Ross Kemp might have returned to our screens for a stint as thick-skulled Grant Mitchell on EastEnders, but you get a sense that acting is very much his second job nowadays. His latest sortie as a documentary reporter is a real tour de force, as he joins the front line of the Kurdish forces taking the fight to Isis in Iraq and Syria.
This area, between the Tigris and Euphrates, is supposed to be the “cradle of civilisation”, but it’s now a wasteland, with towns flattened: In Iraq, Kemp stares around him at the “post-Armageddon” remains of Sinjar, with booby traps still left in place in the bombed-out remains of churches.
The human cost is appalling. He talks to one clearly shell-shocked Kurdish woman, who describes matter-of-factly how her children were either kidnapped or killed, and sees the remnants of one mass killing, which brings him close to tears. “How can it be holy to want to kill people because of their faith?” he wonders, clearly at a loss to make sense of the horror he’s witnessing.
And talk about putting yourself in harm’s way. Your heart will be in your mouth as Kemp and his camera team dodge a sniper’s bullets in a forward position in northern Syria. His questioning isn’t always subtle: “Do you need more weapons?” he asks one Kurdish commander rather obviously, while they’re being shot at. The latter blithely grins and shows off his bullet wounds: “If we had tanks, we could have cleared these pigs out.” (This commander, Abu Layla, a genuinely charismatic man, was killed by a sniper at the beginning of June.)
Kemp also meets the young soldiers in a women’s battalion of the Kurdish forces. Barely out of their teens, their passion for their cause is actually quite inspiring, as they laughingly dismiss Kemp’s suggestion that they might rather act like normal young women…
This is gripping television. Kemp’s approach frequently pays dividends. He’s not one for geopolitical analysis involving maps and politicians – although he does consider the options for an independent Kurdish state in the region – but he is prepared to get stuck in at considerable personal risk. And he gets brilliant access, often to civilians caught in the midst of this deadly confrontation, who are always the ones to come off worst, and to whom he shows genuine sympathy.
Ross Kemp: The Fight Against Isis is on Sky1 tonight at 9pm