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