It’s the quiet ones you’ve got to watch – or at least someone seems to be watching, since six million of us have apparently been tuning into Ultimate Force, ITV’s oddly low-key, high-action SAS drama led by ex-EastEnder Ross Kemp.
The show is basically a remake of ITV’s 1990s squaddie hit Soldier Soldier, with less emphasis on the families and more on what appears to be the main motivational force behind the world’s most elite fighting team, grumpiness. In this rendition, the SAS consists of around eight soldiers, who spend their time bitching and moaning at each other like the Cutting It mob at the wrong time of the month. The only exception is when they’re crashing through people’s windows and shooting them, at which point they all pull together. Then the bitching starts all over again.
Chief bitch – sorry, squad leader – is Sergeant Henno Garvey, played by Kemp, and described by his commanding officer (who, coincidentally, played the CO in Soldier Soldier) as “the best soldier in the best regiment in the best army in the world”. The chief problem is that, like Soldier Soldier graduate Robson Green, Kemp isn’t quite up to portraying such exceptional characters.
Since clamping the golden handcuffs on him in 2000, ITV have presented Ross Kemp to us as a barrister, a security guard, a detective, Dickens’ Scrooge and now an SAS commando. As soon as he’s opened his mouth though (or given that eyebrow-raised quizzical stare) he’s simply been Grant Mitchell, and it looks increasingly as if that’s all he’ll ever be. An added problem is that, shaven-headed and rounded-out, he bears an ever-more comical resemblance to a billiard ball on legs (or a tenpin bowling ball when he’s got camouflage makeup on). That sort of thing may be OK in the Harry Potter films, but not in a supposedly realistic action drama.
Soap star vehicles can be good, of course, as Tamzin Outhwaite’s Red Cap shows. But Ultimate Force’s producers haven’t made the all-important investment in strong supporting characters and background (possibly because the cash had gone on Kemp’s handcuffs deal). The result is an underpopulated, low-budget feel combined with an odd (though perhaps wise) reluctance to thrust its star centre-stage. Still, in high summer with nothing much on the other channels, it’ll do, as ITV’s schedulers no doubt realise.