Columbo has anger issues


Luther, BBC, Series 1 and 2 (2010-2011)

By Peter Hulm

Despite winning several award norminations for Idris Elba, Luther got a bad press, both from critics and even, it might seem, from its mind-blowing co-star Ruth Wilson.

If you allow that to put you off, you may have missed some of the strongest writing and character acting I've seen in a TV cop series.

But let's get the bad reviews out of the way first.

Jasper Rees in The Daily Telegraph was typical of the British press in 2010 in describing this deliberate mix of Sherlock Holmes and Columbo as "a shameless slice of high-concept hokum".

In the interview piece with Ruth Wilson, Rees asked: "Is it possible for an actor to be too good?" Wilson defensively described the relations between the police inspector and her character Alice Morgan, a psychopathic astrophysicist who murdered her parents, as "completely unrealistic" and "tongue-in-cheek".

But she also said: "It was completely different to everything I'd read before."

She got it about right, as you can see from the YouTube clip above.

Wrong but prescient

Funnily enough, Rees also proved to be uncannily prescient about the way the series went in the future, though he was wrong about the first six episodes.

So why is it worth discussing four years after the event?

One, hardly major, reason, is that a nearly similar series in 2013 and 2014 got the DT's soulmate, The Daily Mail asking:"Is this the best cop series ever?" of Line of Duty.

If you think so, take another look at Luther, or at least its first season.

Major triumphs

You'll find what I consider three major reasons for putting it on a pedestal: the writing, the character acting, and the cinematography.

Novelist Neil Cross, onetime scriptwriter for Spooks/MI5, extracts a kind of poetry out of his relish for demotic English. I don't know when I last heard "Hang on", "How ja mean?" or "Soddit" in a non-literary TV show.

It took me a second viewing to appreciate the cinematography (camera by several people, so it may be the directors who deserve the credit). Widescreen television rarely uses such precise screen placement of its subjects.

But it only required one viewing of Nicola Walker's performance as a cleaning lady who breaks down when her character realizes her husband is a serial killer to feel the agony of her life coming apart in a police interview room.

Yes, this was the same actress who stole the screen in MI5/Spooks performing a middle-aged love affair with uptight Peter Firth.

The scene from Luther (series 1 episode 4) deserves to be in every acting school as a demonstration of how to shake an audience to the ground with a minimum of script.

Other reviews

The Telegraph 1 Jun 2010:

Is it possible for an actor to be too good? There was a moment when it looked that way in Luther, the current BBC One cop drama (which ends next week). Idris Elba, playing a detective with anger issues, attempted in episode one to tease a confession from Ruth Wilson's deliciously insane physicist. Though prime suspect in the murder of her parents, you wouldn't have guessed it from the storm of tears she prettily conjured up in the interview room. Wilson, the scene told you, is a very good actress playing a very good actress - maybe too good for such a shameless slice of high-concept hokum. "I've had more positive comments about that show that I've had about anything I've done," she says — this a slightly bruised riposte to its negative reception. "I love the fact that it's bold and completely unrealistic. I just loved the tongue-in-cheek element about the dialogue and thought you could have a lot of fun playing with it. It was completely different to everything I'd read before."

The Independent 5 May 2010

Luther is more a loose constellation of cop-show clich├ęs than a fully formed character.

The Independent again: 9 May 2010

Rhiannon Harries

"As Luther struggled to pin it on her[Wilson], there was a lot of arch badinage between detective and murderess that was artificial and a tad cheesey and the whole thing felt rather crammed into its hour-long slot. Still, faults and all, it's of a quality that makes Ashes to Ashes look like a school production."

DVD Verdict: Jim Thomas:

"Luther's attitude towards Alice changes from her being a serious threat to her being Luther's on-call consulting psychopath...the problem with the series is that it's afraid to fully commit to the concept."

My reaction

Critics have been vastly unfair to Saskia Reeves,. As the managing detective she did a superb job of treating Luther with more than fairness while struggling with her responsibilities as a boss. i thought her accent was spot-on, and her ability to grab screen attention without seeming to demand it was exemplary.

Indira Varma, as Luther's estranged wife, was equally original in showing how she could love him while preferring someone else. It didn't have any sense of strain that she understood his violent outbursts were not directed at her.

Steven Mackintosh, as a cop sliding down the abyss of corruption while trying to remain friends with Luther, brought a touching air of desperation to all he did. It was hard not to like him, until he lost the plot completely. And even then, you wondered how far he would allow himself to mess up his life.

If anything, the weakest character, for me, was Luther himself. Alba played him as low-key as possible, with a repertoire of grunts and throat-clearing Marlon Brando could have envied.

But his outbursts of anger didn't really match the rest of his self~destructive character, and we never really understood why he felt close to the psychopathic Wilson character.


If there was a single line that summed up their relationship it was Wilson's, when she asked him: "Did you come here for sex?"

Of course, he hadn't, and she knew it, but the possibility was tantalizing, and she couldn't resist asking.

So we knew what was in it for her. But for Luther? That never became clear, even to himself. Alba, though, did not present us with his self-puzzlement directly (if that is what we were meant to understand).

The chemistry between the two fine actors and the stellar supporting cast was nevertheless enough to earn it a 94% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes and a Metacritic score of 82, as well as an average of 5.9 million viewers per episode. The second season took it up to 100% on Rotten Tomatoes. It has also received five Prime Time Emmy award nominations.

* Season 3 came later in 2014. My review is here.

Ruth Wilson has given a number of interesting interviews about the Alice character, describing the sexy psychopath as a Hannibal Lecter character or Catwoman to Luther's Batman with Warren Brown as Robin. She explains that with her dress designer she made an effort, as new directors came in, to make Alice a 40s vamp rather than fresh-faced killer. "TV's where the great writing is these days, isn't it?", she comments.