Ralf Little on leaving Death in Paradise, his replacement and taking on Jeremy Hunt

'It's possible we will see Neville again!' Ralf Little talks about his years on Death in Paradise, his future plans, and whether he could return as DI Neville Parker

Ralf Little

Ralf Little has left Death In Paradise

Ralf Little is leaving Death in Paradise. It’s now official. And just 12 hours after we watched DI Neville Parker sailing off into the sunset on BBC One, getting the happy ending fans so desperately wanted, the actor was on the line to the Big Issue for an exclusive exit interview.

“It’s a bit of a weird one. It hasn’t really felt real, even though I filmed the last day of the show because I haven’t been able to tell anyone,” said Little.

“But it’s very real now the world knows, and it’s exciting to be ready for new adventures. But it feels extremely bittersweet because being in Death in Paradise has been one of the most profound and magical experiences in my life.”

Ralf Little found fame as a teenager in The Royle Family and went on to appear in Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps, 24 Hour Party People, Doctor Who and The A Word, as well as co-writing sitcom The Cafe. But Death in Paradise was his first leading role in a primetime drama, and Little leaving the role is big news in the world of TV drama. So, after four and a half years at the helm of one of the most popular TV dramas in the country, we asked Ralf Little for a debrief…

Welcome to your exit interview! When you took this job, what did you hope to bring to the position of star of Death in Paradise?

When I got the job, my mum famously said: ‘A lot of people like that show – don’t ruin it!’ So that was my main ambition. But I wanted to prove to myself and the world and my industry that I was capable of leading a show. And you never know until you do it. In my career I’ve shown I can be irreverent or lighthearted and hit comic beats – but I relished the scope for showing a range of emotions.

What did you do to fit in with the way Death in Paradise works?

We know what our format is. We know there will be a case, a murder, and that we have an hour to solve it. But you also have to be vulnerable or heartbroken or unreasonable or angry and you have to be able to switch tone – sometimes in a single scene – in a believable way. And the more we dig into the characters and give them challenges and happiness and heartbreak, the stronger the show gets. They’ve done that more with every series. It’s given me great confidence going forward.

Do you feel you were supported in your role at Death in Paradise?

You would be hard pushed to find an example of anyone feeling more supported in a job than I’ve been on this. Right from the moment when the production company, Red Planet, and the BBC asked me to do it I’ve been given support, encouragement and reassurance. It’s probably the same as being a musician or a footballer – everybody has an opinion on your work. So it’s very exposing. But, right out of the gate, the support and warmth from the public was overwhelming. And it only got more vocal. People have just been incredible.

How do you think you fared taking on a leadership role at Death in Paradise?

I’ve been incredibly lucky to have the career I’ve had. But until I was 39 years old, everything I had been in that had been a success was a big ensemble show. Leading a show is a big responsibility and I’d never had the chance to shoulder that so you never know if you can do it. No one took the gamble on me before.

Death in Paradise is beloved by millions. I was a fan before I went in. So it was an incredible challenge and unbelievably daunting. But it was so satisfying and exciting to make it work. Also, it didn’t hurt that I was doing it in the Caribbean.

How did you enjoy the Death in Paradise office in Guadeloupe!?

It’s a magical island. The people are Incredible. And there’s not a huge tourist industry , there’s no big resort, so Guadalupe is a functioning Caribbean island, where we were lucky enough to be welcomed to do the work we do. And that was a magical experience. You live and work in close proximity for six months so you form lifelong friendships and bonds with the crew and cast and with Guadeloupe itself. It was more my home for the last four and a half years than anywhere else in the world. That’s crazy, isn’t it?

You have to socialise when you are there for six months at a time. It’s not like you can pop home at weekends. So every weekend, we’d be saying, let’s go jet skiing at Le Gosier or kayaking at Plage De Malendure or scuba diving at the place where Jacques Cousteau basically pioneered it. You just think, how is this my life? It’s extraordinary.

How do you feel your role developed over your time here?

Neville arrived as somebody who was brilliant at his job but in his interpersonal relationships was quite stunted. So he spent the next four and a half years overcoming that. We’ve both been on a profound journey and I think it resonated with people, watching him overcome challenges, supported by his friends, and fight against his own internal monologue and overcome his own self-cultivated limitations. That was an amazing journey. And the way he took everything he’d learned to take the leap in the final episode was a beautiful way to end.

Is there anything you would like to go on record with about your colleagues?

They were incredible. All of them. So welcoming. Don Warrington is the patriarch of the show – he is a legend I grew up watching with my grandparents on Rising Damp. So he’s a living legend. At the end of that first readthrough, I said to everyone how much it means to me and that I was really excited and that it wasn’t just another job to me. Now Don can be quite enigmatic. But he looked at me, stuck his thumb up and nodded. You hear stories of people who played for Sir Alex Ferguson, and they say if they got that nod and thumbs up, it was the most amazing thing ever. Well, that’s what it felt like!

And if Don is the patriarch, Élizabeth Bourgine is the matriarch. She was so warm and loving and Joséphine Jobert as well. They would help me with my French. For the first year, Josie basically gave me free French lessons . She speaks perfect English but would listen to me trying to make conversation in my garbled, rubbish, broken French for hours.

How do you feel you rose to the challenge of a leadership role?

I always try to be as personable and easygoing as possible. But when you’re leading a show, your job is more than getting your lines right and hitting your marks. Your job is to set the tone. Because if you are in a bad mood or short with someone or difficult, then 100 people on the set around you are now walking on eggshells. It filters down so quickly – and film sets can be stressful places.

What do you hope to achieve in your future away from Death in Paradise?

I want to push myself out of my comfort zone and do more things that scare me or that I maybe feel a bit intimidated by. And I’d love to play a villain. It would be so nice to just play someone horrible – I’ve spent my whole career playing nice guys. I want to surprise myself and surprise audiences.

DI Neville Parker (RALF LITTLE) and Florence (JOSEPHINE JOBERT) in Death in Paradise
DI Neville Parker (Ralf Little) and Florence (Josephine Jobert) in the emotional finale. Image: BBC

What are your feelings about Death in Paradise as you leave it?

It’s an incredibly accomplished piece of piece of art. I don’t know if it is underestimated because millions of people love it and it has been well received by critics. But it makes no pretence about what it wants to deliver to its audience. The real world is complicated, whereas in Death in Paradise world, the bad guys are caught and sent to jail and there is something reassuring about that. It shows there is hope. No matter how bad it gets, things are going to work out. So there is grim, soul-searching, award-winning drama that wrenches your heart out and gets all the plaudits. And it should because it is great. But having done Death in Paradise, I will say it takes just as much effort to make everything feel as safe as it does to show a world that is complicated and scary.

One of your roles before joining Death in Paradise was unofficial leader of the opposition – taking on Jeremy Hunt via social media. Is this something you hope to return to now?

[Laughs] I wasn’t meant to do any of that! When I joined Twitter – which I’m still refusing to call X – I was not interested in social media. But I started to read up and learn about science, socio-political movements, history, politics. I’d been working since I did The Royle Family when I was 17. I’ve been lucky enough since that age to have either enough to be comfortable or at least enough to survive. So Twitter helped me check my privilege. Just because I’d been lucky enough to not have to worry about certain things doesn’t mean they weren’t there or that I shouldn’t care. It made me way more socio-politically aware of everything. So I would engage with people… and sometimes get 1,000 comments of pure vitriol back.

When I saw Jeremy Hunt massaging some figures on TV, I called him out in a very sardonic way. And he responded! Which I still can’t believe happened. If I was him, I would have ignored me. But he said, if you’re calling me a liar, you’d better prove it. So I spent four days researching the claims he made and pulling statistics together and then did a 45-Tweet thread about why his figures were wrong. I honestly thought that that would be the end of it. And it just went crazy. All the papers picked it up. What’s going on here? It wasn’t on purpose. I didn’t set out to go, “I think I’ll bring the government down…”

Did your position at Death in Paradise impinge on your political career?

Two years ago my phone bounced off a boat and into the sea. For three weeks I couldn’t get a replacement or sign in to Twitter and it felt like I was resurfacing. I realised I was spending a lot of time and emotional energy and mental health energy on trying to fight this war – I was fighting the good fight on so many fronts. So now I’m very conflicted. I’ve got a platform, I should be using it. But on the other hand, we are so polarised that I don’t know if I changed a single mind.

Your adversary Jeremy Hunt is chancellor now – what are your feelings about that?

It was ever thus. In so many walks of life, people seem to fail upwards. Oh, they did a terrible job, let’s give them a promotion. It doesn’t work in my industry – if I had flopped in Death in Paradise and been absolutely rubbish or the audience hated me, no one’s going to go, let’s give him James Bond. Although that would be nice.

Death in Paradise is now recruiting your replacement – what qualities should they look for?

I wish I had some insider knowledge but I don’t. Someone younger, someone older? I have no idea. But every leader has to arrive on the island as a fish out of water. That’s the formula. And they have something within them that is broken, and that the island, and the people they work with, will heal. However they do it, that’s the key.

Could your successor be a woman, for the first time?

I don’t see why not. They have the scope to do anything and the opportunity to do anything, but also, this creative team can do anything because they’re so good. Death in Paradise is in such good hands and they have a gift for making clever choices. Literally nothing would surprise me.

Will we see more of Ralf Little the writer again now?

I have not had the headspace to do any writing but I’m starting to mull over ideas, reading articles and thinking about interesting stories to tell.

After all, you did launch Phoebe Waller Bridge in The Cafe

I did! I know. And I would like full credit for that. Thank you. Her success is entirely up to me and The Cafe. Finally, somebody has said so. Thank you so much.

Do you have any plans for further development after leaving Death in Paradise?

I like collecting new skills. In between the last two series I did my motorbike license. I have no intention of buying a motorbike or really ever riding a motorbike, but I’ve got the licence. During Covid, I learned French and got fit – I went to the gym and was looking like Arnold Schwarzenegger. Maybe I could learn another language. I’ve got French down pretty well. So, more writing, more travelling, and as much football as my legs will let me play. Football is like my meditation.

Would you consider returning to Death in Paradise for seasonal work – say in Christmas specials?

As far as I know, Neville has sailed off into the sunset with Florence and that’s the end of his story. But we know Death in Paradise and the ‘DIP-verse’, as we affectionately call it, is expanding. So is there a world in which it’s possible we’ll see Neville again, popping back for a Christmas special or whatever? Maybe. It’s possible. If I was asked I would be interested. It would be a joy to revisit Neville and that world again. So I’d always be open to that.

Neville is as much a part of my life as Anthony Royle has always been part of my life. Those characters, and Jonny from Two Pints Of Lager, who exist outside of me will always be an enormous part of my life. So the idea of being able to revisit Neville would be extraordinary.

Has doing this role changed how you are perceived, do you think?

Massively. I’ve had such a varied career and done so much, but The Royle Family was so iconic and such a touchstone of the cultural landscape that it’s only natural people are still talking about it. And I welcome that. Because I loved every moment of it. But now people are talking about Death in Paradise just as much. That evolution feels very satisfying. It’s the next step of my life. I was a kid when I did The Royle Family. I’m a middle-aged man now.

Finally, what is your current big issue?

This is quite dangerous territory so I’ll choose my words carefully. I think after the #MeToo movement, the first role for men was to be quiet and let other people speak. And then it was to reflect on the way the patriarchy is and the way men have historically talked to women and reflect personally. That was very clear. The whole thing made clear that systems in place weren’t working. A big issue for me, is that this old way doesn’t work, we need a new way, but I find myself going, OK, I want to do things differently, but how do we do that? That conversation isn’t happening as widely as widely as I wish it was – and it leaves room for misogynists and the Andrew Tates of the world to sweep in and co-opt that space and corrupt the conversation.

Ralf Little’s episodes of Death in Paradise are available on iPlayer.

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