Ben Miller is awaiting our arrival on the set of Death in Paradise – although describing it as a set is doing the island of Guadeloupe a disservice. The actor is standing, barefoot, on an idyllic, palm tree-fringed, white sand beach. While viewers of the crime drama might be used to seeing him in this setting as DI Richard Poole, in his pinstripe suit, with a sheen of perspiration on his forehead and a steely determination to catch the island’s latest murderer in his eye, Miller is not in character this afternoon. He has a towel under his arm, is wearing tartan swimming trunks and has the air of a man who is heading for a dip, despite “Action” being called out by the director not far behind him. “Welcome to Guadeloupe,” he grins. “Anyone fancy a swim?”
Had we been visiting a year ago, Miller would have been sweating in front of the camera for nearly every take of the six-month shoot. But this year he is only here to film his departure from the series. It seems unfathomable that Miller would leave this tropical paradise behind after two years as the uptight detective on the fictional Caribbean island of Saint-Marie. The heat must surely have gone to the actor’s head.
“It is the best job in TV, and it was not without a heavy heart,” he says of his decision to leave, while tucking into lobster at his favourite restaurant the next day with Kris Marshall, who plays Humphrey Goodman, the new detective sent out by Scotland Yard to solve the implausibly high number of murders on the picturesque island. “It was the job of a lifetime, but logistically I just didn’t feel I could continue.
“I arrived out here for the first series and within a few weeks my wife Jessica discovered she was pregnant. That threw everything, because it meant she couldn’t come and visit me for the six months I was out here. During the second series, my son Sonny [from his previous marriage] was starting school – your first year of school is so important – and I did think about him coming over here but I’m divorced from his mum, and it wasn’t very practical. Then when I came back, I picked up my baby son Harrison and he started crying because he didn’t know who I was. My personal circumstances just made it too complicated, but I will miss it like a lung. I love it here.”
Luckily for Marshall, his family have been able to join him on the island. “I’ve been out here a month now and my wife Hannah and son Thomas only arrived on Wednesday,” says the actor, who made his name as the ditzy Nick in sitcom My Family. “It was the first long period that I’ve ever been away from my little boy and I understand where Ben is coming from. If you’ve got children who are school age it must be incredibly tough being away. Luckily my little boy is only nine months old, so I could potentially come back next year... if the show gets recommissioned, of course!”
With Death in Paradise being one of the BBC’s biggest hits, attracting around eight million regular viewers, it must be an intimidating prospect for Marshall to be taking over from such a popular actor. “It’s daunting, definitely, filling such illustrious sandy brogues,” he says, frowning slightly. “Eight million reasons to be nervous! Ben is brilliant at judging the balance between drama and comedy. He has a real lightness of touch, which makes the show what it is and I hope I can emulate.
“I know that some people will be up in arms that Ben has left and may not take to me at first, but that didn’t put me off taking the role – I actually get a sort of kinky kick out of it. I quite like ruffling feathers. And I’m sure there will be some backlash, that’s why I’m leaving the country when it airs!”
Back in London months later, Miller and Marshall are reunited in the not-quite-so-tropical surroundings of a Soho PR office. Having just watched his last scene in the opening episode of the new series, is Miller having any regrets, or does getting home every evening to hug his little boy justify turning his back on paradise?
“You know what?” Miller frowns. “He still doesn’t know who I am. I see him every day and he still cries when I pick him up. Turns out it’s nothing to do with me being away, he just doesn’t like me!”
Death in Paradise starts tonight at 9:00pm on BBC1