How ‘Luther’ Revolutionised British Television

Words: Jack Garofalo

Just over seven years ago, the BBC took a punt on a crime detective series focused on the ingenuity and damaged mind of its sole protagonist. The premise had been done countless times over the years, on both sides of the Atlantic—from Columbo to Sherlock Holmes, Starsky and Hutch to The Sweeney—but this was innovative and ground-breaking all at the same time, and in abundance. DCI John Luther hit the mini screen like a bullet, challenging and redefining masculinity whilst providing some of the most revolutionary scriptwriting seen on television in decades. The portrayal of a deeply troubled character who couldn’t escape being consumed by the dark, torturous and sadistic minds he was assigned to take down was, in all honesty, never seen before—especially with a black man in the starring role.

But what Luther did quite magnificently was, instead of focusing on race and discrimination within London and the police force, it chose to ignore the common stereotypes and the need to hyper-realise one’s ethnicity and culture. In every single series since its inception (four in all, with a fifth soon to begin filming) not one mention of Luther being a black man is ever alluded to, not by the criminals he’s investigating or his work colleagues. This could be construed as unrealistic, in particular within such a highly authoritative role as DCI in the police force, yet what it did was ultimately start a conversation as to why a black person in a starring role has to reveal and focus on their ethnic background, making it the key purpose and message of the narrative. Idris Elba was already a well-respected name in showbiz for his powerful portrayal of Stringer Bell—the brains behind the Baltimore druglord Avon Barksdale in the acclaimed HBO series, The Wire. But despite a few film and TV appearances post-Wire, Luther was his proper breakout role wherein people really began to pay homage to his acting ability.

The combination of Elba’s slick, astute underacting and Neil Cross’ sublime scriptwriting bore a creation that encapsulated London in all its glory as well as firmly portraying its rotten underbelly. On one hand, it highlighted the vast levels of intelligence and opportunity that London radiates so attractively, yet Luther never shied away from portraying the ordure and grime of the capital. From the sick, psychotic individuals that provided the series with some of its most memorable and horrifying scenes, to the beat-down boozers and alleyways used on set, a lot of the locations used such as The Griffin pub in Shoreditch and the sleazy Boundary Passage were pre-gentrified and perfectly characterized the filth of London. Luther’s grungy apartment during Season 2 further emphasises this, where it seems the only valuable item in the flat is a framed picture of his hero, David Bowie.

The contradiction of portrayals constantly gives the narrative an air of mystery and provides a fitting, if not sometimes overtly honest, backdrop of the many places and personalities of The Big Smog. Furthermore, it can be argued that what firmly rubberstamps Luther as a fine piece of intricate art, and not just an action-fuelled, macho cop drama, is the engrossing battle with the protagonist and his own life. It’s incredibly telling from the off that Luther has burdening demons, both personally and mentally, never really coming to terms with the breakup and loss of his ex-wife, Zoe, due in most part to his constant over-dedication to his work. His continual breaking of the law in various capacities as a means to get ahead underlines he’s a different mould of policeman, rebelling against the institutionalised, old-fashioned conventional model which, in reality, dominates the police force on all levels in Britain today.

This could be perceived as a sign of madness but, somehow, it makes John even more morally and ethically endearing, showing his humane side for going against the grain for the greater good. What has always puzzled fans and enthusiasts is the strange but effective relationship with one of the most compelling characters of the series: Alice Morgan, a self-confessed serial killer. Alice repeatedly shows her adoration of John and his mind, challenging and aiding him in equal measure, which John accepts and ignores with inconsistency. It walks the line between what is considered conscientiously appropriate and what is plainly wrong, but it makes for absolutely fascinating viewing and analysis.

It’s this relationship with the viewer, creating an unnerving and uncomfortable atmosphere at such a fast pace with numerous cases and problems unceasingly open at all times, that makes Luther one of the BBC and London’s greatest TV shows. Even now going back to the start and rewatching all four series, the pure innovation and breathtaking originality shines through lavishly, and it doesn’t feel outdated—not one bit. To be honest, that fifth series can’t come soon enough.

UPDATE (January 2019): The fifth series is now available to stream here.

Posted on November 02, 2017