BEN LAWRENCE SCREEN­GRAB

Pruri­ent, po-faced and more than a lit­tle silly – ‘Luther’ has be­come the de­tec­tive drama that time for­got

The Daily Telegraph - Review - - ESSAY -

BBC One, New Year’s Day

If you had be­gun 2019 de­ter­mined to rise above the world’s es­sen­tial crap­ness and see the good in hu­mankind, then Luther would have sorely tested your new­found pos­i­tiv­ity. Neil Cross’s twisted de­tec­tive drama, re­turn­ing af­ter a three-year hia­tus, was one of the most hor­rid, pruri­ent things I have seen in a long time. It was a bit like tak­ing down the dec­o­ra­tions with a re­newed sense of pur­pose only to dis­cover that some­one had vom­ited in the Christ­mas tree pot.

If this story aimed to shock lily-liv­ered peo­ple like me, it suc­ceeded: I re­coiled in hor­ror at pho­to­graphic flashes of sadis­tic acts done to help­less mur­der vic­tims, and at the sheer psy­cho­log­i­cal nas­ti­ness dis­played to­wards a hostage (fe­male, of course). Yet once my fear thresh­old had been height­ened, I started to find things hi­lar­i­ous.

Among the hy­per­bolic scenes of sick­ness, one that lin­gered far longer in the mind than it should have was the pe­cu­liar re­la­tion­ship be­tween the icy psy­chi­a­trist Vivien Lake (Hermione Nor­ris) and one of her pa­tients (hand­ily de­scribed by one of the de­tec­tives as “coun­ter­trans­fer­ence”, whereby the shrink sucks up all of the pa­tient’s mal­adies). At a show­down in Hamp­stead Woods, Lake slinked to­wards her trou­ble­some charge, whom we were told ex­pe­ri­enced his first or­gasm when, as a teenager, he stabbed a class­mate in the bot­tom with a com­pass: “You can cut me if you like,” she purred into his ear. Happy new year.

Luther’s slick de­prav­ity seemed quite cool a few years ago, but TV has grown up and moved on. The suc­cess of Killing Eve has shown that a bit of gen­uine hu­mour can work won­ders when telling a dark story. By con­trast, Luther looked po-faced and thus a bit silly.

That’s not to knock Idris Elba’s ti­tle per­for­mance, still full-blooded and com­mand­ing, nor the un­der­praised Der­mot Crow­ley as the sharp, unas­sum­ing DSU Schenk. I’ve not seen a more sub­tle and emo­tion­ally rich de­pic­tion of a pro­fes­sional re­la­tion­ship in ages. But else­where, the ac­tors seemed to be pitch­ing their per­for­mances at the lo­cal panto au­di­ence.

The usu­ally ex­cel­lent Ruth Wil­son as the pre­sumed-dead psy­chopath (and ob­ject of Luther’s ob­ses­sion) Alice Mor­gan wore a blonde wig to give an ap­prox­i­ma­tion of an east­ern Eu­ro­pean hooker that would barely have been ac­cept­able in a Len Deighton adap­ta­tion from the Seven­ties, while Pa­trick Malahide, an ac­tor adept at giv­ing de­li­cious lit­tle mas­ter­classes in con­trolled men­ace, ap­peared to have been watch­ing too many re­runs of The Sweeney.

His im­prob­a­ble gang­ster, Ge­orge Cor­nelius, used phrases not much heard this mil­len­nium. “Keep your wig on,” was one. He also had a taste for retro sim­i­les. “I want this place watched like a hen night in Saudi.” This might have been funny had Malahide both­ered to in­vest his per­for­mance with any psy­cho­log­i­cal truth.

Af­ter four hours of un­re­lent­ing grim­ness, Alice and Luther had a show­down in an in­dus­trial space of theatrical pro­por­tions that many artis­tic direc­tors would have killed for. Alice was hold­ing an of­fen­sive weapon and pointed it at Luther. “There is one bul­let left,” she pouted win­ningly. “I just need us to be re­ally close. Good night John.” Ex­cept that it wasn’t Luther who met his maker, but Alice, af­ter a tus­sle on a precipice that would have given most health and safety of­fi­cers pal­pi­ta­tions.

So will Luther re­turn? This lat­est of­fer­ing rather made me hope that Elba will be oth­er­wise en­gaged as the new James Bond.

Its slick de­prav­ity once seemed cool, but TV has grown up and moved on

Back in Time for School was the lat­est in the BBC’s se­ries in which vol­un­teers (usu­ally fam­i­lies) try to find out what the past might have been like by im­mers­ing their lives in it. Its pre­vi­ous suc­cess has been down to nos­tal­gic ap­peal – you know the sort of thing: dress­ing up in flares and tank tops and wax­ing lyri­cal about Birds Eye Su­per­mousses.

The lat­est ven­ture took a group of Mid­lands teenagers and made them ex­pe­ri­ence the 19th-cen­tury ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem. “They may look Vic­to­rian…” said pre­sen­ter Sara Cox, but ac­tu­ally, they didn’t – they looked like con­tem­po­rary yoof, shoe­horned into Eton col­lars and re­pres­sive hob­ble skirts. And while they heard about the Tem­per­ance Move­ment and the shock­ing turns of phrase that sprung from the Cham­bers Ge­o­graph­i­cal Dic­tionary (Abo­rig­ines were de­scribed as “sav­ages who couldn’t be civilised”), one never felt they were learn­ing ter­ri­bly much about a by­gone era other than that it was dif­fer­ent from our own.

As usual, the past was por­trayed as an alien­at­ing, un­fair place, but at least they had fun dress­ing up as

UN­HAPPY NEW YEARIdris Elba and Wunmi Mosaku as DCI Luther and DS Hal­l­i­day

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