What We’re Watching Wednesday: Luther

As is usual in the on-going, slow-motion, train wreck of my cultural appreciation I missed the first series of Luther when it was broadcast in 2010 and caught up with it at the end of last year on DVD.

So this will be old news to many of you, but series three is on the horizon and quality never goes out of fashion, so here goes.

Series one of Luther was ludicrous. It started off unrealistic and then roller-coastered onwards through ridiculous, to bizarre and straight on through to down-right jaw droppingly cartoon implausible. It was also utterly gripping and stupendously enjoyable.


Beginning with our hero letting a weeping crim plunge to his dusty death from a convenient gantry in the disused factory™, episode one swiftly moves on to a beautiful yet evil maths genius slaughtering her hapless family (Not. Even. The. Dog. Survives. And it’s a golden retriever.) in their lovely home. From there on in this tale of the trials and tribulations of everyday policing dances merrily on through a week by week procession of inordinately baroque looniedom. One week there’s the sexually inadequate taxi driver ritually slaying the inevitably unfortunate young women of the borough. On another week there’s the wholesale slaughter of half the serving officers of the Met by the bitter child soldier who only did it to make his dad proud. And on another there’s the horrifyingly creepy rich-bloke who’s clearly read too much Bret Easton-Ellis and is now bleeding more inevitably unfortunate young women of the borough.

And then there’s the stolen diamonds and the kidnapped art-dealer’s wife, and the refrigerator in the other disused factory™, and the feral hoodies, and the collapsing marriage, and the beautiful yet evil maths genius helping the brooding policeman who has shown there is such a thing as love, and the irritating lover of the estranged wife, and the colleague of the brooding police officer who does one wrong thing then spirals down into his own self-destructive fury of murder and betrayal and madness, and the visit back to the original disused factory™, and then George Smiley turns up working for Internal Affairs and is frankly disappointed with the brooding police officer’s conduct, and then the beautiful yet evil maths genius tidies up all sorts of loose ends for the brooding police officer and they establish some sort of bond over more people meeting bloody ends, and, and…

All this in six one hour episodes.

If the series had paid even the slightest lip service to realism, brooding police officer would have been suspended from duty pending a full PCC enquiry in the fifth minute of episode one and we would have spent the remaining five hours and fifty-five minutes following him mooching around at home getting under his wife’s feet, watching him half-read books, make paper aeroplanes and slowly go mad watching A Place in the Sun and Cash in the Attic. He might, perhaps in episode four, have kicked the cat once. Therein lie the dangers of realism…

So why does the madness work? It’s all about the characters stupid! Luther (brooding police officer), Alice Morgan (evil maths genius), Rose Teller (brooding police officer’s long suffering boss), Ian Reid (brooding police officer’s increasingly barking colleague) are as clichéd as all hell but they are also developed, thought through and nuanced around the clichés. And we feel for them because of this. The whole series is an object lesson in keeping audience on side by giving them characters they can empathise with. For the avoidance of doubt this is not the same as ‘sympathise with’ – Alice Morgan is terrifying. There might be something about her smile and her sly humour and her self-awareness and her chilly intellect but YOU DO NOT LIKE HER. Ian Reid is weak, paranoid, self-centred, ragged and pathetic but you understand why.

And at the centre of it all is brooding police officer. Yes he is Sherlock Holmes and Jekyll and Hyde all crammed into one bulging OTT lead character but he is also fraught, defeated by his own anger, stumbling, self-pitying, occasionally stupid, warm despite himself and, in the end, surprisingly human.

The writers have let rip with the plot: the ridiculous plot turns put high-explosive charges into every crucial joint and support beam. The reason the whole edifice doesn’t spiral off across the horizon when the switch is flicked is because it is anchored by people who manage to be real enough to engage you.

The makers of the series are helped in this by a, frankly, astonishing cast. Idris ‘brooding’ Elba is, of course, utterly magnetic. The camera adores him, I adore him, we all adore him. He is the coolest man on the planet and he knows how to play down. He can keep you watching just by sitting. But it’s not just him. Warren ‘ sidekick’ Brown is callow but tough, no-one does fraying sweatily at the edges quite like Steven ‘mad colleague’Macintosh, Saskia ‘grim boss’ Reeves is brilliantly humdrum and embattled and Ruth ‘evil’ Watson is superbly controlled. But the whole cast are superb.

I guess Luther counts as a guilty pleasure. But should one really feel guilty and being pulled in by great characters being portrayed by brilliant actors working their arses off? The fact that they are managing it in a lunatic fun-house is even more of a tribute to the skills of all concerned.

Should Idris Elba be the next Bond? No. We need him to be Prime Minister, hell Pope even, before he can be 007.

I have bought Luther series two on DVD. I will be watching series three on the TV, when it comes out. There’s no higher praise in our house.