Death in Paradise creator and Cambridge graduate Robert Thorogood discusses the latest series
The first episode of the 10th series of Death in Paradise was shown on BBC1 last week, on the same day that Robert Thorogood's new novel was released.
Little did Robert Thorogood know when he first came up with the idea for Death in Paradise that he would have a monster hit on his hands.
Having featured a number of top actors in the main detective role – Ralf Little, star of The Royle Family, is the current incumbent – the much-loved, Caribbean-based detective series began its 10th run last Thursday (January 7) on BBC1.
Robert is a University of Cambridge alumnus (he read history at Downing College) and former president of the Cambridge Footlights, where his contemporaries included David Mitchell, Robert Webb and Olivia Colman.
He has also written four standalone Death in Paradise novels featuring the first detective, DI Richard Poole, played in the series by Ben Miller.
On the same day the new series went out, Robert’s latest novel, The Marlow Murder Club – featuring a very different sleuth named Judith Potts, a 77-year-old crossword setter -– was also released.
“I’m not going to complain, but trying to promote the launch of a novel on the same day that a TV show that you created goes out is proving quite a challenge,” says Robert, speaking to the Cambridge Independent from his home in Marlow a few hours before the programme went out.
“It’s entirely coincidental that they’ve both come out on the same day, but I’ll have a good drink tonight at 9 o’clock when I watch the TV show, I’ll tell you that much!”
Robert says he never expected the programme to become as popular as it has. “Not at all,” he admits. “I always hoped that it would be successful because I’ve always thought that the British love light-hearted murder mystery.
“Agatha Christie invented the genre and the Brits have been in love with her writing and people who do golden age murder mysteries like her ever since – whether it’s Jonathan Creek or Midsummer Murders or Agatha Raisin...
“So when I came up with the idea for Death in Paradise, I felt there was always going to be an audience for it, but I’ll be honest, when the first series got commissioned, I thought that if we could just get to a second series I would be happy – that’s all I wanted.
“The fact that we’re now on the 10th series is something that I still pinch myself about.”
Set on the fictional Caribbean island of Saint Marie, the show is filmed on the French island of Guadeloupe.
“Ben left because he’d got married, he’d had a small child, and it is very challenging going to the Caribbean for six months when you’ve got tiny children,” observes Robert.
“But when he left, we realised that it was actually an opportunity to reinvent the show, so we’ve been very lucky in many respects; that because our cast only stay for a few years, it means that we’re always given the chance to have new characters, new dynamics and tell different stories with different detectives – their love lives or their back stories...”
Robert calls it a “miracle” the fact that they were able to film the series at all last year, “because the production had to juggle all of the various quarantine rules of the UK, and we shoot in Guadeloupe, so that involved dealing with the French regulations as well.”
He recalls: “It meant that we had to delay shooting to start off with, and then it took longer to shoot the series altogether – and we actually only finished filming on December 18, so it’s been a real scramble to get the whole thing tied up into a nice bow and presented to the nation only a couple of weeks later.”
Meanwhile, The Marlow Murder Club has been named by the Booksellers Association as its first Fiction Book of the Month for 2021.
Robert says: “As is apparent, I’ve spent the last 10 years setting a story in the Caribbean and very much preoccupied with a male detective and a male way of solving crime.
“And in the last few years I’ve wanted to do something that was a bit closer to home – something in fact in the town where I live.
“The joy of murder mysteries is often about – and Agatha Christie was the past master of doing this – presenting quite a middle class, quite an affluent world. Presenting on the one hand how everyone was just terribly normal, terribly nice, but underneath that presentation of normality dark hearts beat and murder stalks the land.”
Robert adds: “I thought Marlow, which is quite a ‘hoity toity’ place, would be perfect for that. We’ve got bunting down the high street, we’ve got a very pretty church, the WI and the Rotary... and all of these organisations are brilliant, but they lend themselves to being a setting for a murder mystery.”
One of the interesting things about the book’s main character, Judith Potts, is her penchant for swimming naked. “Anyone who’s swum in the Cam, or punted from Cambridge up to Grantchester, soon becomes very aware of older people swimming naked in the river,” notes Robert.
“That’s an image you never quite forget. I would never do it myself, I’m far too coy, but there’s something liberating about saying that someone is happy in their skin and just wants to be who they want to be. Judith apologises to no-one.”
Robert has other – fonder – memories of his years studying at Cambridge and his time in the famous Footlights.
“It was a wonderful time, and Footlights was about writing sketches – and funnily enough that is, weirdly, the most wonderful practice for being a screenwriter,” he says. “Because if you think of when you go to the cinema or watch television, every scene is sort of between one and two minutes long – they’re almost like little individual sketches.
“We just thought we were writing sketches and just trying to write silly and engaging stuff, but in fact what we were learning was how to write one-minute long, two-minute long sketches that had beginnings, middles and ends – and that was the most brilliant training for going off and being a screenwriter afterwards.”
Robert, who says he “failed dismally” when he tried to become an actor after university, said he also loved “just being allowed to have the ADC as a place to play”.
“The greatest thing about doing drama at Cambridge is that yes, you get to perform, but you get to write stuff and direct stuff and you tear tickets and you work behind the bar and you paint the set and you stage manage and you design the lights... and we were doing all of that.
“For example, the very first night that Rob [Webb] and David [Mitchell] ever performed together as a duo, I was watching from the fly tower because I was the person pulling the ropes to bring the set in and out.
“I remember watching them and they had the audience in stitches. Their chemistry was instant and it was such a privilege to be around so many talented, vibrant people – and just trying to do stuff.
“Some of it was terrible – very little of it was very good – but it was all practice. And the more you do it, the more confident you get and then you launch yourself into the world after Cambridge and discover that no-one has any interest in what you do at all!
“It takes years and years and years to try and make anything of a success. A few people went off and were brilliant immediately.
“Rob and David were always very successful. They struggled for two or three years but they got there very quickly. Olivia Colman, as well, was obviously cut from a different cloth. She was always a star.”
More big names were at Cambridge at the same time as Robert. “The other one that was really noticeably talented was Sacha Baron Cohen,” he says, “who, for example, played the Topol part [Tevye] in Fiddler on the Roof, the lead. And it was a sensational performance. The magnetism, the star quality that he had...
“So yes, it was a group of people trying to put a show on, interspersed every now and again with a few people who were stars. It was a privilege and it’s something that I look back on with such extraordinary fondness – and I pinch myself that we were allowed such freedom.”
Does Robert make it back to Cambridge much? “I go as often as I can – my best friend has moved to Newnham,” he says. “So we’re often on the river, we’re often swimming...
“But I look at Cambridge now and it feels very different to how it was in the 90s. It’s very swish, all sorts of smart restaurants, that irritating grasshopper clock, and a billion tourists. It must have been strange under lockdown to see the city revealed again for the beautiful, stark place that it can be.”
The second episode of the 10th series of Death in Paradise is on tonight (Thursday, January 14) at 9pm on BBC1. The Marlow Murder Club is available to buy online now.