Death in Paradise’s Ralf Little: ‘Guadeloupe is my home now’

As a new series of the BBC murder mystery airs, its star reveals how the island, which stands in for the show’s fictional Saint Marie, has changed his life.

A report by Debra Caine for London’s Times.

Cold, wet, gloomy. Yes, it’s another British winter. But for me and eight million others there’s a spot of Caribbean sunshine on the horizon. For the past decade Death in Paradise, situated on the fictional island of Saint Marie, but actually filmed in Guadeloupe, has been the perfect tonic to lift our spirits when the January blues take hold. Set against an island landscape of brilliant blue skies and sparkling turquoise waters, and tackling dark subjects with a light touch: what could be more fun than a good, old-fashioned murder mystery?

The world also loves Death in Paradise. Licensed to more than 230 territories, the BBC1 series, which enters its 12th season this week, is one of the UK’s most successful shows abroad. And no one knows this better than its star, Ralf Little, who plays the nerdy British detective Neville Parker, a man with just the right number of unconventional detecting skills to tackle some of TV’s most baffling crimes.

“I’m stunned by how popular it is across the world,” Little says. “We have people who come out to the island just to visit the locations because they love the show. It’s such a tricky place to get to — unless you’re French [Guadeloupe is a French overseas department and region and there are direct flights to Paris] — and if ever I see people hanging about on the fringes of a location and I have a couple of minutes I go over and say hi. I might even take them on a secret tour of the police station. By the end of the series I’m sort of a tour guide with a sideline in being an actor. A lot of Brits, French . . . in 2022 we had people from Holland, Belgium, Poland, Canada, Germany, Los Angeles — people travel from all over.”

Naomi Thomas (Shantol Jackson) and DI Neville Parker (Ralf Little) in Death in Paradise

Naomi Thomas (Shantol Jackson) and DI Neville Parker (Ralf Little) in Death in Paradise

I don’t know Little, but meeting him for the first time over Zoom he seems like the kind of nice guy who would go out of his way to play tour guide for the fans. This will be his fourth season as the Brit in charge of Saint Marie’s tiny police force and both he and his character have settled in nicely to life in the tropics. When we meet virtually, however, he is just back from the Caribbean and is sitting in his new flat in King’s Cross, north London. “This is my apartment, which I just bought,” says the 42-year-old actor. “I sort of live here and sometimes in the States because my other half is American. But, to be honest, in the past three years the place I have spent the most time is Guadeloupe.”

I have recently returned from my own Caribbean sojourn, so I know how sultry and seductive life there can be. But, unlike Little, I didn’t have to face a 5.30am start most mornings to facilitate a day’s filming before the savage sunshine kicks in. “It is physically tough,” Little says. “But the island is my home as much as anywhere now and I feel a deep connection to it. Sitting on the terrace watching the sun go down, it’s a pretty special job.”

It’s certainly not a job he could have envisioned when growing up in Manchester in the Eighties and Nineties. He was on course to be a doctor when a BBC sitcom changed the course of his life. He is still fondly remembered 25 years later for his role as the sweet, put-upon teenager Antony in The Royle Family. “It started broadcasting in 1998 the same week I started medical school,” Little says. “Talk about a crossroads in life.” Leaving behind his studies at the University of Manchester, he focused on his nascent acting career and struck comedy gold again on another BBC sitcom when he played the biscuit-loving layabout Jonny in the first six seasons of Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps.

On stage, his performance as the young George Harrison in Presence at the Royal Court Theatre in London in 2001 earned him an Olivier award nomination (for most promising actor). Three years later he portrayed the title character in Billy Liar at the Theatre Royal in Windsor. The last play he did was Ugly Lies the Bone at the National Theatre in 2016 with Kris Marshall, one of his predecessors on Death in Paradise. The play was written by Lindsey Ferrentino, who has been in a long-distance relationship with Little ever since.

The charmingly neurotic and overly cautious DI Neville Parker may not be the meatiest part he’s played, but Little has contributed greatly to the ratings success of Death in Paradise ever since he joined the cast in the middle of the ninth season. As the expat cop who insisted on eating chicken and chips every night and thought the creepy-crawlies were out to get him, Little was instantly engaging as an archetypal Brit out of water.

“Neville’s journey has been about him realising that you need to take some risks to lead a full life, rather than take no risks and lead half a life,” the actor says. “I think that’s a wonderful message. As for what happens in the future, he’s recovering from a little bit of a broken heart. Certain aspects of this season help to perhaps aid that recovery process along. There’s a lot coming, a lot to unpack, and some really lovely stuff for me to get my teeth into.

“Yes, I’m the lead detective, but I feel more and more with every passing season that the show gets better and more rounded as each character has their own journey.” That includes the two veteran regulars, there from the beginning: Don Warrington, who plays the gruff police commissioner Selwyn Patterson, and Élizabeth Bourgine, who plays the ever bubbly Catherine, restaurateur and now local mayor.

Season 12 kicks off with one of the most ingenious mysteries yet tackled by DI Parker and his small team — the death of a celebrity astronomer who falls off a cliff while observing a rare astronomical event in the night-time sky. As always it’s the little things that prickle Parker’s crime-solving imagination — this time it’s a half-finished crossword.

Fans will want to know — is Little coming back for season 13? “Without being cagey, those conversations haven’t actually happened yet,” he says. “I have no indication whether they want me or not, so let’s see.”

Whatever his future with Death in Paradise, is he keen to get back into the theatre? “If the right thing comes along, without a shadow of a doubt yes — I do love being on stage.” Would he consider following in the footsteps of his fellow Brits Damian Lewis, Andrew Lincoln, Dominic West, Matthew Rhys and Hugh Laurie in chasing TV glory across the Atlantic? It would certainly mean a much easier commute to see Ferrentino, who is based in New York.

“With me it’s all about work,” Little says. “I have had a very, very fortunate run but I have got ambitions. I want to do more, big things and different things, but the reality is that the majority of my work opportunities right now are likely to be in London. I would love to work in America, it would be a real adventure and I think I could do it. I have been dusting off my American accent and it’s ready to go.”

What kind of roles does he covet that would mark a departure from the circumspection of his Death in Paradise hero? “I think it’s fair to say that every character I’m known for is very different from me as a person,” says the actor, who also played semi-professional football when his career allowed. “Take Neville, for example. Me, personally, I’m an adventurer. I’m a heli-skier, a skydiver, a helicopter pilot — I love all that, and I would love to play somebody really nasty. Everybody has a bit of a dark side, don’t they, and what fun to be able to explore that on the stage or the screen. I think I could surprise people.”
Death in Paradise
 starts on BBC1 on January 6

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