As Idris Elba brings his much-loved, damaged detective back to our living rooms, Sheryl Garratt meets him and witnesses an action-packed day on set
4 December 2015
It is 8am on a cold day at the end of March, and I’m in a quiet side street near the Barbican in London, waiting for an explosion. It’s a controlled blast set up for the new season of the BBC’s much-loved crime series Luther, starring Idris Elba as DCI John Luther, a policeman with a damaging gift for getting into the minds of serial killers.
A fire engine is parked ready for the shots of the bomb’s aftermath, uniformed fireman actors clustered around it. Real police are keeping the road blocked off, and actor police are grabbing breakfast from the catering van; a crowd has gathered on the walkways of the housing estate opposite.
Dermot Crowley, who plays Luther’s irascible boss Martin Schenk, will be getting out of his car when the action happens. One of the crew walks over to tell him what to expect, but Crowley stops him, saying he’d prefer to react in the moment. I go over to producer Marcus Wilson, worried that I’ll somehow miss the big bang. ‘You’ll know it’s close when they set fire to that,’ he says, pointing to a domestic item I’m not going to name here, because it will spoil the surprise. ‘We’re going to drop it on to the street, as if it was pushed out by the explosion.’
Eventually the item is lit and hoisted, there’s a spectacular flash and bang from the penthouse above us, and debris rains down – realistic-looking sugar glass and rubble made of balsa wood. But the item is still hanging over this scene of devastation, and burning so fiercely that it has melted the crane’s hydraulics. I only start to realise how serious this is when the fireman extras step back, to be replaced by the real crew, who put the blaze out with well-practised efficiency.
Luther’s genial director, Sam Miller, has meanwhile already checked with the special effects team that this key moment can be remedied later with computer imagery, and calmly moves on to the next scene. The street-sweepers are booked for 1pm, he explains, so they have to push on. Made on a BBC budget that is tiny compared to even a small Hollywood film or US TV series, Luther makes a virtue of this. From the beginning, they’ve been free to shoot in the way that felt right in the moment, Miller says, filming quickly and using hand-held cameras for a sense of immediacy: you’re in the room with the characters and seeing what they see.
‘When you’ve got a fantastic actor like Idris, you want to be with him the whole time,’ says Miller. ‘You can be much more ambitious, and more extreme because the audience trusts him, so they will come with you.’ Gritty and fast-paced and set in a London we can all recognise, Luther’s world is populated with warped serial killers, bent police officers and memorable characters such as Alice (played by Ruth Wilson), a murderer with a brilliant mind, who becomes a friend to Luther. To heighten the tension, ever since its debut in 2010, the show has never been afraid to kill off key characters.
‘No one is safe,’ Marcus Wilson says ominously. ‘Not even John Luther. And when the end does come for him, it will most probably be a grisly one.’ But there are also always consequences from this carnage, and the new season opens with John Luther on extended leave, depressed after the murder of his partner, Justin Ripley. This wasn’t a great stretch to act, Elba, 43, will later tell me, as his father died in 2013, just before the release of his game-changing biopicMandela: Long Walk to Freedom.
‘It was therapeutic, actually,’ he says of shooting scenes of Luther without his signature Paul Smith tweed coat, alone on the cliff at Beachy Head. ‘It was difficult after my old man passed, that really knocked me for six. John is in a bad place and uses his work to get out of it, and I was sort of similar. So I embraced it.’
Losing characters means that there is room for new ones, and Rose Leslie – best known as the magnificent Ygritte in Game of Thrones – joins this season as ambitious DS Emma Lane. A fan of the series since it first aired, Leslie jumped at the chance to work alongside Elba. ‘He’s so magnetic to watch, that you can’t help but be pulled into the show,’ she says.
Her character, she explains, is in awe of Luther, and aware of his reputation. ‘The legend of the man is so heightened in Emma’s mind that when she meets him, she greets a depressed, downtrodden soul, and that surprises her. But he takes her under his wing.’
Unusually, the day I’m on set, Luther himself appears only briefly: Elba simply walks down the street some time after the explosion, and delivers one short line, greeting Schenk. A familiar battered Volvo pulls up and Luther gets out, ducks under the police tape and strides down the street – ‘a big man with a big walk’ as creator of the show Neil Cross likes to describe him. (Elba will later tell me that Luther’s signature loping stride was not deliberate, but the combined result of his bowed legs, a long-standing Achilles tendon injury, and the wrong shoes.)
Still, Elba’s presence seems to act like a magnet. Suddenly, the walkways of the estate are crowded again, and the office on the other side is crammed with eager faces. The walk takes all of 10 seconds, but when it’s done they all burst into spontaneous applause, and Elba turns towards the estate and gives a gracious, smiling bow. As he goes back to do a second take, an older lady with a pit bull is straining to get by. One of the crew asks her if she minds waiting until the take is over. ‘No, no!’ she says anxiously, ‘I don’t want to get by – I just want to see him!’
Sam Miller laughs, and says it’s been like this every time they’ve filmed outside from the second series onwards, especially in east London, where Elba grew up. ‘He’s like the champion of Hackney,’ he says. ‘People greet him with real affection.
And Idris isn’t bothered by it when he’s working – he likes people.’ There have only been three seasons of Luther since the show made its debut, only 14 hours of TV altogether. This new one – returning two-and-a-half years after season three – won’t add to that total greatly, being just two taut, hour-long episodes. Nonetheless, DCI John Luther has become an icon: the show is hugely popular, shown in 180 territories across the globe.
Elba, who also has an associate producer credit on Luther, says it was audience loyalty that made the team come back to it. ‘[We] felt that we couldn’t just leave the show where it was. We had to give the audience more, and I love Neil’s writing and his mind.
There’s lots of stories left to tell.’ Elba, Cross and Miller talk so warmly of each other that it’s easy to feel a gooseberry in their bromance. Indeed, part of the drama’s appeal is that it showcases an actor, writer and director at the top of their respective games.
Cross has an uncanny knack of taking fears and amplifying them, and this new series ramps up the tension, exploiting popular concerns about the internet and privacy, and twisting them into a compellingly grisly new adversary for Luther. ‘I would love to say that I’m an assiduous researcher,’ says Cross, ‘but the sad truth is, I just spend most of my time being scared. I’m a neurotic and fearful person. It doesn’t matter where I am, a fairly large chunk of my consciousness is given over to imagining what’s the worst thing that could happen.’
A novelist who moved into scriptwriting via the BBC spy drama Spooks, Cross now lives in New Zealand. ‘After I left Spooks, the BBC offered me the chance to discuss ideas I might have for a new show,’ he tells me on the phone. ‘I didn’t so much pitch Luther as babble about a number of barely connected ideas. The BBC asked me to send in a proposal, from which they commissioned a script.
‘Crime stories often fall into one of two broad genres,’ he continues. ‘The classic mystery tradition of Sherlock Holmes or Miss Marple, wherein ingenious but emotionally disengaged eccentrics treat the solution to murder as an intellectual puzzle. And there’s the psychological thriller, where plot takes second place to the crooked timber of human psychology – the world of Hitchcock or Highsmith. Luther started as an attempt to connect these traditions. He has some of that Sherlock Holmes about him, some of that detached, analytical genius. But he’s also got the kind of emotional and moral ambiguity more commonly found in the psychological thriller.’
The shape of the show was informed by Cross’s love of the classic detective series Columbo, with its inverted structure where viewers knew who the killer was from the start, and the pleasure came from seeing how the detective would catch them. ‘We knew Columbo always got his killer.
What we didn’t know, and what we had to work out, was how he was going to do it,’ says Cross. ‘That’s what made the show so incomparably satisfying. That format hadn’t really been revisited since Columbo, so I thought it might be exciting to portray it as a kind of psychological duel between this driven, half-mad copper and the depraved criminals he hunts.’
And so Luther was conceived, but not really born until Elba took the role. He had moved to the US and risen to fame as Stringer Bell, The Wire’s Baltimore drug lieutenant with aspirations to a bigger, more legitimate empire. Afterwards, Elba says, the roles he was offered were generally more of the same: gangsters and drug lords. Luther stood out because it was beautifully written, his character was a policeman, and he understood what it meant to take a lead in a flagship BBC drama.
Most of all, it was a chance to return to the UK, and work in his native east London. ‘It was tough because, compared to America, it was uncomfortable. Suddenly I’m in a tiny caravan in Whitechapel freezing my bollocks off at six in the morning. But it was also great to be back.’
Elba’s parents came to London from Sierra Leone in the 1970s, and Idrissa – their only child, who shortened his name to Idris at school – was raised in Canning Town. He was always a performer, working as a DJ alongside his uncle from the age of 14, excelling at drama at school and afterwards touring in a National Youth Music Theatre production of Guys and Dolls. Small roles in a string of British TV shows followed, but towards the end of the ’90s he moved to New York, feeling there were more opportunities for black actors there. But success was a long time coming.
He worked as a doorman and a DJ to make ends meet, and the stress eventually ended his marriage. Elba had been sleeping on friends’ sofas and in his van when he landed the pilot for The Wire in 2001. London plays a key role in Luther (filming is constantly interrupted by sirens, helicopters, shouts, music and the noise of a big city). Sam Miller – who has directed 10 of the 16 episodes – says it’s a very specific view of the capital, and of east London particularly: gritty, grimy and tobacco-stained.
‘It’s about the way that places like Bethnal Green and Whitechapel butt up against the City, and the contrast between those in-some-parts scuzzy places, and these glittering towers of money. Melancholy is a really hard thing to get hold of, but when you get it, it’s disconcerting, it gets under your skin, especially when it’s mixed with horror and suspense.’
For Elba, it was a familiar landscape. Last season, he says, they filmed a scene in a tower block overlooking the Olympic site. ‘I’d ridden my bike around it a million times as a kid, probably been to a house party in it a couple of times, and there I was shooting Luther in it.
'That was a really good feeling.’ For well over a decade now, he’s lived a nomadic life. His ex-wife and daughter still live in the US, and he’s been based wherever he happens to be working. ‘I’m coming to the end of that journey,’ he says. ‘I’m going to set some roots.’
He now has a production company with an office in London, which gives him his base. They have some TV shows in development, and he’s hoping to direct his first film next year. His record label – 7wallace, named after the house he rented when he made the first series of Luther – is also based in the capital, and in December he’ll release an album based on his character in Luther, called Murder Loves John. On it, he collaborates with artists such as Tom Meighan from Kasabian alongside newcomers, including a busker he heard performing in Soho.
He has also just launched a clothing range in partnership with Superdry, and is continuing to work as a DJ. Two nights before we met to talk in London this November, he had opened for Madonna’s live show in Berlin, playing a DJ set to a crowd of 17,000. ‘Getting them going, that’s like energy, energy, energy,’ he enthuses.
‘It’s great! I love acting, but my face is going to fall off one day, so I’d like to have other things. It’s easier for men, as you get older, but the truth is I can’t act for ever.’ There will, eventually, be a US version of Luther, with Cross writing and Elba co-producing. It’s been delayed due to problems in casting: Elba’s boots are hard ones to fill, and both he and Cross have argued that it’s not something that should even be attempted.
‘My philosophy is let’s not fill boots,’ says Elba firmly. ‘The writing’s still good and this is the brawny, big guy Luther. Show me something else, perhaps.’ As for the British version, they would like to eventually make a Luther film; all of the key players are keen for it to continue in some form.
‘I can’t say now that we definitely will because so much of it depends, not on Idris’s willingness, because he loves the show, but on his availability,’ says Cross. ‘But if we can put the band back together again, I would do it without a nanosecond’s hesitation.’
Luther is on BBC One at 9pm on December 15 and 22