In the UK: Mondays, Sky One, 9pm. Repeated on Sky One and Sky Two
Ross Kemp seems to have become the patron acting saint of the British army, somehow. He played an ex-para in EastEnders. He crossed over to ITV to play a sergeant in the SAS in Ultimate Force (the first series of which is a lot better than the later series, I’ve recently discovered thanks to repeats on ITV4). Now here he is shooting a documentary series for Sky One about 1 Royal Anglian’s deployment in Afghanistan.
Yet he’s never been in the army and it’s been a little hard to take him seriously as a hard man since he appeared in Extras, sending himself up as an action man wannabe.
It’s useful to make comparisons with a recent ITV series, Commando: On the Front Line, since although that was made by a professional documentary maker who went through the entire Marine training programme and won a coveted green beret, Ross Kemp in Afghanistan is actually more interesting.
Kemp’s expedition to Afghanistan first requires him to prove that he’s up to the job – the MoD don’t want someone who can’t handle himself out on the front lines. So Kemp has to take a weapons-assessment before he can go. Although he doesn’t pass with flying colours exactly (prompting one of the officers to drolly note “SAS my arse”), he does pass, and before he knows it, he’s given the all clear to fly to Afghanistan.
Before that, he gets to know the members of 1 Royal Anglian whom he’s going to be following, as well as their families. Kemp’s flirted with documentaries before, having shot several series of Ross Kemp on Gangs, but that hasn’t made him a tactful or probing interviewer. The result is some weak questioning of the troops about their fears, anxieties and feelings, and interviews with families that reduce people to tears, accompanied by multiple apologies from Kemp. Irritatingly, almost every interview closes with a reaction shot from Kemp doing an impression of a nodding Churchill dog.
Once in Aghanistan, things change for the better. Whereas Chris, the director and semi-star of Commando was a barely noticeable, barely audible narrator, Kemp provides strong narration and a strong narrative for the show, as well as multiple pieces to camera. While he is a little actorly at times, he is both educational and entertaining, as well as humble in the presence of the soldiers. It’s this that makes the show more involving than its predecessor.
And, of course, we’re also in the middle of a war. Whereas most of Commando was about Marine training with very little in-theatre footage until the conclusion of the series, Ross Kemp in Aghanistan is almost purely about life for soldiers in a war-zone. We learn about the privations and the things we take from granted that they can’t, such as being able to disembark from a plane without wearing body armour. And of course, we learn about the fighting. Even before Kemp arrives in the country, there have been four casualties among 1 Royal Anglian, including a sergeant who had waited 13 years to see some action.
It’s tempting to think of Commando as being the prequel to the show. Various members of the regiment talk about how “you’ve never seen a man smile until you’ve seen the Marines arrive” to rescue him from a fire-fight; having seen the Marines train and fight in Commando, you can understand why.
In a time when Afghanistan is almost a forgotten war compared with Iraq, it’s good to see a show that reminds us what our soldiers are doing for us overseas and who they are. As my wife said, shocked after watching it, “They’re just kids”.
UPDATE: Here’s the first part of the first episode. You can probably find the others on YouTube