One day in 2007, aspiring screenwriter Robert Thorogood picked up the newspaper and spotted a story that piqued his interest. Pakistan’s cricket coach Bob Woolmer had died suddenly, and completely unexpectedly, in Jamaica – the day after his team had been knocked out of the World Cup. Early reports were that he had been strangled; Metropolitan Police detectives were sent over from London to assist in the investigation of this seemingly suspicious death.
Ultimately, the detectives and most of the pathologists concluded that Woolmer had likely died of natural causes (although the jury at the inquest still recorded an open verdict). But by that point, a germ of the idea that was to become Death in Paradise had already taken root in Thorogood’s brain. That idea grew a little further when he came across another article about the very high murder rate on the beautiful Caribbean island of Saint Lucia… and wouldn’t that make a great setting for a detective drama?
“It just all coalesced into: ‘Oh my God, a Caribbean show. Send a white British copper out to the Caribbean and laugh at him. That’s a show,'” Thorogood tells RadioTimes.com. “If I’d been on holiday that week, or not been around, or not got the papers, there’d be no show. I’d still have dark hair, rather than grey.”
Death in Paradise fans will be very grateful that Thorogood did, indeed, open his newspaper that day. The show, which is now celebrating its tenth anniversary, is hugely popular in the UK; episode one of this season, for example, has already reached over 8.3 million viewers. It’s also a massive international hit, having sold to over 230 territories worldwide.
But back in the beginning, Death in Paradise was just an ambitious idea from a relatively unknown screenwriter with a passion for murder mysteries. When he wasn’t trying to plot his way into the writing room for Midsomer Murders (his then-dream job), Thorogood spent 18 months fruitlessly pitching the idea for his “Caribbean cop drama” around London.
“Lots of people had responded to it, but they said I had no producer credits, or it was too expensive, or ‘we don’t do TV set in the Caribbean’,” he says. “And I’d realised quite consciously that I needed someone really powerful to go and bat for the idea.”
Enter: TV industry heavyweight Tony Jordan. His new production company Red Planet Pictures was running a competition, and Thorogood entered a script… which led to him being a finalist… which led to a fateful meeting.
Thorogood recalls: “When I pitched it to Tony, I immediately followed it up with, ‘But unfortunately it’ll never happen. My untitled ‘copper in the Caribbean’ idea will never happen because it’s too expensive, and I’ve got no credits.’ He said, ‘No, rubbish. It’s a great idea.’ I can see his face now. His enthusiastic face when he likes an idea.”
With Jordan now backing the project, the BBC commissioned a treatment. “He acted as an insurance,” Thorogood says. “Because obviously if I turned out to be rubbish, he could have written it. He gave me cover. He was the momentum on the whole thing that allowed the BBC to commission an un-broadcasted TV writer with some confidence.”
Now, suddenly, it was time to flesh the idea out from “an uptight British copper gets sent to the Caribbean against his will, and solves a light-hearted murder mystery once a week” into something more substantial. So, that weekend, Thorogood sat down and came up with DI Richard Poole, Officer Dwayne Myers, Officer Fidel Best, Commissioner Selwyn Patterson, and Catherine Bordey. It was, says the screenwriter, “weirdly quite easy” to create the world of Death in Paradise.
But who should play the Detective Inspector? Ben Miller was top of the list. “There’s just nobody who can touch him for doing uptight, angst-y, white, British, middle-class neurosis,” Thorogood explains. “There’s just no one. So when we discovered that he might be interested, we just went for him really, really hard. And in fact, he’d worked with Tony on [the TV show] Moving Wallpaper, and Tony’s view was that he was going to blackmail, bully, coerce, do whatever he could to get Ben.” Whatever Tony Jordan did, it worked: Miller said yes.
Originally, Death in Paradise was actually going to be set on a British Caribbean island (like Saint Lucia or Barbados). But then French broadcaster “France 2” joined up with the BBC to co-commission the show (known to them as “Meurtres au Paradis”). Now, the the team had to build in a bunch of French characters, as well as switching their location-scouting to the French Caribbean instead.
To celebrate the 10th Anniversary of #deathinparadise, here's a clip from the first ever recce to Guadeloupe in 2010 when we stepped onto the beach at #Deshaies and realised… we'd finally found it: our fictional town of Honoré.— Robert Thorogood (@robthor) January 7, 2021
(Filmed on an iPod Touch, good heavens) pic.twitter.com/nxLPChLLN9
After some complex financial negotiations and budgeting, they settled on Guadeloupe, which was reinvented as the fictional island of Saint Marie – a sort of hybrid French-British Caribbean nation where a British Detective Inspector and a French Sergeant could head up the local police department without anyone thinking that was odd. Guadeloupe has been the show’s home ever since.
Although initially sceptical about the need to Frenchify his drama, Thorogood came round to the idea quite quickly: “That comedy of what the Brits think of the French, and what the French think of the Brits, really powered that first few series. And so, it just gave us so much more by getting in the French. We had so many more jokes and so many more stories to tell than we would otherwise have done if it had just been a British guy going to a British Caribbean island.”
Watching the first season now, you might think everything went smoothly from the start. But on the ground, things were decidedly difficult. Tim Key, who joined the show as a producer in season two (and now serves as executive producer), tells us: “It was kind of industry knowledge that the first series had been challenging, to say the least.”
He adds: “There was no infrastructure there. The reason the first series was so difficult to make was that no one had filmed anything like that in Guadeloupe before, and they had to work out how to do it… When you look back at that first series, one of the things that’s remarkable is how good it looks. You know, we refer back all the time. We’re always going back and watching old episodes. When you look at that first series, it’s really good. It’s a really strong series of the show. It’s not like a show that took several years to find its feet.”
Oh, and then there’s the fact that Sara Martins broke her leg while she was filming season one. That meant she had to be written out of one episode because she was in hospital – which, problematically, was the same episode where Miller’s DI Richard Poole had already been written out so he could fly back to England for a bit. It also meant that, for the rest of the season, her cast had to be carefully hidden.
“We could write her, as long as she never walked or moved in any way,” says Thorogood. “So in episodes six through eight of series one, you only ever see Sara lift herself up or down into or out of a chair. And if you ever see her walking, it’s a wide shot, and it’s a double.” (You may also notice that Camille suddenly starts wearing extremely wide-legged trousers.)
Season two should have been easier, production-wise; all the kinks ironed out and the lessons learned from the first time around. But no! Because, in a twist worthy of its own TV drama, everything the crew needed to make a TV show got stuck at sea in a broken-down container ship: the dolly, the generator, the lights, the cabling, the costumes.
Key, who can certainly laugh about it now, recalls: “It sat still in the middle of the Atlantic for about three weeks. There was a tracker where you could see where the boat was, this huge shipping container, and it wasn’t moving. It was somewhere near the Azores or something, just not moving.”
The production team had to “busk it” for the first week of the shoot until the boat arrived. But even then, the ordeal wasn’t over: “There was then a strike at the port in Guadeloupe, so the shipping container arrived, but we weren’t allowed to get on it to take anything off. You could literally see the ship, but you couldn’t get to it to take the stuff off. And then when we did get on it to take the stuff off, somewhere in transit, someone had broken into it and stolen all the cabling. It was one thing after another.”
Other disasters have happened, but “that was one of the worst ones”, he says. “But trust me, in the eight years since, there’s been plenty of other occasions not dissimilar to that.” (Frankly, filming during the coronavirus pandemic sounds like just another in a long line of extremely stressful challenges.)
Still, everyone agrees, when you’re sitting at Catherine’s Bar (and yes, that’s a real bar) at the end of a long day, enjoying a drink, looking out at the sea, it feels like a pretty great job. Key says: “That’s the thing about it, when you’re out there. Through all the stress and trouble of making it, you’ll then be sort of sat, and there’s a sunset, and it blows your mind, and you sort of forget everything that’s gone on that day, and go, ‘Oh, it’s not that bad, is it?'”
And by this point, Death in Paradise was a hit. While the show had initially received lukewarm reviews from critics, TV audiences loved it – tuning in in their millions. Fans had fallen in love with Miller’s Richard Poole, and they adored the dynamic between the awkward Detective Inspector and the charming, beautiful Sergeant Camille Bordey.
But then potential disaster struck! Miller was finding it too tricky being away from his family for so many months every year and made the difficult decision to leave the show.
Did they think the show could survive Miller’s exit? “No, not really,” Thorogood admits. “We knew we had to kill him. Because he’s so talented, because the audience adored him, because he’d made such an indelible impression, the feeling was that the audience wouldn’t go with us to a new character.
“The feeling was, we had to burn our bridges and say to the audience, ‘You come with us on a new adventure, or leave, and we’re going to die here. But what we can’t do is carry on and ask you to invest in a new character with Richard Poole back in Croydon, only eight hours away – just hop on an aeroplane, and he could walk through that door.'”
So, in the first episode of season three, Richard Poole was definitively – and comprehensively – killed off with an ice pick to the chest. There could be no doubt he was dead, and he became the first murder victim of the new season. “The feeling was, we had to go down in glory, or succeed in glory,” Thorogood says.
With Richard despatched, it was time to introduce Kris Marshall as DI Humphrey Goodman, the show’s new lead. “If we’d known we were going to get Kris, we wouldn’t have worried so much,” Thorogood says. “We came up with a fun character, I think, in Humphrey, but then Kris Marshall arrived to play it, and it’s like, ‘There’s never going to be a problem. Kris Marshall is amazing!’… so of course the audience went with it. Generally, most people, in the same moment that they’re horrified at the murder, just completely fall in love with Humphrey.” (It probably helped that Humphrey provided some immediate comic relief with his entrance, by falling out of a window.)
“Everyone knew it was a huge risk,” says Key. “But once the ratings started to come through, and they stayed strong, and got stronger, you start to look at the show in a different way. And you start to realise that the show is its own thing.
“And it meant that, when we knew Kris was going – at any point, you know, when Sara left, when Gary Carr left, when Ben left, when Kris left, when Ardal left – there were all of these things and, at every moment, it’s a chance for the show to fail, really. Anything could happen. But you’re more confident that the show itself has a sort of alchemy about it.”
Thorogood adds: “We discovered after Humphrey had joined that actually having new leads, having different people in the police station, allowed us to tell different stories. So, in fact, the murder mystery is different every week, and you’re in a different world, even if the shape of it would be the same. But different characters in it allowed us to access different jokes and dramatic situations. So the changing of actors has been the saving of the show, in a backhanded way.”
The successful switch from Miller to Marshall also gave the team confidence to write slightly less violent exit storylines for future detectives, and to mix things up. When Kris Marshall did decide to leave in season six, he escaped Saint Marie alive – with his character Humphrey moving to London to pursue a relationship. His successor DI Jack Mooney (Ardal O’Hanlon) was also written out rather than killed off, heading back to the UK in season nine. It’s anyone’s guess what’s in store for current DI Neville Parker (Ralf Little).
So how do you build a new detective? “It starts with the character every time,” Key says. “Ben into Kris is a good example of going, ‘We’ve just had that type of character, so what type of character do we want next?’ The idea there was that you’ve got a very repressed, awkward, almost Basil Fawlty-ish kind of archetype.
“So it made sense that for the next one, you went to a sort of more bumbling— you’re looking at British stereotypes, basically, and going, ‘Let’s go for a more ‘Hugh Grant in Four Weddings’ kind of awkward, bumbling, slightly clumsy, charming man.'”
After that, we get a slightly older man (Jack) whose life has recently been turned on its head by his wife’s death; during his time on the island he starts to properly deal with his grief. And after that, we get uncomfortable Neville with his illnesses and allergies. Key explains: “We wanted to create a character who had some elements of what Richard Poole had, in the environment conspiring against him, and also a guy who missed out on a lot of his life through reasons that aren’t his own fault, and is trying to kind of work out how to live, really.”
In recent years, some have questioned whether the DI always has to be a white man from Britain or Ireland. Could the show have a female detective next? Or, perhaps, a local? Could that work?
“I think that yes, it would work,” Key says. “We just have to look at what the show is, and make sure that all the elements it needs are still there. I think you need a lead character at the heart of it who has flaws, and needs fixing in some way. The fish-out-of-water-ness of the show is very important to it. But there are always different ways of approaching that… so there are no rules that it has to be a man from the UK.
“I think that every time we talk about it, you go, ‘OK, what’s the next iteration of that character and of the show?’ As and when it comes for Ralf to hang up his jacket, we’ll be having all of those conversations. Everything’s on the table. Everything’s on the table.”
But that’s all in the future, because Ralf Little has already hinted he’ll return for Death in Paradise season 11. Work is now getting underway on the next season and, by the time filming begins later in 2021, everyone’s hoping the worst of the pandemic will have passed and things will be a little more normal on set (touch wood).
It certainly sounds like shooting season 10 in late 2020 was quite an experience. Production was delayed by several months, so it has been down to the wire getting it filmed and edited in time for its January BBC One air date – and on set, the vibe was very different compared to previous seasons. Socialising was strictly limited; testing was constant; social distancing was deployed where necessary, and as much filming as possible took place outdoors.
But, Key says, the cast and crew (and the island of Guadeloupe) couldn’t have been more keen to make things work. And it did work: “Now it’s over, I can say it actually went very smoothly… you know, we had some scares, and we had some things that needed finessing. But everybody completely understood why we were doing what we were doing.”
He adds: “I really do believe that watching the show, of all the comments you get, good and bad, one comment I haven’t seen is, ‘Oh, they’ve compromised the look of this because of COVID.’ I don’t think it looks compromised in the slightest. It looks like the same show. So I’m very proud of that.”
With 10 seasons under the belt, and with Death in Paradise still going strong, it’s time for the show to look to the future. It has already been re-commissioned for seasons 11 and 12, but the horizon stretches far beyond that.
“It can run and run,” Key tells us. “It’s an infinite genre, isn’t it? It’s a murder mystery. There’s enough of it. If you go into a bookshop, there’s entire walls given over to that.”
Over the years, the show has benefitted from bringing in new writers – including James Hall, who wrote season 10’s cameo-packed double bill. Thorogood still writes a few episodes each season, though he’s expanded out into novel writing (including his latest book, The Marlow Murder Club). “It’s because we’ve embraced other writers, I think, that we’ve been able to keep going,” he says. “There’s no way I could come up with eight murder mysteries a year, let alone eight good ones. It’s a very demanding and gruelling process.”
Key and Thorogood have also seen the show shift and change slightly as the seasons go on: more serialisation and character development, more dramatic two-parters, more playing with the show’s structure and formula.
To celebrate the show’s tenth anniversary, they even went out on a limb by bringing Martins back as a guest star – and having Ben Miller cameo as DI Richard Poole, appearing as a figment of Camille’s imagination for an emotional scene on the beach. And Sergeant Florence Cassell (Joséphine Jobert) has unexpectedly rejoined the show after several seasons away.
But making changes or introducing surprises – while necessary to keep Death in Paradise fresh and entertaining – also involves treading a very fine line in that relationship with the audience. You couldn’t, for example, kill off Harry the lizard (the detectives’ ever-present CGI friend who lives by the shack) without causing fury among fans, no matter how many years he lives beyond the usual lizard life expectancy.
Key explains: “People don’t want it to change, but they don’t want it to stay the same either. It’s very hard to get those two things right. If you change anything, people get very upset. They like tuning in, I think, knowing what they’re going to get, and that’s part of the appeal of Death in Paradise – it doesn’t say, ‘Oh, suddenly we’re doing a really dark, gritty episode with a miserable ending.’ People know they’re going to have a warm hour of TV.
“But if we don’t change, people will go, ‘Oh, it’s just the same every week, isn’t it?’ The characters have got to speak to the audience, and you’ve got to try and mix it up a little bit. It’s getting that balance right.”
Death in Paradise is, he says, an “unashamedly mass-audience, popular show” with an important purpose: to entertain. “That’s what we’re doing. And as long as you’re delivering everything the audience expects to get from it in every episode, you feel more and more confident that the show can just run forever, basically, as long as we can keep coming up with ideas. Which we can.”
Here’s to the next 10 years…
Season 10 of Death in Paradise concludes on Thursday 18th February on BBC One. Check out what else is on with our TV guide.