TV Review: Death In Paradise

[Post edited on 29/04/18]

When I was living in the UK I had no real interests in this show as it seemed sickeningly nostalgic of British Empire rule, terribly ignorant of British colonial history and on top of that the accents are a dodgy mishmash of Caribbean dialects. It also really bothered me that the show clearly tries to deflect attention away from the history of British colonialism by making the island a former French colony that oddly fell into British hands and a “aren’t the better off for it” kind of attitude. But coming into my second spring living in NYC it seems that the pangs of homesickness I am experiencing for my birth country has made the show  more palatable. The same country, I might add, that is currently embroiled in a scandal of deporting my grand/parents generation for a lack of immigration papers they know full well they destroyed in 2010. But let's not get into that, or maybe lets?

Desperate for a piece of home I began watching the show a couple of weeks ago and despite much discomfort in the underlining racist tone of the show I was able to find an appreciation for the familiar TV faces it stood to offer. But as I come to the end of the 6 seasons available on Netflix a quick google search exposed, to my surprise, that the show itself is very much current and in receipt of a 8th season! Surprised the show even made it to 6 season’s, part of the reason I continued watching was in an idealistic belief that the show had long since reached its peak and ended. But the realisation that the show is actually going into its 8th season just drove home to me how complacent white Brits are of the history of the British Empire and colonial rule. And with everything happening in the UK currently - the Windrush scandal, the Commonwealth meeting, the ongoing Brexit debacle - this really saddened me.

So what is it about the show that bothers me or how am I making this connection with the show and current political issues?

What bothered me most about the show is very similar to an argument I made in a paper for a grad class I took last fall, conveniently call Decolonialising Vision. For this paper I critiqued the essay ‘“I Am Rendered Speechless by Your Idea of Beauty”: The Picturesque in History and Art in the Postcolony’ by Krista A. Thompson – which can also be found in her brilliant book An Eye for the Tropics – that discussed the golden era of the colonial postcards. I was questioning the following:

What I would like to consider for this paper is this reflective nature of the imperial gaze that Thompson’s essay offers glimmers of, but never consciously acknowledges, in the discussion of the colonial practices of the postcard, such as: what is the postcard to the coloniser? And how might we understand the reflexivity of imperial gaze through postcards of the colony and the metropole? As I mentioned in my opening the unchanging imagery of the English postcard, despite vast ethno-cultural shifts to its cities landscapes says much about how Britain sees itself and wants to be seen by others. 

What my paper was attempting to consider was whether the colonial postcards of the Caribbean Islands during its golden era, 1895-1915, stood not only to highlight the visual practice of containing, categorising and defining the colonised Other, through the photographic image. But that, additionally, the same process of visually shaping the colonial Other, through a lens oppositional to self, would mean that the coloniser is simultaneously being defined, categorised and contained in its opposition to the very qualities that come to define the Other.

So how then does this apply to the BBC show?

Death in Paradise offers us a visual narrative that exposes not only how Britain sees its past, as head of an empire, but also how its self-image is still very much dependent on a sense of racial dominance. The show presents an image of Britain that is (still) technologically and intellectually ahead and superior, meaning the concept has to be geographically and historically specific. The show couldn't work if say paired with America, Australia, Hong Kong or India (all former colonies) since we know these countries to have rivaling wealth, technology and intellect but the Caribbean isn't (yet) seen that way. The shows timing is also everything. The show, which first aired in 2011, comes on the entails of the 2007 financial crisis, a year after the Tories gained power and a year into the austerity propaganda politics to fix a ”broken Britain”, which, at the time, was spun as being caused in addition to the greedy bankers by leaching immigrants and the lazy poor. This initiating of a far right ideological, “make Britain great again”, political propaganda which stood to made way for Brexit Britain was running concurrent with with the TV show. As innocuous and entertainment the show might seem, which in part it is, culture is always a product/reflection of our social and political environment which is why it is imperative that we take time to critically consider what it says about us in real–time and not wait till the moment has passed.

Death in Paradise is set on the fictitious island of Sainte-Marie, a strange little island which seems to be an amalgamation of the histories and cultures of various islands in the Caribbean. Like Haiti th island has a strong tradition of voodoo, a vibrant carnival culture like Trinidad (well most of the Islands really) and global popular music industry like Jamaica. But unlike another Caribbean island, I know, Sainte-Marie has a weird and confusing colonial past. According to the Police Commissioner in the first episode of the show’s first season:

"Sainte-Marie was colonised by the French, who lost it to the English, who lost it to the Dutch. The Dutch lost it back to the French. The French then handed it back to the British in the mid-'70s. So about 30% of the population is still French."

While vague of any grounding dates or the time period of each countries colonial occupation the explanation is still pretty weak raises more questions than it answers, like the heck did the French hand it “back” to the British if they were the first to colonise the island? Also, what prompted them to hand it "back" in the 1970’s? A time, I might add, that a tonne of former British Caribbean Islands were achieving their independence – I.e. Jamaica (1962), Bahamas (1973), St. Lucia (1979), Antigua & Barbuda (1981) – and the UK was rushing to pass legislation to stop black migrates from commonwealth countries entering (the laws, I might add, that are relevant to the current Windrush scandal). Furthermore, in episode 2, season 5 - One for the Road – it is mentioned that the British  had formerly owned the island 200 years ago, which would, at the time of the episode’s airing, historically place British occupation of the Island at around 1816. But at this point in history slavery was coming to its end and the acquisition of new territories had long since reached its peak. Offering up a quick history: The Haitian revolution (1791–1804) brought about the end of the French slave trade in all its colonies at the end of the 18th century as well the island's own independence. While the French would later reinstate slavery, then abolish it again, in the early part of the 19th century, it is understood to be what prompted the British to abolish its own traffic of African slaves in 1807 and then slavery in 1833, since they too were struggling to retain control of the Islands they "owned" as slave rebellions was rife. Most of the French Caribbean islands, I know, that the British established control of like St. Lucia or Dominica were obtained before this pivotal history.

I’m not by training a historian scholar (I’m a media theory scholar in training) so I’m not saying the show’s made up history for the island can’t be true, I mean it is by virtue made up, but then that also doesn’t mean it can be ignorant of historical truth. Especially since this ignorance’s will stand only to contribute and sustain an already ignorant British population who generally know very little about real British and European history as it relates to slavery and Empire, which is why the islands confusing colonial past bothers me so as it is intentionally deceiving (or at the least misdirecting). But, ok, we understand that the island belongs to the UK now and that would explain why British Met police officers are sent to work on the island, why the country's currency, Eastern Caribbean Dollars, bears the Queen's face on it (see episode 1, season 6 - Erupting in Murder) and the bureaucratic ease to which Brits can live, work and vote on the island. But why then, if the UK has owned the island for more than 40 years do the police officers still carry the French flag on their police uniforms? Also, considering that only 30% of the population “is still French” the language seems pretty prevalent two generations into Brit rule. It all seems a way of putting a safe amount of distance between the show and colonial history. The "liberating" of this fictitious French colonial Island by the Britain who have their best 'interests at heart' (this was literally said in the One for the Road episode!) seems a way of making the show easily consumable without evoking the racial spectre of Britain's past.

It is also important to note that, much like the colonial postcards Thompson's essay explores, the island of Sainte-Marie is promoted as being ‘premodern to travellers.’ It lacks contemporary architecture and is instead covered in picturesque shacks or thatched roof building, also most buildings (domestic or commercial) don’t seem to have glass windows let along deadbolt locks on their doors. The cars driven are decades behind in the times, the mobile phones used by the locals are not yet ‘smart’, TV is still analog and the police computer monitor is a model now selling of eBay as vintage. They are behind in the times. A four man forensic team still using powder and tape to lift finger prints that are compared by the human eye. But then technology doesn’t seem that important in the solving of their murder cases. I mean what technological advancements in forensic science could possibly compete with the eccentric British upbringing of a Detective Inspector (DI), well versed in English and Greek classic literature, lateral thinking and armed, Sherlock Holmes style, with a magnifying glass! Like the colonial postcard, it is easy to read the show as depicting the island in a way that belittles or implies that the Caribbean people are not mature enough to government an advanced civilised society - the islands black politicians all seem corrupt, the black police commissioner doesn’t seem to have solved a single case when he was a police officer, and the simple locals are incapable of committing complex crimes beyond crimes of passion and bootlegging rum – but what would also be useful to consider is why such condescending contrasting images are necessarily for the British self-esteem. With everything going on presently in British politics it is not big leap to connect a show of this nature and its position in the British popular culture consciousness as (re)producing and sustaining the jumped-up ethno-national ideas disseminating from Brexit Britain. 

Have you watched the show, what are your thoughts on it?


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