He’s swapped a grey life on the streets of London for the desert-island beaches of the Caribbean, yet Detective Inspector Richard Poole always manages to look gloomy. And that is, of course, one of the pleasures of Death in Paradise, which returns to BBC1 this week.
There’s a certain amusement in watching Ben Miller’s fish-out-of- water investigator – drafted in, against his will, as the top cop on a tiny island thousands of miles from home – struggling to retain his British stiff upper lip under the palm trees. Here’s a man, you feel, who’d rather spend his days in the gloom of Inspector Morse’s Oxford than in a place where the pesky blue ocean twinkles so brightly that it hurts your eyes.
As a result, Poole doesn’t make any concessions to his new workplace: it may be 40 ̊C in the shade but Miller is forced to wear a grey woollen suit every moment he’s on set. Not a great idea – last year filming of series one had to be halted temporarily after the actor suffered heatstroke.
This time around, there are precautions in place. When RT flies out to visit Miller on set, there’s a sneaky picnic-style freezer box tucked away on the beach, behind the cameras. The handwritten note on top says: “Ben’s Cold Vest”. Inside is a piece of clothing that looks like a life jacket but is fitted out with ice packs. Miller pops it on whenever there’s a pause in filming.
While the cameras are rolling Miller continues cheating: his suit looks like wool, but isn’t. The shirt beneath has a hole where the back should be – and, whenever Miller’s feet are out of shot, he ditches his black leather brogues and pads around in bare feet, his trousers rolled up to the knee.
Well, it’s not supposed to be a documentary. Although, as Miller tells me, he met a former Metropolitan Police officer who, like Poole, was seconded to the Caribbean, who told him: “We have to wear our suits because we’re representing the Crown. Suit, tie, collar, the whole thing. We hate it.”
Death in Paradise is set on the fictional island of Saint-Marie, supposedly a British dependency in the Caribbean. In reality, the show is filmed on the French-owned island of Guadeloupe. When RT joins Miller in Deshaies, on the northwest tip of the island, he’s four-fifths of the way through the 20-week shoot and, despite his backless shirt, he’s sweltering like everyone else.
Still, he has no complaints – aside from being separated from his partner, Jessica, and his baby son, Harrison. “I’ve flown home every two or three weeks for a few days. Luckily, so far I’ve been back for many of his milestones, such as when he sat up for the first time. And Jess saved weaning him to solid foods for when I was there. Any day now Harrison could crawl. I’m sitting here thinking: please don’t let him crawl until I’m home at the weekend!”
Actors cast as TV policemen usually end up filming car chases in the back streets of Manchester. “I’m probably the only person in the history of British television to film a cop show in the Caribbean,” he grins. “Quite incredible.”
He’s not wrong. Guadeloupe is breathtakingly gorgeous. As you drive round this butterfly- shaped island your eyes are assaulted by striking primary colours – deep blue sea, yellow sand, red bougainvilleas. The leaves on the palm trees are such a luminous green it’s as if they’ve been plugged in at the mains. This is mother nature brought to you in association with Technicolor.
There’s also something endearingly odd about the place. Four thousand miles from Paris, Guadeloupe is as technically integral to France as the Dordogne – it is no Falklands-style colonial outpost but a fully paid-up French département, and sends deputies to Paris’s National Assembly.
Yet despite being part of the European Union – the currency here is the euro – Guadeloupe also has a dusty, old-world charm; it’s not odd to see chickens wandering down the street. Everyone speaks French and there are Carrefour supermarkets in the towns. And, get this, Guadeloupe boasts the world’s highest per-capita champagne consumption.
What about crime? How does life in Saint-Marie compare to Guadeloupe? Miller smiles. “Saint-Marie has an incredibly high murder rate, doesn’t it?” He’s right – every week, there’s at least one murder victim to confront DI Poole, often two. That’d make perhaps 70 murders over a year – “and what’s the population of Saint- Marie? Maybe 10,000.”
And Guadeloupe? “Well, it’s one of the friendliest, safest places you could possibly go. It feels like there’s no crime around here whatsoever.”
I decide to find out more. I make an appointment to meet police commander Roland Trochet – the top murder cop on the island. Before I see him, I glance at the website of Guadeloupe’s newspaper, France-Antilles. Sure, there are nasty tales – name me a local paper in the democratic world that doesn’t feast on crime – but there’s also a charming provincial feel: one day the lead story is about a man who’s been arrested for failing to produce his driving licence.
At first glance, Trochet has little in common with his fictional counterpart. He’s not wearing a suit but heavy stubble and a rumpled blue T-shirt. Sitting behind his desk in a sparse office in Guadeloupe’s largest town, Pointe-à-Pitre, he tells me: “People don’t have a realistic idea of the work we do here. Their picture of us is going to work under the palm trees. “Last year was calm. There were 33 murders and 27 murder attempts. There are only 400,000 inhabitants in Guadeloupe so in terms of murders per capita, the death rate is higher than in Paris.”
If you want to get statistical, Trochet’s figures reveal a murder rate of around 8.2 per 100,000 inhabitants. Though this makes Guadeloupe one of the safest islands in the Caribbean – Jamaica has a rate of more than 50 murders per 100,000, according to official figures from the United Nations – its murder rate is roughly on a par with that of Los Angeles; meanwhile, the rate here in the UK is 1.2 murders per 100,000.
Saint-Marie, on the other hand, has an annualised murder rate of 700 per 100,000 – making it far and away the deadliest place on the planet. This is despite a 100 per cent clear- up rate, courtesy of DI Poole and his three colleagues – and without the use of any 21st-century forensic science. And Guadeloupe?
Trochet says, “We don’t have the same resources as metropolitan France, of course. We have to send all our samples to Paris for analysis. But in a really urgent case, we can have the results by telephone in two or three days.”
But the people who get caught up in violence are involved in the drugs trade or are victims of domestic disputes. “There’s no random crime here: you won’t be killed just for strolling the streets, as you might in some places.” France- Antilles editor André-Jean Vidal confirms: “There’s not a lot of everyday crime here.”
As Miller says, this island feels safe. Last year, he found himself filming in a beautiful villa in a neighbouring town. “I got talking to the owner, and she explained that she didn’t sleep inside the house but in a hammock in the garden. I asked: ‘Is that safe?’ She replied: ‘Well, there is one burglar. But everybody knows him. And when he comes I just give him chocolate.’”
Series two of Death in Paradise begins tonight at 9:00pm on BBC1