Ralf Little returns to our screens with the thirteenth series of Death in Paradise. He’s had quite the career: actor, writer, footballer and podcaster.

Little already had two classic British TV sitcoms on his resume with The Royle Family and Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps. However, DI Neville Parker allowed the actor to lead a major show for the first time.

No surprise the actor danced for joy when he landed the role. He was on a boat going to see Fungie the Dingle Dolphin and may have attracted some slightly odd looks.

We caught up with Little to discuss the joys and tribulations of working in Guadeloupe (mainly joys), taking inspiration from Columbo, and his newfound love of escape rooms.

 How are you?

I'm good, I feel like I'm getting older but I'm good. I was playing football the other day and my legs are still aching so the signs have started creeping in. But other than that, I feel fine.

Congrats on the new season. Six seasons as DI Neville Parker, how are you keeping up with the energy?

Death in Paradise is a very unique job. It's not like any other – we're thousands of miles away, on a Caribbean island. Of course, it's a dream job in all those respects. But also it has a very unique feel in terms of morale, mentality, and camaraderie. The cast and crew live and work together for six months.

We have a two week break in between, but we live and work together in close proximity. You don't go home. Not only do we film on a remote island, but in a quite remote part of it. So that could present some challenges. Luckily, I think when they're trying to put the team together, they're very good at getting, almost like, a football team together. You know?

People who gel and work together well. But it very much is a job where I think probably one of the most extreme examples of this is like you really do need people who are going to sort of have a similar mindset and similar temperament. You need a real temperament to be away for that long and just accept it for what it is.

Because after the first month, everyone's like, this is amazing, you're on a Caribbean island! And by month three, everyone's like, okay we're nearly halfway through. It's just its own adventure. Every year it's a new adventure and I've just loved it — start to finish.

And what's that bond like with the cast?

They're absolutely fabulous. Don Warrington's just a legend. He's very enigmatic, Don. If he just gives you a little nod of approval, that's like getting a knighthood. When I first got the part he actually gave me a thumbs up.

We did a little read through in London, which we don't normally do because we don't want to fly everyone over. It was my first episode and very quietly afterwards, we had all had a little chat. He didn't even say, ‘I'm very pleased that you're doing it’. He just nodded slowly and just gave me a thumbs up and I was like: ‘well, that's amazing’.

That was incredibly welcoming. All the guys I've worked with since I've been there have been fantastic. But the current crop that I'm with; Taj is a superstar in the making. He's only 21! It’s irritating, but he's just fabulous. Ginny's wonderful. Shantol, too; it was really nice to have someone who's from that region of the world to come and star in the show too. They're fantastic, and the bond that you see on screen is what we have off screen as well, so it can really work.

Ralf Little

You joined season 9 after doing a cameo earlier in the show. What was it like joining the pantheon of such a great British cast?

It's a very small industry, everybody knows everyone to a degree and even if you've not met anyone before, you feel like you know everyone.

I’d done a play with Chris Marshall 18 months previous. He left Death in Paradise 18 months later and did a play with me, and 18 months later I was in Death in Paradise. I don't know if that play had some sort of magical property.

I knew Ardell, and I'd been in it with Ben as a guest. I called them all up and I said, "this is top secret, no one knows this yet, it's not been announced, but I'm going out to Guadeloupe. Is there anything you can tell me?"

They were all so supportive. They were like, "it's going to be a great time, you're a great choice." They told me where all the nicest restaurants were. And every single one of them said some version of “just conserve your energy and try not to overheat.” As silly as it sounds, they’re right. As I said, it's a very unique job. It's physically demanding. It's a marathon out there. You're there for six months, and when you're at work, it's intense.

If you're the lead character, your job extends way beyond just turning up, knowing your lines and playing the character. You set the temperature and mood. If you come in grumpy or in a bad mood, or tired there's a trickle down effect and you don't want people treading on eggshells. So there was a bigger responsibility to it than just playing the part.

So the physical demand that you have found working out there, does that make the role harder to play?

Sometimes it's just tough. There's one small air conditioner in the corner of the police station and if we sweat too much, all the makeup starts to run off our faces onto the costume. A number of times the costume department has had to blow dry my shins. Who knew that I had sweaty shins, but apparently I do.

There have been a couple of times over the years, for sure, where I've been in the middle of a long scene, and the air conditioning unit has been turned off because of the buzzing, so the temperature soars very very quickly within about 30 seconds.

And I've been in the middle of a scene and there've been a couple of times where somebody's been talking to me and I know my line is next and I can just sort of hear my own breathing, like I'm Darth Vader. Because it's so hot and things have gone a bit blurry and I'm like, 'Sorry, can we just stop', and, 'can I just get some water over there?'

What's the best thing about filming out there. Do you feel sad when you have to come back to the UK?

Well I always make a joke every year. In the last week, everyone can't wait to leave the island and get home. Because they just want a change. You look forward to the weirdest things. You look forward to putting on jeans! You haven't worn jeans for six months, or shoes!

Obviously I do in character, but you only wear slips and shorts. You look forward to wearing a jumper. I'm like, 'I've got some lovely knitwear at home. I can't wait.' And after you've got home and you're like, ‘right, I've had enough of the cold now, I want to get back to the sunshine.’

And another weird thing about it. When you get back, you start to think, 'was that all a dream?' You're so far removed from real life, literally and metaphorically. Everyone in your social life and your workplace is on that island. When you come back to your real life it takes on this weird dream-like quality. It's weird.

Ralf Little

How did you land the role?

I got an email from my agent and it said, Tim Key, the exec producer, wants to meet you for a potential role in Death in Paradise. I remember, only for a fraction of a second, being sort of slightly annoyed with my agent. Because I was thinking, how do they not know I was already in season 2? They're not gonna get me again, for another guest role. I wanted to ring up my agent and say guys you need to get it together!

Then I read the email again, it said it was for the lead for the new detective role, and I was like, 'oh, that's a very different thing!' I'm so glad I read it twice because I can't imagine the embarrassment of that call to my agent and them going 'read the email again.'

The character that they were thinking of at the time was slightly different. He was a short, overweight, slightly older guy. So I don't know what they saw in me. But I went in, I was hopefully personable, and I read a few lines. And then I forgot about it, because every actor has their own process. My way of surviving the ritual rejection is that every audition is a job interview. You can't invest too much emotion in them because otherwise you'd never survive.

So I went in, forgot about it. And two weeks later I got a call from my agent. I was on the west Coast of Ireland, about to go on a boat trip to see Fungie the Dingle Dolphin. ‘Could today get any weirder?’ I thought. Anyone who might have happened to be watching me at that time would’ve seen a man in the rain just start dancing around, about to see Fungie the Dolphin. Pretty straightforward process really.

You've got such great comedic chops, what side of that do you bring to the show?

Red Planet, the production team, were very generous. They involved me a lot in developing the character, developing the tone, the style. Obviously, it has to stay within the boundaries of the show.

There are little funny moments. You can find those all day. But I would hope that in the writing and in the development of the character that we pick our moments well because I don't want to turn this into a sort of a knockabout farce.

I was delighted because at 39, it was the first time anyone's actually ever fully trusted to lead a show. It was a challenge that I relished. Obviously I knew that there was going to be certain elements of fun and comic timing to it, but I was more interested in playing the truth and seriousness of the role.

Did you come into the show as a fan of detective fiction?

Oh, absolutely, yeah! I watched them all: Poirot and Morse with my parents, Columbo and Murder She Wrote with my grandparents on a Saturday afternoon. I was a fan of it all.

I was a fan of Death in Paradise before I was in it as well, so it was part of the joy of getting it, just going, 'I can't believe I get to go and lead a show that I actually really love.'

And in creating the role, did you take inspiration from those classic detectives?

I mean, take inspiration from or avoid slipping into the trap of imitation, you know? Like, there was literally a line last year, where Neville leaves and then he remembers, like legitimately remembers something, like it's not a joke. But he comes back in and he says, 'oh, one more thing'.

You do have to be very aware that this is a well trodden genre and every version of it has its own spin, and you have to kind of remember what your spin is and be careful about borrowing too heavily from these, because these are iconic characters.

So yeah, I was probably more nervous about the line, 'one more thing', than almost any other, because I was like, how do I play this without sounding like I'm trying to do Columbo?

What would you say is your spin on the role?

He's a vulnerable guy. He's not very confident. There's only one thing he's really, really good at – and that's solving murders. We were very keen to not have him as a nerd. It's too easy to go, he's a two dimensional man.

One of the ideas that we kicked about while developing the character was that he might have been quite a good footballer. Except he never got the chance when he was younger, because he was allergic to the grass that he had to play on. So, there's no point in going out to play on the fields. He'd just end up sneezing everywhere. So life got smaller and smaller and smaller.

But he’s gone on quite a profound journey, from arriving on the island through the support of his friends and colleagues around him. He's made the decision of wanting toI live a full life, despite his setbacks.

I’ve had some really sweet messages from people saying, 'you've no idea how much this character means to me.' So it was a really sort of profound thing to be able to do.

Are you excited for where the character has to grow?

Yeah, absolutely. He's had a rough run of it in his love life and it echoes that larger arc. He arrived unwilling to try new things because it was just too much hassle. He fell in love, and then that didn't work out, and then he fell in love again, and that really didn't work out.

And we join at the start of the series going, it's all too much hurt. But over the course of this series, we see him be persuaded and encouraged, to start anew.

Have you got a favourite case? Have you got a case that you're excited for the fantasy of the series?

I can't remember. Remember when I said it all feels like a dream? Episode 1 is fabulous. It presents a huge challenge for Neville and the team as a whole and there's a personal element for him and that presents a lot of challenges.

But to be honest, every year I'm just always astonished by what they come up with. The variety of ideas that they come up with year on year always astonishes me.

Although it does make me laugh, my second year we did one in a TV studio. I had to spend a lot of the time filming indoors in a TV studio. It was great, I got the air conditioning in the day, and went home to the Caribbean at night. And I got to lie in bed all day. That was my dream episode!

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That sounds amazing. So why do you think the show has been so successful for so many years?

I think there's something really psychologically satisfying about the whole genre. What makes Death in Paradise successful within the genre? Who doesn't want the escapism when it's grey and cold at the start of the year? Come for the murders, stay for the character. The character interplay is really strong.

There's the fish out of water element, where we get to laugh at somebody who's not really that comfortable being where they are, that always is strong. There's all of these elements that work really well. But the truth is, if anyone really knew how to make a show a success, no one would ever make a show that's not a success.

But there's something about this show – all of those ingredients, whatever that peculiar alchemy is, it just works. It's like magic. Honestly having made TV shows, when you've actually been behind the camera as well and you see how many stars have to align just to get something made, never mind for it to be a success, it's amazing anything that ever works.

Are there any more dramatic roles or franchisers or people you'd like to work with?

Well, no one's knocking down my door for Bond at the moment. I've been really lucky, at 39, I was asked to do Death in Paradise. It's really quite different from anything I'd ever really done before, and it was a lead.

I've never actually been the legit lead in the show until Paradise. So I'm hoping to build on that now and try and find new exciting things that people might not expect to see me in, I might never have expected to get the chance to do I don't know, the sky's the limit.

Have you taken any of those detective skills away with you?

Well, I don't know how to solve a case, but I'll tell you what, I'm not too shabby at an escape room these days. I've never done one until a couple of years ago, and now I'm all about it.

So, yeah... oh my god, I'm turning into Neville. I've said time and time again that he and I are very different. I love my sport and adrenaline and action and whatever. But I just heard those words come out of my mouth, and I'm like, ‘oh no, I'm actually turning into him’.

Yes, I love an escape room.... and a cryptic crossword. Oh god, I am turning into him!

Finally, you've had quite a storied career. What's been your proudest achievement?

Still being here, honestly. I've had some lovely milestones along the way, got an Olivier nomination for my first ever play, went on stage with the guys at the Royle Family to pick up a BAFTA. These are things that you never think will happen.

I've always been really lucky, I think because the characters I play are nice. I don't think I've literally ever had a problem. Never once. Never felt kind of threatened or people have been rude or anything.

It's not like, oh, I like being famous. But I really do enjoy when people go: 'I really, really like what you do.'

Watch Death In Paradise every Sunday at 9pm on BBC One.