I’m certain that no one involved in TV drama will ever lie on his or her death-bed, surrounded by loved ones, as he or she murmurs with a last breath, “I’m so glad everything I did was critically acclaimed. My 13-part drama about crystal meth addicts on a Vietnamese rubbish dump had eight viewers on More4, but the critics LOVED it.”
“Critically acclaimed” means “no one watched it”. Similarly, “popular” is shorthand for “critics hated it but it was always a ratings-topper”. See New Tricks, The Paradise and, particularly, Mrs Brown’s Boys. You can add Death in Paradise to that roll call. Yes, lovely Death in Paradise, a sunny piece of candyfloss that is brightening up the chilly winter Tuesday nights with seven million viewers on BBC1.
I love it, but I fear I’m out of step with other TV critics – we few, we happy few, we band of brothers and sisters. We don’t agree on everything, of course, but I have felt a particularly cutting wind of dissent slicing through me over Death in Paradise because I adore it whereas others think it’s “awful” and too popular actually to be any good.
All of which has left me puzzled that anyone could expend energy actively hating Death in Paradise. It’s like despising toffee apples and wanting them banned. To me it’s daft and it looks glorious (it’s filmed in Guadeloupe). There, I’ve said it. Fine, everyone else, you can have Utopia (Tuesdays C4) “critically acclaimed” and with stomach-churning torture scenes, and I will have Death in Paradise.
Not that I’m making any great claims for it, but I like the fact it has no pretentions to be anything other than an hour of escape. The stories – often quite clever – are crime puzzles in the tradition of English detective fiction from Margery Allingham and Agatha Christie. There is a murder, there are suspects and there’s a denouement where the detective gathers everyone together and unmasks the culprit using intelligence and observation.
In DI Richard Poole (Ben Miller, one of our best comic actors) we have a sort-of Lord Peter Wimsey, Dorothy L Sayers’ memorable creation. Poole isn’t an aristocrat, but he has that hugely appealing buttoned-up Britishness, that sexy fastidiousness. He wears a suit and tie, drinks tea and does things the right way, even if it seems an obtuse way to his laid-back colleagues.
He is a beacon of correctitude and he doesn’t, (mercy be!) dribble emotion everywhere. I like that in him. Whatever bubbles in DI Poole does so well below the surface, so when we do get little glimpses of him trying to be more human, they are all the more engaging. It might be a stereotypical portrait of tight-arsed Britishness, but masterly Miller keeps it from caricature.
But hourly I expect to be cast into the darkness, a sign daubed with the words “Bad Critic” hung around my neck. Of course drama should be thoughtful and provocative, but not all the time. We’re entitled to a bit of fun, so let’s take off our shoes and paddle in the warm waters of Death in Paradise.