As the taciturn, inscrutable Commissioner Selwyn Patterson in BBC’s Death in Paradise, Don Warrington has helped to solve almost 90 murders since the show first aired in October 2011. The programme’s genial tone, Caribbean fantasy backdrop and family-friendly formula have made it The Morecambe & Wise Show of 21st-century TV: last year’s Christmas special was the third most-watched programme over the festive period (and it will return on Boxing Day this year).
In a media landscape fractured by streaming, multi-channel competition and ever more high-concept thrillers, the reliable comforts of Death in Paradise feel almost wantonly old-fashioned. “Sometimes people just want a TV show that granny and your eight-year-old daughter can watch together,” says Warrington. “Because the puzzle is always solved, there’s an element of ‘let’s pretend’ about the world of Death in Paradise that’s almost magical.”
Now 71, Warrington has settled into a professional rhythm that sees him spend five months of the year on Guadeloupe, where Death in Paradise is filmed, with the odd theatre project in between. He’s an MBE and a formidable stage actor with a lively CV that hopscotches between Casualty and the National Theatre plus a stint on Strictly in 2008. He knows, though, that any conversation with him will sooner or later circle back to Rising Damp, Eric Chappell’s revolutionary sitcom that ran on ITV between 1974 and 1978. He played Philip, the charming, aspirational, erudite black tenant who is everything Leonard Rossiter’s unrepentantly racist, wretchedly lonely Leeds landlord Rigsby is not. In an era of British sitcoms that included Mind Your Language, Philip, argues Warrington, was the first black character to appear in a mainstream TV show who was neither a racial stereotype nor object of ridicule but a respected, complicated figure in his own right. He was so groundbreaking that people still recognise Warrington in the street.
“This always surprises me, because physically I’m very different now to that slim, handsome boy who played Philip,” says Warrington with a slow smile, although Philip’s beautifully perfumed speaking voice remains intact. “But I’ve always known the show was important. A lot of black people still say to me that their parents would call them down from their bedrooms whenever it was on, because of the way it showed a black man on TV who was not being put down or abused.”
Instead, Philip always came out on top, even while playing to Rigsby’s blatant prejudices about African “otherness”: Philip, for instance, liked to pretend that he was the son of an African chief, although he was born in Croydon.
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