Death in Paradise creator Robert Thorogood reflects on his Suffolk upbringing and time writing the hit show
When a buttoned-up British detective arrived on a tropical island – sweltering in his suit and tie and shaken to be sharing a shack with a lizard – it was the start of a TV phenomenon.
Would anyone have predicted the runaway success of Death in Paradise? Certainly not its creator, who describes his younger self as a ‘quite unsuccessful’ screenwriter.
But it went on to become one of the most popular programmes on television, not only in the UK but around the world.
The murder mystery drama set on the fictional Caribbean island of St Marie, now on its 10th series, is adored by millions of fans.
Dastardly deeds take place against a backdrop of sunshine, glistening white sand, palm trees and sparkling blue sea.
Add engaging characters, ingenious plots, humour and an upbeat vibe and you have the ultimate antidote to the dour gloom of Scandi Noir.
And the show, filmed on the real-life paradise island of Guadalupe, can trace its heritage all the way back to Suffolk.
Its creator Robert Thorogood grew up in the county and is still proud to call himself a Tractor Boy... Ipswich Town fan to the uninitiated.
His wife, Classic FM presenter Katie Breathwick, even gave him a pair of blue and white striped club socks last Christmas.
“In the late 1970s, when Ipswich won the FA Cup, I’d go and watch Mick Mills and Paul Mariner,” he recalls. “I don’t follow football now but have a tremendous sentimental connection with Ipswich Town.”
Robert grew up in Bures, near Sudbury. “My mum still lives there,” he says. “It has changed so much over the years, so many shops have gone.
“I have some hugely happy memories of messing about in the river and playing on the rec. My brothers especially played cricket, then I’d come along occasionally and be out for a duck.”
He went to Holmwood House school near Colchester. “A teacher there inspired me and others to go into theatre and writing,” he says.
Boarding at Uppingham School in Rutland was next because it offered opportunities to do theatre.
It was there, aged 16, that he met Katie. They have been together 33 years and have two sons, Charlie, 17 and Jamie, 15.
“I didn’t write at school because I didn’t have the courage,” he says. “I was in lots of plays at Uppingham, and when I got to university I decided to finally try some writing.”
He went to Downing College, Cambridge, to do history.
“It was a college for lawyers and rowers and I was neither.
“I joined Footlights and tried to write sketches for them. It was very good training for writing screenplays for Death in Paradise, because they are mostly made up of one to two minute scenes. And comedy sketches are also one to two minutes.”
His Footlights colleagues included Sacha Baron Cohen, David Mitchell, Robert Webb and Olivia Colman.
“When I left university I, like a lot of my friends, tried to get employment as a writer and it was very difficult.
“When you’re in your early 20s you are in a tremendous hurry and don’t realise how much time you have ahead of you.
“All through my 20s I was quite unsuccessful. I wrote a film script, then a one-off drama that got close to being made.”
Meanwhile, Katie was working as a radio journalist. “I was very grateful and couldn’t have continued without Katie’s income,” he says. “Then 12 years ago I came up with the idea for Death in Paradise.”
The series was inspired by a real murder – the death in Jamaica of Bob Woolmer, coach of the Pakistan cricket team.
It was a huge shock that it became so popular ... but the talent of the people bringing it to the screen was so great. - Robert Thorogood
“Because he was a British citizen Scotland Yard sent out a British copper,” said Robert.
“I thought it would be a really good idea (for a script) to have an uptight, middle-class copper and then laugh at him.”
That character became DI Richard Poole, the first of four detectives who have led the Death in Paradise investigations team.
“Because I wasn’t very successful I didn’t have very much clout, especially with something that would be expensive to film because it was set abroad.
“When I took the idea round to production companies in 2007 they weren’t that interested although they liked the idea.
“Eventually I took it to Tony Jordan at Red Planet, who did Life on Mars and Hustle. He said ‘why don’t you get the BBC to commission a script?’.
“I did, and they really liked it. That was how it started and it was all thanks to Tony, really.
“It was a huge shock that it became so popular but the talent of the people bringing it to the screen was so great.
“We have the best production team and the best crew in the world. It looks glossy, professional and slick because of them, not me.”
Robert, who is an executive producer on the show and is usually involved in writing the scripts, took time off last year ... to create another team of offbeat detectives.
His novel, The Marlow Murder Club, which has just been published, is set amid the genteel charm of a Home Counties market town.
Its main character is Judith Potts, who is 77, lives in a faded mansion on the banks of the River Thames, and enjoys a glass or two of whisky while she sets crosswords for a national newspaper.
She also likes to swim naked in the river at the bottom of her garden and one evening, while swimming, she witnesses a brutal murder.
I thought it would be nice to write about the kind of women who don’t normally get to solve murders or get to be heroes in a crime story. - Robert Thorogood
When the police fail to solve the crime, Judith and her friends set out to catch the killer.
Robert is a big fan of Agatha Christie – but if the idea of a sharp-witted elderly female sleuth rings any bells, he is quick to point out that Judith is definitely no Miss Marple.
It is not his first mystery novel, but he started out on more familiar ground. “I wrote four Death in Paradise books starring Richard Poole. Once I felt comfortable writing them, I moved on.
“I had spent 10 years writing about a male detective in the Caribbean, and thought I would like to write about a female detective.
A vicar’s wife, a single mum, and a police officer juggling child care with looking after her poorly dad also feature, and the Marlow Murder Club is set to return in at least one more novel.
“I thought it would be nice to write about the kind of women who don’t normally get to solve murders or get to be heroes in a crime story,” he says.
Four very different detectives have sat behind the DI’s desk in Death in Paradise.
He found Richard, played by Ben Miller, the easiest to write. “He was the archetypal grumpy Brit abroad.”
But when Ben, who was finding it difficult spending months away from his young family, decided to leave after two series he was given a shock exit - stabbed through the heart.
“It wasn’t usual to transition from a lead character to another lead character. We wanted to make it clear that he wasn’t coming back,” said Robert.
“If Richard had just gone back to Croydon he would have been a bit of a ghost and people would wonder, when is he coming back?
Kris Marshall joined the cast as his replacement, the brilliant but shambolic Humphrey Goodman.
“We felt we had to make it stark – it was come with Humphrey, or stop watching. Because Kris was so brilliant it worked.”
Having said all that, Ben as Richard is set to make a surprise guest appearance during the current series in a two-part special starting on Thursday February 5 – but as far as any details go, all lips are sealed.
Kris was succeeded by Ardal O’Hanlon as DI Jack Mooney, a widower still grieving the recent death of his wife, before Ralf Little – in the guise of DI Neville Parker, who is allergic to pretty much everything on the island – arrived in Series 9.
Filming each series means cast and crew have to spend months on end away from home.
“With most jobs you can go home at weekends – you can’t from Guadalupe,” says Robert. “Also it is ridiculously hot, and you get all of the weather all of the time.
“On one day you might get a hurricane, and blistering heat and blue sky. The weather is so extreme but it blows through really fast.”
Making the current series in 2020 was challenging. “How do you do a Covid-secure murder mystery? Filming had to be postponed.
“The production company came up with a set of guidelines that enabled us to work in the Caribbean.
“It was finished on December 18 and the show started going out on January 7. Through heroic efforts they managed to do it. We hope to start filming Series 11 in May.”
The Marlow Murder Club, which was chosen by the Booksellers’ Association as its fiction book of the month for January. is available here.