It's time Death in Paradise made a big change – and we know just the thing

ralf little and shantol jackson as neville parker and naomi thomas in death in paradise
It's time Death in Paradise made this big changeBBC

Death in Paradise has always been more complicated than its sunny, cosy murder-mystery reputation suggests. It exists in a unique space as a prime-time returning drama with a predominantly Black cast, yet it relies on clichés – the Bumbling White Genius detective and his succession of young, beautiful, Black female sidekicks – that can make a more progressively-minded viewer wince a little.

No one would doubt that its creators' hearts are in the right place, and when you've got a winning formula it's hard to resist the momentum of success. Who would want to mess with such a gentle weekend treat? Why fix it if it doesn't seem to be broken?

It's true that millions of people – Black and white – enjoy Death in Paradise every week, and no surprise, because picturesque, bloodless mysteries are a British TV staple. Death in Paradise's love is both earned and deserved, but it's also, perhaps, unexamined.

It's been suggested that Ralf Little may be coming to the end of his time on Saint Marie. Whether that's true or not, the show traditionally changes hands every three seasons or so – Ben Miller to Kris Marshall to Ardal O'Hanlan to Ralf Little – meaning that now is as good time as any to shake things up.

death in paradise

What we're suggesting shouldn't be considered radical, yet in the world of Death in Paradise, it really would be. It's time for a Black senior detective to lead the show.

Protective fans might argue that the culture clash of British (or Irish) plod with Caribbean officers is integral to the nature of the series. We wouldn't disagree – comedy and drama need friction like an engine needs a spark plug. Likewise, detective dramas rely on their central character being smart enough to stay a step ahead of the audience, it's inherent in the genre. No arguments here!

But the pairing of Clever White Man and Clever-But-Not-Quite-As-Clever Black Sidekick is as dated as the classic broadcast news pairing of Authoritative Older Man and Beautiful Young Woman. That particular model reinforces stereotypes about what authority should look like (not to mention beauty), while beneath the surface Death in Paradise repeatedly suggests that white people do the genius work and Black people do the footchases. It's a stereotype that benefits neither.

don warrington, shantol jackson, death in paradise

Of course Death in Paradise isn't as crass as we've painted it – Don Warrington, a Black Trinidadian British actor, is the supreme authority figure on the show with proven deductive wisdom, and if "sidekicks" DS Cassell, DS Bordey and DS Thomas have occasionally felt interchangeable, it's not for a lack of wit on the part of the performers, who have rounded them into fully three-dimensional characters. Recent years, too, have seen supporting characters take much stronger foregrounded roles.

But historically the writing team has been predominantly white and male, and, well – forgive us if you've heard this one before – better representation behind the cameras makes for better representation in front.

Why couldn't Ralf's successor take the form of, say, Kiell Smith-Bynoe? Or Susan Wokoma? Or Sophie Okonedo? (Yes! A woman detective! Imagine! And don't say: "Ahhhh but Kiell Smith-Bynoe was on the show already" – if Peter Capaldi can be both The Doctor and a Doctor Who ensemble actor, we can have a double helping of KSB.)

Fine actors all of them, with comedic chops too, and more than capable of leading a show. Cast them as a brainy, socially awkward British copper, paired up with a young (or old! Why not a veteran sergeant?) French Caribbean sidekick and you wouldn't be able to hear yourself over the sound of cultures joyously clashing.

Worried that the white audience would turn away if they couldn't see their ethnicity represented? No probs, make the sidekick white. Diversity is key, after all.

ralf little, death in paradise

The winning formula would remain intact, but the awkward colonialist subtext would be magically washed away. (Well, diluted at least: we still don't see why the Saint Marie police service can't take care of the island's crime by itself.)

The key point is that Death in Paradise – while remaining the same in every important way to its loyal audience – would be fit for another twelve seasons in Saint Marie.

Death in Paradise airs on BBC1 on Fridays at 9pm.

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