Little glimpse of paradise

It’s no critics’ favourite but Death in Paradise is just the feel good tonic we need for these cold times says its latest star, Ralf Little

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While we endure winter’s gloomiest depths, Ralf Little’s sunning himself in Florida. “I’m trying not to alienate anyone but it’s difficult not to feel smug,” admits the Bury actor, who landed in the Sunshine State just before Christmas, once he’d wrapped the latest series of the Caribbean-based murder mystery Death in Paradise.

‘Acting was only ever meant to be a hobby. I never thought I was going to do it as a career.’

“It was sort of touch and go, right down to the wire, as to whether I was going to go back to England or head to Florida. I did speak to my mum and say: ‘Shall I come back? I’ve not seen you for a long time.’ I’m not joking, her reply was: ‘No, you can’t come back here. I’m at risk. I don’t want to see you.’ That made my decision easy. Thanks, Mum,” quips the 40 year old. Now he’s spending his days acting as a chauffeur for his fiancée, the play and screenwriter Lindsey Ferrentino.

“Lindsey doesn’t drive. How do you live in Florida and not drive? She grew up next to space shuttle launches, with dolphins in the bay, and went to Disney World every weekend, but when I brought her to Manchester and Bury, I felt such chest-pumping pride. I dragged her around all the places that were familiar and fundamental to me growing up.

“I was saying to her you’ve got to understand this is a city that despite its relatively small size boxes way out of its weight division in terms of art and culture and history. And then there are places like Liverpool and Leeds, and that’s before you get to the landscape between the cities.”

Little divides his time between Guadeloupe, where Death in Paradise is filmed, London and Florida, “but stepping off the train at Manchester, or the Metrolink in Bury, it feels like coming home. I love it. I’ll always be a northerner. It’s a huge part of my identity, of who I am.”

He mentions this not only as a Bury lad but because of his irrevocable connection with The Royle Family, the seminal comedy co-written by Caroline Aherne and Craig Cash about a working-class family living in Greater Manchester.

“I was 17 when I started, so being in The Royle Family didn’t just set the stage for my career. It set the stage for my adulthood really – the way that people have seen me and the way I see myself,” says Little, who played Antony, the put-upon son forever making cups of tea, bossed about by his spoilt older sister Denise (Aherne) and mocked by dad Jim (Ricky Tomlinson).

Little had joined a local drama group at 12 and appeared in shows such as Sloggers and Heartbeat throughout his teens, but notes: “Acting was only ever meant to be a hobby. I never thought I was going to do it as a career.”

He was planning on studying medicine but after his appearance in Children’s Ward, Granada’s casting director June West suggested he audition for The Royle Family – “a day that changed my life”.

The Royle Family ran for three series from 1998, followed by five specials until 2012, four years before Aherne passed away aged 52. It’s now enjoying a renaissance on BBC iPlayer but with a discriminatory language warning deemed necessary for contemporary audiences.

Funny and poignant, the sitcom captured a particular period and place, but its timeless appeal is in the comforting familiarity of watching a family gawping at the TV, talking nonsense and bickering. Little is grateful it launched his career – including a starring role in Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps. “And I never tire of it meaning so much to people on a fundamental level. So there’s that.

“But I reckon some time in my mid to late-thirties it started to become, not a hindrance – I would never say that – but it became a bit tricky. When people thought of me, they would see me as that skinny, gawky 18 year old. It’s taken a long time to try and be seen as something else, to try and change other people’s mental image, but I feel I now have.”

Death in Paradise has been instrumental in this, an opportunity to be seen “as a grown-ass man”, he remarks. “To be able to play a detective with serious responsibilities, solving crimes, even if he does have some particular quirks, is just an absolute joy.”

The show is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year, a testament to its enduring popularity despite the brickbats from TV critics. Every episode is a neatly packaged whodunnit set against the picture-perfect Caribbean backdrop, a welcome respite from winter’s bleakness.

“The things that made the show a success under any normal circumstances are only magnified now. It’s an injection of escapism and sunshine and joy and never has it been more needed for people to just feel that lift,” says Little.

He’s the fourth lead detective since the show’s inception and made his debut as DI Neville Parker half-way through the last series. “We pushed a few points quite hard, like Neville’s allergies and aversion to spicy food, but by the end of the series he realised if he wasn’t careful, he was going to spend his entire existence living a sort of half-lived life, so this series is about him stepping out of his comfort zone.”

Unlike his alter-ego, Little has had no problem adjusting to island life.

“The make-up department follow me everywhere, slapping sunscreen onto my face, wiping sweat off my brow, so it’s easier for me than most, but I love it. At the weekends I’m hiking to waterfalls or scuba diving, watching football at a beach bar. It’s absolutely wonderful. I just feel like I get luckier and luckier – I really do.”

Just turned 41, aside from the fact he fears he has only two years of playing football “at any decent level” before the knees give way, he feels “in a pretty good place now”.

“Not just work, but who I am in life. I feel like I know a lot more about myself, who I want to be and what I want to believe in, what’s important – whether that’s political or social or work,” says Little, who impressed many when he took then health secretary Jeremy Hunt to account over mental healthcare provision – and later said Twitter suspended him for spoofing a Tory account during the 2019 general election campaign.

He hopes Death in Paradise will be renewed for another series but is also excited by a book-to-screen adaptation he and Ferrentino have been working on with the author. “I don’t want to give too much away but it’s set in the near future and there are elements of what life might look like in lockdown. It’s getting good feedback, but we’re going to sit on it for
a little while because everyone’s going to be sick of that subject for a while.”

Writing with his other half has been “lovely, no ups and downs”, he says. “She’s this world-class writer who seems to be conquering the world at a ridiculous, accelerated level, so I just feel very grateful she found the time to be bothered to do this with me, if I’m honest. But then again, I do drive her around a lot, so swings and roundabouts.”

Death In Paradise is on BBC One and iPlayer, and The Royle Family is on iPlayer

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