In a sign that international TV drama is slowly starting to return to production, cameras have started rolling this week on BBC drama “Death in Paradise” on the French Caribbean island of Guadeloupe.
The Red Planet Pictures produced detective drama, which is shooting its 10th anniversary series, is one of the first British single camera dramas to start filming since lockdown in March.
Variety spoke via Zoom with Red Planet joint managing director Alex Jones and “Death In Paradise” executive producer Tim Key earlier this week, just as some of the key cast and crew were flying in to Guadeloupe for the shoot.
Speaking from a beach-front hotel that is one of the bases for production, Jones and Key outlined the COVID-19 safety measures that Red Planet has put in place for “Death in Paradise,” including social distancing, face coverings and temperature and COVID-19 testing to minimize the risk of infection.
All cast and crew are tested no more than 72 hours before flying into Guadeloupe, and are also tested again within seven days of arriving on the island. “That way, we know have not brought COVID-19 here,” says Key. Testing will also be repeated before each block of filming.
The “Death in Paradise” production base has also been spread out this year, with extra office space to help minimize close interactions.
In contrast to other productions shooting amid COVID-19 restrictions, “Death in Paradise” is not dividing cast and crew up into small cohorts of people who don’t come into contact with other groups. Rather, it has decided to maintain a one meter social distancing rule for everybody.
The thinking is that if one person tests positive within a cohort that’s been working closely together, then the whole cohort would have to self-isolate, delaying production. However, if everyone is maintaining social distancing, then fewer individuals will likely catch and spread the virus.
On set, a full-time COVID-19 supervisor will make sure the safety protocols are being implemented correctly. Key describes the role as that of “an enabler as much as an enforcer” who can help the production achieve what it wants while remaining safe.
The cast and crew have also signed written pledges to maintain social distance regulations outside work hours during their stay on the island.
“We’re fortunate in that our show has certain advantages that perhaps make it better suited than other shows working in a COVID-19 world,” says Key. For example, the majority of cast and crew are on the island for six months. Beyond the flight to Guadeloupe, they don’t have to commute via public transport. Also, “Death in Paradise” doesn’t have big crowd scenes, intimate scenes or violent scenes. In addition, much of the show is filmed outdoors, and many of the scenes involve a small number of actors.
“We will be socially distancing on screen in a way that hopefully the audience won’t ever notice,” says Key.
“Death in Paradise” is also fortunate in that its production insurance was taken out well in advance of the COVID-19 crisis. Tysers are the insurance brokers and Zurich are the underwriters for Red Planet Pictures. Its insurance contract also contains a producer’s indemnity which covers for costs outside of the control of production, which the show has traditionally relied on to cover for events such as hurricanes in Guadeloupe.
It means that the insurance policy is covering the estimated 15% uplift in production costs caused by COVID-19 safety protocols.
“Production insurance is probably the biggest barrier faced by most productions, so we’re very fortunate about the policy we have,” says Jones.
Jones says the COVID-19 safety protocols are all about the protection of cast and crew, as well as reassuring the people of Guadeloupe that they are not being exposed to any unnecessary risks. Starting up production again will also, he hopes, “show the industry that it can get back on its feet again.”
Production on “Death in Paradise” was originally meant to start three months ago, but was delayed by the lockdown. Weeks of calls, Zoom meetings and health and safety briefings have taken place to help the show to navigate its way onto set in the meantime, taking into account COVID-19 rules and regulations that apply in both the U.K. and France.
Jones says “unprecedented” collaboration between independent production companies to share contact details, information and advice around COVID-19 protocols, such as testing organizations, has “really helped move things forward” for the production.
Such collaboration will help other U.K. drama productions move forward, likely around September. For many, the biggest hurdle to shooting remains production insurance with producers’ alliance Pact and the government still discussing how to underwrite the extra risks that COVID-19 presents.
In the meantime, “Death in Paradise” aims to deliver to the BBC in time for the broadcaster to transmit in its usual slot in January. Jones says this will be done “without any additional cost” to the BBC.
That’s because of “the coming together of a number of fortunate situations,” says Jones, one of which is its insurance cover. He also cites the support of Guadeloupe, and the fact that “Death in Paradise” is a returning show which “isn’t trying to set things up from scratch.”
As one of the first big dramas to go back into production, it means “Death in Paradise” will likely be able to mark its 10th anniversary as expected when it broadcasts in January.
Returning to the sun-soaked island to reprise their roles are Ralf Little as D.I. Neville Parker, Don Warrington as Commissioner Selwyn Patterson, Tobi Bakare as D.S. JP Hooper and Elizabeth Bourgine as Mayor Catherine Bordey.
As well as the usual baffling murders, the series sees the return of D.S Florence Cassell, played by Josephine Jobert. “Death in Paradise” is internationally distributed by BBC Studios. Season 10 is produced by Jim Poyser.