Monday, 12 December 2011

Death in Paradise

The last episode of detective series Death in Paradise is on tv tomorrow and I hope it gets a second series. British cosy murder mystery tv series are usually made by ITV (badly) while the BBC usually make grittier series about rabid serial killers slaughtering people in ever more gruesome ways that recreate the Biblical plagues, or some such nonsense. And that's just the cop assigned to catch the killer. I don't enjoy that sort of thing. So I was pleased that the BBC have made a detective series that is about as old-fashioned as tv can get these days. It doesn’t try to be modern or ironic and it's not filmed with a wobbly camera and high-speed editing. In fact Death in Paradise wouldn't have looked out of place in the 1980s as a sort of cross between Bergerac and Murder, She Wrote.

The series details the exploits of Richard Poole, a British cop sent into exile on the fictional Caribbean island of Saint Marie, a place that time forgot where modern police techniques are unavailable and crimes are solved by using the little grey cells. Richard is stuffy, pedantic and hates living in a hot climate while his team of detectives are chilled out, casual and enjoy island life. What follows is a mixture of the inevitable character clashes amongst the detective team along with a rigid story formula that lets the viewer, as much as the detectives, solve the crime. Every week there's a murder before the title credits roll and a selection of suspects are identified, all usually British ex-pats played by familiar actors. They all have a story to tell, shown through flashbacks, that build up a picture of the events, while each clue is revealed in such an unsubtle way that 'Clue number 1' might as well scroll across the bottom of the screen in big, red letters.

The detectives collect these clues with Richard making inspired deductive leaps while drinking tea and with the rest bumbling around drinking cocktails and going to beach parties. Then, with fifteen minutes to go, enough of these clues have been collected for Richard to connect everything, after which he calls all the suspects into the drawing room (sometimes he actually does this) to explain his brilliant deductive process and finger the killer. Everyone is duly amazed at his brilliance, except for the viewers who will have usually worked it out shortly after the opening titles credits rolled, but that's the charm of the series and the entertainment comes from watching a mystery that can be worked out from the on-screen clues. Everything is played straight with few red herrings and no unreliable narrators and although several of the murders involve locked room situations, the show doesn't cheat in the way that most tv mystery series do by hiding key information. As a result everything connects in a satisfying way.

What doesn't work as well as it could do is the interaction between the characters, although if the show gets a second series I'm sure that'll improve. The lead actor does well to sell the fact that he hates living in paradise, but his grumpy by-play with the rest of the cast sometimes feels forced. He's supposed to be awkward around his sultry second in command Camille, but the two actors don’t have chemistry so their scenes are more awkward than they are designed to be. As their interaction improves later in the series, this perhaps proves that actors have to have chemistry to be convincing as people who lack chemistry. What works better from the start is the by-play between the other two detectives Dwayne and Fidel, with Dwayne as the laid-back cop who wants a quiet life and Fidel as the young and enthusiastic one. Dwayne, as played by Danny John-Jules, is particularly good and his character's name alone is sure to make Red Dwarf fans chuckle. Curiously although it's claimed the role wasn't written with the actor's character of the Cat in mind, he's a cool, vain, ladies man who doesn't realize he looks silly riding around on his motorcycle combination.

Completing the cast is Don Warrington in the thankless role of the shouty boss and better is Camille's mother who owns the restaurant around which many of the scenes play out and who gets to hand out cocktails and wise advice in equal measure. The episodes are uniformly entertaining with the only weak note for me being a bizarre guest performance by Shirley Henderson, which I thought was a candidate for the worst written and worst acted performance in the history of tv. Other than that, for undemanding and gentle drama this series worked for me, especially when there was snow on the ground.

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