IT IS a storm of biblical proportions. And the torrential downpour seems to have come from nowhere to assail the set of BBC1’s hit drama, Death in Paradise.
The rain lashing the strip of sand in the town of Deshaies on the French Caribbean island of Guadeloupe came on so suddenly the crew were caught unprepared and now they are working frantically to erect a makeshift bivouac to protect their valuable camera equipment.
Before you can say “woefully underdressed”, I’m knee-deep in dark, churning water, and my trainers are drowning in the most pitiable, unsalvageable fashion.
At that moment, who should helpfully appear at my shoulder but the star of Death in Paradise, Ben Miller. Knowing that I had made the schoolboy error of travelling to the Caribbean with only one pair of shoes, he generously offers me his backup pair. “Are you a little overwhelmed by the glamour of our set?” the actor smiles. “You must borrow my spare pair of trainers.” He is that sort of guy.
And it is exactly this kind of understated charm that has turned Miller into one of television’s leading men. In Death in Paradise, an archetypal “fish out of water” drama which returns for a second series this Tuesday, Miller plays DCI Richard Poole, an uptight English police officer. Against his will, he is transferred – “boil in the bag” sweaty suit and all – to the (fictional) paradise island of Saint Marie (which Guadeloupe is doing a very good job of impersonating.)
There, battling against the twin challenges of the intense heat and the suspicions of the locals, Poole attempts to solve some of the most fiendish crimes the Caribbean has ever witnessed. Miller grins that, “The murder rate on Saint Marie is so high, it makes Midsomer looked like a world centre of pacifism.”
Later, Miller and I chat over dinner on the terrace at the very agreeable Habitation du Comte Hotel in Sainte-Rose near the set. He is approaching the end of a six-month stint in Guadeloupe and looks enviably tanned and relaxed in flip-flops, and a white collarless shirt with matching trousers. We both smother ourselves in the strongest possible mosquito repellent. Welcome to the tropics.
He is an intriguing mixture of the witty – he and his double-act partner Alexander Armstrong have won enough awards for their comedy to fill several mantelpieces – and the wise – how many comedians have embarked on a PhD at Cambridge entitled “Novel quantum effects in low-temperature quasi-zero dimensional mesoscopic electron systems” (no, me neither)?
The 46-year-old actor, who lives in London with his partner, production executive Jessica Parker, tells me how he copes with the extreme climate in Guadeloupe, an eye-catching archipelago of five islands named Basse-Terre, Grande-Terre, La Désirade, Les Saintes and Marie-Galante.
Storms often clear within half an hour, giving way to exceptionally hot and humid conditions. When he is filming in that weather, Miller wears a backless shirt underneath his suit, which he admits, “boils me alive.” Also, if his feet are not in shot, he immediately rolls up his trouser legs, whips off his black shoes and socks and replaces them with sandals.
He has also been known to wear a Formula One-style, water-cooled suit underneath his jacket. “It’s like a life vest made out of those things you put in picnic boxes to keep them cool. You put them in the freezer and take them out at the right moment.”
But Miller, who has two young sons, Sonny and Harrison, believes the very un-British climate greatly adds to the texture of Death in Paradise. It is certainly rather more dramatic than filming, say, on the back lot at a suburban London studio.
“You definitely couldn’t make this at Pinewood. We really are in the jungle here. It’s not like Carry On Up the Khyber where one minute Sid James is pretending to defend the Khyber Pass and the next is ordering a coffee from the Pinewood canteen.”
Miller, a very versatile artist who is also an accomplished musician and has directed a feature film, Huge, about a struggling comedy double act, says he is stunned by the power of the storms he has witnessed.
“The weather here is extraordinary.
“We had Hurricane Isaac here, and that was properly exciting. You can feel the power of the thing coming over the ocean. In Britain during a storm, you realise the power of the wind. But in Guadeloupe, you realise the power of the ocean. This hot, hot, ocean drives a huge great tumble-dryer of air towards you.”
He adds, “When Hurricane Isaac made landfall, the main street in Deshaies became a river. I saw things floating down it that you don’t use normally see floating down a river. For example, I saw a chicken quite happily floating downstream. Is it scary to be in the middle of a hurricane? No, it’s thrilling.”
The other advantage of using Guadeloupe as the location for Death in Paradise is that it has never really been seen before on British TV. Miller reflects that, “I love the fact that this is such a different place to anywhere I’ve ever lived before. You’re very close to the thrum of Nature here.
“You’ve got the hood up and are looking at the engine of Nature turning. Have you ever seen anything fall over here? It’s eaten within 15 minutes. Hungry termites can reduce a fallen lamppost to iron filings in seconds. I also love the weirdness of the rainforest. You know when you go to the tropical part of Kew Gardens and you see all that water sloshing around in the air and think, ‘This is over the top’? Well, it’s not over the top. The real rainforest is just like that.”
Miller, who in July published a book, It’s Not Rocket Science, about his favourite aspects of science, including black holes, DNA, and the Large Hadron Collider loves the fact that these spectacular elements of Nature are merely part of everyday life in Guadeloupe, “In the UK we put up footpath signs to ancient barrows.
“Here they do that to tropical waterfalls in the jungle. I’ve never lived anywhere where natural beauty is held to be something so municipal. It’s like our public libraries. I love that.”
Miller also plays a straight role in Primeval, ITV’s successful dinosaur series. However, he is still primarily best known for his comedy work with Armstrong and in such pieces as Johnny English, Moving Wallpaper and The Worst Week of My Life.
In that sense, Death in Paradise was something of a departure for the actor. “No one was more surprised than me that people took me seriously as Poole. Beforehand, I knew I didn’t have a great deal of experience in this field and I did worry that people would want to laugh when I said serious things. But I feel more comfortable with it now,” he says.
He believes the first series of Death in Paradise proved so popular because it was different from anything else on the box. “It took a risk, and that’s always a good thing. It stood out because it doesn’t feel cool or like anything else. It was never going to be The Wire, but people tell me, ‘It’s my guilty pleasure’.”
As the production has been in Guadeloupe for six months, local colour has inevitably seeped into the scripts for Death in Paradise. Miller observes that, “It’s already changed. Little bits of Creole have crept into the dialogue. This year we’ve created stories based on things we experienced here last year. One great episode focuses on ‘liming’.”
“That is a Caribbean expression for doing nothing, but in a very active way. People will say, ‘We’re going fishing on Friday. Do you want to come with us?’ ‘Sorry, I can’t come. I’m liming that day’.
“There is a lovely, mile-long beach where I go for a swim at lunchtime. You wind down a little road to the beach. The other day I saw a bloke by the roadside miles from anywhere sitting under a palm tree with his arms folded. He was just liming.
“In the episode, Richard initially doesn’t understand the concept. He then spends the entire episode trying to lime. But he can’t – he has no comprehension of the idea of doing nothing.”
Miller reckons we could all learn from the limers. “One thing that is brought home to me whenever I go back to the UK is our constant busy-ness. I used to boast about being busy – I would say, ‘I’d love to come to that, but I’m really, really busy’. Here that’s a bad thing. If you do anything too quickly here, you’ll be in a muck sweat immediately and have to change your shirt.
“I’d like to think I’ll be able to carry on liming when I go back home. But I’m sure it’ll only last ten minutes, and by the time I’m picking up my bags at Heathrow. I’ll be elbowing everyone else out of the way, trying to make a meeting.”
Wherever he goes in Guadeloupe, Miller is constantly recognised because of the international success of Primeval. “People keep coming up to me and saying, ‘Les Portes du Temps’! [The Gates of Time]. That must be the title of Primeval over here. Either that or it’s the biggest ‘it’s behind you’ of all time, and there is a time portal that is constantly opening up behind me in Guadeloupe.”
In the UK, however, the actor is more likely to be stopped in the street by people quoting from the Second World War Pilots, the series of sketches from The Armstrong and Miller Show, in which heroic airmen talk like modern day wannabe gangsters. “People never come up to me and say, ‘Hello’. They say things like, ‘You as well, nang blood, and your ‘hos and bitches’. They give us Pilots’ lines which are usually much better delivered and much funnier than anything in the show. That’s wonderful. Thanks to the Pilots, we’ve also added a new word to the dictionary – ‘Rentard’ – which means someone who is perhaps not the quickest-witted of people. That’s very exciting. What’s lovely is the feeling that people have really connected with something you’ve made. That’s the best reason for doing it.”
Miller has been working with fellow Cambridge graduate Armstrong for the past two decades. He thinks their partnership has worked so well because, “Our friendship comes before everything else. We’ve been very close for many years. We have been through such a lot together and share the same group of friends. It’s like a sibling relationship. I never had a brother, but I regard Xander as my brother.
“Also, we still find the same things funny. I still think he’s the funniest man on the planet. I’d love to get him in as a guest on Death in Paradise. But I think it would be a bit too much like the programmes we used to do sketches about on The Armstrong and Miller Show. There might be some kind of matter/anti-matter implosion. Also, I don’t think we could possibly take it seriously.”
Miller, who starred with Peter Capaldi in the acclaimed West End production of The Ladykillers last year, says he would relish making further series of BBC1’s The Armstrong and Miller Show. “We’d love to come back and do some more. We’ve decided to take a break for the moment, like we have done before. The only way to come back is to ditch the old characters and do totally new ones.”
Before then, though, Armstrong and Miller are hoping to find the time to work on another project.
“We’d love to do a narrative comedy show together. But it’s difficult. I’ve been on Guadeloupe for six months, and Xander is about to go and film a new game show called Prize Island off the East African coast. Both of us will be on different tropical islands. We’re like two Richard Bransons.
“Perhaps somebody should pitch that as a programme idea – ‘Armstrong and Miller on two different tropical islands, or Morecambe and Wise at the top of two different mountains, or Hale and Pace in two different tin mines, one in Bolivia and one in Cornwall.’”
But before he embarks on that, Miller is looking forward to doing very little indeed. “I was here last year, making the first series of Death in Paradise. Then I did a West End stage play, wrote a book and came straight back here without a pause. I now want a long break where I do nothing.
“I’m going to do some serious liming.”
• James Rampton was a guest of Air France (www.airfrance.co.uk) and the Habitation du Comte Hotel (www.habitationducomte.com) in Guadeloupe. For more about “Guadeloupe: 5 Islands – One Paradise” visit www.lesilesdeguadeloupe.com
• The second series of Death in Paradise begins on Tuesday on BBC1 at 9pm.