Greater Manchester born and bred, Ralf Little, 40, was studying to be a doctor at Manchester University when he was offered the role of Antony in The Royle Family and abandoned his medical studies. His subsequent TV credits include Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps, The A Word, Inside No 9 and Doctor Who, along with film and stage roles. He recently took over the starring role in BBC One’s hit detective drama Death in Paradise, which returns this week for its 10th series.
The BBC have been rerunning The Royle Family. Do you ever tune in to old episodes?
I did when I started seeing my girlfriend [he’s engaged to US playwright Lindsey Ferrentino], to show her my history. She loved it, but had to watch with subtitles. I suppose an American’s main experience of scouse accents is the Beatles, which is much softer and more relaxed. [Slips into frighteningly accurate Jim Royle impression] “A very different bloody thing to Ricky Tommo, you shithouse!” Her family couldn’t understand a word of it either.
Do any Americans appreciate it?
Some do. Mark Hamill said it was his favourite show. If you’d told my childhood self that Luke Skywalker would love something I was in, it would’ve blown my mind. Sarah Silverman and Matt Groening love it. I’m not boasting. I’m not the genius who wrote it, I was just the teenager lucky enough to get dragged along with it.
Which episode stands out for you?
[2006 special] The Queen of Sheba is particularly poignant. We’d finished the show but then Caroline Aherne’s own nana died. She wrote The Queen of Sheba as a tribute and a catharsis. It’s so beautiful, and even more so since we’ve lost Caroline too. Craig [Cash, her co-writer and co-star] said to me recently: “Mate, we’re a piece of history. What a privilege.” It felt like more than a TV show. It was a love letter to British family values. Until the day I die, it will feel special to me, and not just because it started my career.
You and Ricky Tomlinson recently made a travel series, Ricky & Ralf’s Very Northern Road Trip. How was six weeks in a camper van together?
As fragrant as you can imagine. No, we drove the camper van everywhere, but didn’t sleep in it. Ricky’s too old. He’s an 81-year-old national treasure. Put him in a hotel.
You’ve been politically outspoken on Twitter. Have you dialled that down now?
I’m a lot quieter, partly because I’m filming out in the Caribbean. You’d be surprised what a toll it can take: it’s tiring having people angry at you all the time, even if they’re mostly bots. But it felt important, and I stand by everything I said.
Was it the NHS that first prompted your political tweets?
Yes, I was enraged by the way the public was conned into turning against junior doctors. My brother’s a doctor, my sister’s a nurse and they were telling me that the long hours simply weren’t safe. If a lorry driver worked those hours, they’d endanger road users. Yet people were tricked into thinking they were being greedy, which wasn’t true.
Do you ever ponder what might have been with your own medical career?
Yes. Being a doctor is a calling. I was serious about it. Acting was just a fun hobby. I look at NHS workers now and they’re unbelievably heroic, but I guess I’m lucky not to have to deal with the shit that’s thrown at them. Everyone was applauding the NHS – as was I, what a lovely idea – but it was depressingly predictable that within months there was talk of pay cuts.
As a Manchester United fan, you must be proud of Marcus Rashford?
As a human being, I’m proud of him. What a wonderful guy. But again, it’s depressingly predictable how many people are telling him to stick to football. It’s a strange world where the idea of feeding hungry children can receive anything but universal agreement. Or that black people should have equal rights. Or women should have equal pay. Surely these are hard things to disagree with?
Death in Paradise gets big ratings – around 9 million. Is it the most mainstream thing you’ve done?
The Royle Family was arguably as mainstream. It ended up being the biggest comedy on TV, but it certainly wasn’t ever made with that intention. Here I’ve arrived in a juggernaut of a primetime drama and it’s the first time I’ve played a legit leading man. I could pretend I was worried about taking on the responsibility, but that would be a lie. I was delighted.
It’s filmed in Guadeloupe. Is it a cushy gig, or tough being away from home for long stretches?
Both. Of the four actors who’ve played the lead detective – Ben Miller, Kris Marshall and Ardal O’Hanlon came before me – my home situation is easiest. I don’t have kids or responsibilities. And because of my other half, I was splitting my time between the UK and US anyway. It suits my lifestyle.
The BBC comes in for a lot of flak nowadays. What do you make of that?
It’s bullshit. It’s easy to criticise the BBC in bad faith, but an opinion you don’t agree with isn’t “bias”. If the BBC went, it would be a tragedy. It’s the same as calls to defund the NHS. Insanity. People don’t realise how lucky they are to have an independent broadcaster and independent health service. They’re both institutions we should treasure.
You’ve written scripts and fiction before. Any writing projects currently on the go?
I’m adapting a sci-fi novel into a TV series with my other half and the author. Everyone’s very excited about it. Totally coincidentally, because the book was written years ago, there are elements of lockdown in the story. So we’re waiting for a few months before pitching it. Typical me – I’ve accidentally written a topical script.
You’ve started a podcast with former Two Pints… co-star Will Mellor. Is it a symptom of a midlife crisis?
I’ve been having a midlife crisis since I was 20 – driving silly cars, that kind of stuff. I had to do something else when I turned 40. Will was keen but I was resistant at first. If there’s one thing the world needs more of, it’s the opinions of straight, white, middle-class men. Finally we get our say! But I’m surprised by how well it’s been received.
Any New Year resolutions?
Only yesterday I made a list of things I want to master: get good at tennis, speak French and Spanish, learn to fly a plane, play poker – and then, as an afterthought, breakdancing. I forgot I’d put that. I’m taking it off the list. Ridiculous.
But it’s just been made an Olympic sport…
Really? Right, it’s going back on the list.
Death in Paradise returns to BBC One on Thursday 7 January at 9pm