Award-winning documentary maker Ross Kemp brought his stage show to New Zealand, giving an insight into the 73 extreme programmes he has filmed in the past 15 years. Then he went on holiday with some-time colleague Jarrod Gilbert, who explores what drives the former soap star.

I was involved in a prison break in Papua New Guinea while making a documentary with Ross Kemp in 2013. That the situation doesn't rate a mention in his most dangerous or bizarre stories says something about Kemp's life.

Kemp retold a few of his stories during a one-man stage show in Auckland recently. Stories so extraordinary, you'd be forgiven for thinking some are tall tales. But you can trust Kemp's telling.

The reason? They're all recorded and played on the telly. The series Ross Kemp on Gangs, Ross Kemp in Afghanistan, and Ross Kemp Extreme World have become big television brands.


The most confronting story was that of Cathy. Cathy was at a funeral in the Highlands of PNG. Word got around the dead man had sent a text message from inside the coffin, saying she had put a spell on him.

Cathy was bound with barbed wire as spade-ends were rested in a fire. Then there was burn after burn. Then she was raped.

She survived and managed to escape as her attackers slept. She went to a river and floated down it, the water cool on her wounds. When she was found, the people heard she was a witch. They beat her.

Kemp wants stories like Cathy's remembered from his documentaries, but people usually remember his being shot at in Afghanistan, or grabbing the barrel of a gun and staring down desperadoes trying to rob him deep in a jungle.

When I first met Kemp he was a soap star. He was Grant Mitchell from EastEnders.

Almost by accident he had made a documentary about handguns in the US. The scheduled presenter had pulled out at the last minute and "everyone else they could think of had said no".

The show was a hit and he was commissioned to make a series on gangs, so he arrived in New Zealand to film the Mongrel Mob. I was in the midst of researching gangs and his production crew got in touch to use me as a researcher and a fixer — the one who could make introductions.

And so it came about in 2003, I was drinking in a Napier hotel with the British crew, waiting for Kemp. That was when they made the bet. So well-known was he for his EastEnders character they decided the first person to call him Grant Mitchell had to buy a round. Within 10 minutes of his arrival, the sound guy was walking to the bar.

Since then Kemp and I have worked and holidayed together several times. After the stage show we decided to make the most of the opportunity and head north for a few days to kick back and catch up.

One question he is often asked is this: how does a guy who's been shot at and threatened around the world, relax? I can testify the answer to that, in large part, is rose wine. Vineyards of it.

And if there is a better place to drink it than the Bay of Islands, Kemp is yet to find it.

Around every corner on the drive he marvels at the New Zealand scenery. "It's beautiful. Look at that. Just amazing. Tropical Scotland! Do you think it's tropical Scotland?"

I shrug. It's just Northland, bro.

There's nothing like it, he continues to exclaim. And perhaps the best part is that there are no biting, stinging or constricting animals trying to kill you.

For a guy who spends a lot of him time in danger, he's particularly impressed by New Zealand's non-lethal fauna.

The only real threat is that rose wine.

The Duke of Marlborough in Russell — perhaps the finest pub in perhaps the finest little town in New Zealand — has taken a terrible toll on our sensibilities. Waking up in the morning we briefly wonder whether we need to apologise to anybody before heading to Waitangi.

A hangover doesn't stop Kemp wanting to know our history. He asks question after question — the majority of which I can't answer.

Already he drops Māori words — whānau, kai and hōhā — into conversation, a habit he picked up when he was last here. He reads every plaque and exhibit in the Waitangi museum. He finds out a missionary named James Kemp built a house on the Treaty grounds and jokes he's there to move into it.

An Englishman taking liberties at Waitangi. Well, I never. We play a bit of cricket on the expanse of grass overlooking the bay. Then the inevitable: should we go and get a wine? Sure, I say, why not?

In every pub and every bar there's somebody — often whole families — who want a photo.

Does Kemp get annoyed with that? No chance. He takes time with every person. It's remarkably generous. Nobody leaves his company without being made to feel special.

But he loves the attention too.

Perhaps he appreciates that without them he doesn't have a job, or perhaps it's as simple as him enjoying the attention, but Kemp seems to get as much from the fans as they do from him.

Another Kemp peculiarity is that he persistently introduces me as Dr Jarrod Gilbert, with a heavy emphasis on the Dr. He sees far more in the title than any of the waitresses or his fans ever do. In fact, they couldn't care less.

I ask him why he does it. I'm proud of you, mate, he replies.

It's a lovely sentiment, but I think it also speaks to something else; a status thing. Something Kemp believes isn't as important in Australia and New Zealand as it is back home.

Status is something Kemp has not achieved easily.

At 53 with four children, including twins born last year, he is still seen as an interloping soap star by some journalists and documentary makers.

Even the lofty achievements of a Bafta win and three nominations haven't satisfied the snobs. It seems to me Kemp struggles with this, although he doesn't see it that way.

"My job is not to compete with other documentary makers, it's to make good documentaries. I don't care what they think. I might have once, but we've proved ourselves.

"We are populist. We are direct and simple. I'd rather be that than over-nuanced and not watched."

Certainly he engages an audience not usually attracted to documentaries. And he puts this down to being something of an outsider. "I didn't go to university and learn about journalism. I do it differently.

"I approach [interviews] with a directness."

Cut to a grimy, dark South African prison. Kemp is interviewing a man called John Mongrel, the jail's kingpin. Kemp turns the conversation to prison rape, and John talks about how he dominates weaker men.

Kemp asks: "Does that make you gay?" It's an unusual question and not something one could imagine Jeremy Paxman asking, but it delivers an extraordinary insight.

No, Mongrel says, the prisoner becomes a woman. He washes my clothes.

Without doubt, Kemp gets people to talk. Focus all you like on his bravery — and, make no bones about it, he is incredibly brave — his ability to connect is his real skill.

And that's as simple as listening, he believes.

"We don't go to a place with a script already written in London. We go there and listen to the people.

"We go with an open mind — I don't know a place better than the people who live there — experiencing whatever they're experiencing."

Kemp has met more violent men and damaged victims than most of us care to imagine.

"I've seen the best and the worst of humanity," he says. "I've met mass killers and doctors who've saved thousands of people."

But does he feel a need to get involved? To advocate? Try to make things right?

"It's not my job to save a country, or any individual, it's my job to tell the story. The problem is most people don't care. I used to be one of them. And that's changed. You can't learn about things and not care."

It's also often complicated.

"It's not always clear-cut villains and heroes, black and white," Kemp says. "I've met some bad people who I've quite liked, people that — you can understand how they got to where they got."

Of all the desperadoes and gangs he has filmed, how does the Mongrel Mob rate on the badass scale?

"Overall, not that highly, mate. I mean there are groups out there who kill at the drop of a hat. Torture and kill like it's nothing.

"But it's all relative. To the average Kiwi, I suspect they seem pretty bad."

He has got that right.

And what about that prison break in PNG we were involved in?

"Ha ha. That was a bit of a laugh, wasn't it?

"Remember we were diving — doing bombs — into that hotel pool at two or three in the morning?"

And that's how he remembers the madness of that prison break.

In the same breath he remembers a late-night swim.