Ross is cut a little short. Which is just as well because it looks another hen night herd is headed this way. Oh no, wait. One of this crowd has a man, possibly her husband, with her. He looks slightly peeved as she asks him to take a picture of her with Ross. As she leaves she actually looks back over her shoulder at him and when I point this out Ross rolls his eyes at me, but clearly loving it all the same.

Gangs by Ross Kemp is published by Penguin and is priced €16.99

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~ by Donal Lynch on February 29, 2008.