Caution! Spoilers ahead! Go and watch the episode first, and then come back.
Sometimes the BBC programming throws up moments of inspired genius. In between the ruination of Autumn Saturday nights with two overlong hours of dance tedium and the domination of endless cooking programmes, the Beeb can actually get it right from time to time.
Death In Paradise is arguably the best example of this. January isn't exactly the most comforting of months. Christmas has come and gone. The money's at an all-time low thanks to present buying and looming tax bills. On top of this, it's flipping freezing to the point where even the birds outside are developing icicles on their wings.
But don't fret. Because Death In Paradise can whisk you away to the sunny Caribbean island of Saint Marie. Turn on the telly every Thursday, turn the heating up to full whack, and you can escape from the dreary drudge of Winter for eight weeks on the trot. It's a brilliant bit of programming, and one that rewarded the channel with consistently high viewing figures. It's currently filming its eighth series as I type this tosh, which speaks volumes about its popularity. Most programmes are lucky to reach even a third series these days.
Travelling back to the beginning of Death In Paradise, in fact, the first series was transmitted in late Autumn (October to December). Which is still a time of year that needs a metaphorical comfort blanket for those who hate cold nights and the prospect of yet another endless Christmas build-up. It's a winning combination of stunning imagery and well-constructed murder mystery, created by a genius called Robert Thorogood. For fans of murder mystery escapism like me, it's the ideal marriage.
The location filming instantly takes you away to the sunny shores of the fictional island of Saint Marie (which is, in fact filmed on the French island of Guadeloupe). In between the sleuthing, there are frequent shots of the local beaches, towns, sunny skies and moonlit nights – simply to show off the stunning imagery that the location has to offer. On a purely aesthetic level, it's an instant viewer grabber.
On top of this, the soundtrack is perfectly chosen. From the opening cover of Coxsone Dodd's You're Wondering Now (which I always connect with The Specials' cover version as the last track on their first album), the soundtrack includes a wealth of classic reggae tunes from the likes of Jimmy Cliff, Toots & The Maytals, Dave & Ansel Collins and many more.
The murder mystery aspect of the show works exceedingly well. It's nothing new at all. A local bad 'un is bumped off in gruesome fashion. Various supporting characters shiftily offer potential motives for being the killer. Plenty of red herrings swim around. On top of this, there's a classic homage to the Poirot series as each of the detective inspectors gathers all the suspects together at the end to explain whodunnit in the big reveal.
But Death In Paradise does throw a few interesting new elements into the mix. One is to expect the unexpected. From time to time, Death In Paradise throws viewers off beam with some game-changing twists. The first episode is a good example of this. Initially, we are introduced to the local police team of DI Charlie Hulme, and his sidekick Lily Thomson, as well as officers Dwayne Myers and Fidel Best. By the end of the episode, only two of these remain in their jobs.
That's a neat element of the show. Sometimes, when you least expect it, Death In Paradise changes the rules, which prevents it from getting predictable and stale. Other murder mystery shows tend to repeat the same old formula week in, week out – nothing wrong with that, but Death In Paradise's willingness to throw in the odd off-kilter twist (there's another one coming this first season) makes it stand out from the pack.
Alas, poor old Hulme hasn't gone to seek alternative forms of employment, given that he's been found dead in a sealed panic room in the house of two local toffs. It's left up to his replacement from England to try and make sense of how a killer can get in and out of a sealed room without being seen.
Enter DI Richard Poole.
Poole's an unusual kind of detective in that initially, he's virtually impossible to like. He's pompous. He's stuffy. He's abrupt and rude. This is a man who insists on wearing a suit when the temperature's reaching scorching degrees. Constantly whining about the sunny climes of Saint Marie, his never-ending championing of all things British is virtually a sinister prelude to the relentless prattle about Br*x*t (feel free to shake a fist in anger at the mention of this, BTW).
However, two aspects temper this unlikeable template. One is that we get to see Poole gradually mellow over time. We get to hear about his past back story, and how various work colleagues and his family have shaped his personality. Doctor Who fans may recall when Colin Baker explained that his unlikeable Sixth Doctor would be a similar deal to Darcy from Pride And Prejudice in that he starts out as a complete monster, but over time, you may grow to actually like the guy. It's the same deal with Poole – he begins as the sort of man you'd cross the road to avoid, but by the time his tale is told, you're actually sorry to see him go.
Which leads me to the other aspect: the casting. The Death In Paradise casting team gets it spot on with their selection of actors, and the choice of Ben Miller as Poole is no exception. Miller had played similar kinds of uptight creeps in the likes of The Worst Week Of My Life and Moving Wallpaper. While Poole tends to run along the same kind of lines at first, Miller adds some nicely subtle nuances to the character. From the put-upon vulnerability when dealing with an old boss to his commanding explanations of how each murder was committed, Miller prevents the character from becoming cliched and trite. He's also really funny in the role, whether providing a deadpan, wry sense of humour or awkward mannerisms such as his faffing about with a simple task as sitting on a beach.
As with many of the programmes that I tend to tune into, the casting is key to the success of Death In Paradise. There's a great double act between Dwayne and Fidel. Dwayne's the older, maverick father figure to the more serious Fidel, but the two show great comic timing with Gary Carr's Fidel and Danny John-Jules' Dwayne gelling perfectly. One of my favourite characters is Don Warrington's Commissioner Selwyn Patterson. He's hilarious! Especially the way in which he frequently silently appears in the police office without anyone seeing him.
The first episode of Death In Paradise is an oddity in that the regular team isn't quite assembled. Poole's grumpily finding his feet. Sara Martins' Camille at this point is marked as a potential suspect for Hulme while shiftily turning up at convenient locations. Lenora Crichlow's laconically put-upon Lily is an interesting novelty. It would have been quite nice to see how the relationship between Richard and Lily would have panned out, and whether her ice-cool temper in the face of Poole's relentless bleating would have heated up.
BTW, remember my warning about spoilers at the top of the page? Like I said, go and watch the episode first, and then come back and read the rest of the review.
You're back? Good.
Let's talks some more about Lily. It's a shame that she never continued in the job. But there's a good reason for that, given that she's the evil mastermind behind the two deaths in this episode. Like I said, the show's already not afraid to throw in a few curveballs. Just when you think that Lily will be in the show for the long haul, her frustration at being passed over for promotion time and again has led her to seek more criminal alternatives of reward elsewhere. Death In Paradise keeps up the murder mystery tradition of subtly showcasing the identity of the killer right under your nose. Lily's ringtone of Bob Marley & The Wailers' I Shot The Sheriff is a very clever example of this – seen once, you may not pick up this clue, but see it the next time, and you'll realise that this was a massive signpost all along.
Clever inclusions such as these are all part of Robert Thorogood's tightly plotted debut script. The first episode sets up a number of possible suspects including the huffy Lord and Lady Salcombe, party guy Lawrence and even Camille. Poole's lightbulb moment is perfectly in keeping with other sleuths' sudden realisations of who committed crimes. Plus, there are already signs of Poole's loner status when Dwayne reveals to Fidel that his old work department threw a party when he'd left: “They threw the party after he'd gone.”
Already, it's a show that manages to attract plenty of famous faces with the likes of Rupert Graves (Sherlock) and Lenora Crichlow (Being Human) recognisable to viewers. The direction from Charles (Son Of Geoffrey) Palmer is pacy and stylish, and creates a signature visual flair for the series.
As Richard and Camille (who becomes Lily's replacement) shudder at the thought of working with each other, it's clear that Death In Paradise holds out much potential. It's the perfect antidote to freezing cold Autumn and Winter weather, and in fact, also goes down well with a cold bottle of beer on a hot Summer's night. Stay tuned for the next thrilling instalment!