“I’ve always wanted to play a detective,” says actor, comedian and occasional novelist Ardal O’Hanlon. “Always loved detective shows, right back to Columbo, The Rockford Files, Starsky & Hutch.” Still, joining the cast of Death in Paradise is a huge move for the man we last saw as the public face of Channel 4’s Tree of the Year.
Although, before long, Mooney finds himself the resident detective on Saint Marie. “I’m as crippled with doubt as the next actor,” says O’Hanlon. “For most of us, even the apparently very confident ones, doubt is a big part of life. But I’m of a certain age now, and those kind of things don’t plague me the way they might have ten years ago, I embrace the challenge.”
Crucially for the Irishman, the public loved the change of leads from Ben Miller to Kris Marshall in 2014, something O’Hanlon attributes to the format of the show – which he calls “cheerfully hokey” – staying largely the same.
Ben Miller as DI Richard Poole in Death in Paradise series one
“There’s no real jeopardy in the plots,” he says. “No real peril for the detectives, but that is part of its appeal. It’s light, fluffy drama, meant to entertain people in the cold nights of winter. The murders aren’t gruesome, there’s no gore-splattered screen. The attraction really is in the puzzles – the ingenious mystery at the heart of it.”
A lot of the appeal for the viewer is also in the location, the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe where, as well as rum, there may be biting insects (“You spend a lot of time plastering yourself with ointments,” says O’Hanlon), regular tropical downpours and the occasional hurricane.
Islands have book-ended O’Hanlon’s television career. He first came to notice in the useless priests comedy Father Ted in the mid-1990s, playing Father Dougal McGuire, the resident idiot on wet, cold Craggy Island off the west coast of Ireland.
He didn’t expect it to become a huge hit. “We thought Father Ted was destined to be obscure late-night Channel 4 fodder and then it works and you don’t really know why.”
Was he also surprised to be picked for Death in Paradise? “Ben’s character was uptight. Kris’s was more clumsy and, I suppose, with me, they’re going for something a little bit quirky on the island,” he says.
“I’ve tried to bring a certain kind of a warmth to it. Mooney is quite friendly, quite genial and slightly underestimated because of it. Maybe there’s some of the naivety that I’ve brought to other characters before.”
No TV character will ever be quite as naive as Father Dougal, who once enquired of the long-suffering priest, “Do you believe in God then Ted?” But does O’Hanlon believe Irish people should be figures of fun on British television?
“From day one working in TV, I have been very conscious of the way the Irish are represented,” he says. “In every show I’ve been involved in I read the script, take out the Irishisms right away and say, ‘I’ll supply those’.
“Father Ted was written by Irish people, so that was fine, but around the time we were shooting it EastEnders went to Ireland and represented it as this terribly backward society where people were going around with one eye and drunk. That outraged people in Ireland. But that will happen from time to time, we were brought up with that.”
O’Hanlon will leave his wife Melanie and children Emily, Rebecca and Redmond at home in Dublin. Though he has Skype and they will visit him, he says that as soon as his plane lands in the sunshine, it’s mainly “very hard work”.
It seems a pity, though, not to be able to relax, have a swim or go for a drink. “Well, we did go swimming in the sea. And do you know, we did manage to squeeze in a rum on one or two evenings.”