THEOn one night in 2008, Neil Cross asked perhaps the most important question he has ever asked. The TV writer and novelist, on the phone with a BBC producer, was praising the treatment he had created for a new series in London about an erratic trench-coat-wearing detective. But there was a problem: the protagonist’s name had to be changed – and an alternative was urgently needed.
“At that point, it was just an ongoing show,” Cross recalls. “I shouted to my wife in the kitchen: ‘Which is the better name: Luther or Solomon?’ and said, “Luther!” So I said on the phone: “His name is Luther.”
Fifteen years and five series later, the first of which aired in 2010, it’s impossible to imagine Idris Elba walking around London, announcing his arrival at crime scenes with a flash of his badge and a gruff: “Solomon”. Elba returns as John Luther for the first time since 2019 for a new film Luther: The Fallen Sun, which is available to stream on Netflix. It’s a relentless crime thriller that lives up to, if not Luther’s best, then certainly the next step up. It also provides Elba, whose recent credits include; Cats and Sonic the Hedgehog 2, in his best role in years. He really is never better than the morally compromised detective. Luther it just wouldn’t be as good without him.
Cross, 57, agrees with that sentiment, a flash of panic on his face when I make that claim. We are sitting in a London hotel 10 days before the premiere of the film. Cross admits that Luthor “absolutely wouldn’t work” if Elva wasn’t there “to keep the whole ship going.” He often wonders what would have happened if fate had kept the actor from the role. “I think about ‘what if’ all the time. I am fully aware that, not only is there no show without Idris, but that Idris is the gravitating presence around which the whole thing revolves. His presence, his power, his charm and his intelligence.”
Many can – and indeed I have – said these traits would make the actor a perfect fit for a certain British spy. Ever since Daniel Craig announced that he would no longer be playing James Bond, Elba’s name has been at the top of the successor wish list. However, Luther: The Fallen Sun seems to reject the idea that Elba has to say yes to an offer: one scene sees the character asking a bartender to pick him a drink. Their choice? A martini. “No,” Luther replies. Instead, he opts for some sparkling water.
Cross confirms that this was “a nod to Bond” and is equally playful when asked if he thinks Elba would make a good 007. “It’s not a hot idea to express the idea that Idris is one of the most charismatic actors currently on the face of the planet. And I don’t think there’s any role he couldn’t play, so I think he’d make a great Bond… but I prefer Luther.” When I say that his world Luther feels like the antithesis of Bond – a tougher second cousin – and very much an argument for why Elba shouldn’t play the role, Cross chuckles. “I agree,” he adds.
Elba, however, is only one component of what he does Luther so watchable. Without rivals to keep him in business, the show and its movie would be less compelling. In The Fallen Sun, Andy Serkis steps up to the plate as David Robbie, a tech billionaire who manipulates surveillance technology to his deadly will. Cross says there is a method to his madness as he dreams of deranged enemies for Luther to take down. “To make an evil Luther scary, I have to express in some way what scares me,” the author explains. He says Robey was the result of a fascination with how, unlike in the past, “our most private or embarrassing moments are now expressed online,” which he calls “the illusion of a private forum.” Cross adds chillingly: “The difference now is somebody really is watching and that someone might be David Robbie.”
The result is someone sitting next to the f***ed-up rule Luther bad guys with success. If Serkis’ presence is initially jarring because he’s so recognisable, any concern is dispelled thanks to the character’s bouncy blonde locks (not a wig) and a big TV presenter smile etched on his face. both are irritating. If his appearance evokes a Duran Duran cast despite the soulless bloodthirsty killer, then that’s the point – Cross wants to drive home the point that anyone you walk past may be harboring a dark secret. In that way, Serkis is excellent casting, and the idea to use him, as it turns out, was Elba’s alone.
“The biggest problem with villains is how do you find someone whose presence is a credible threat to Idris Elba?” Cross says, concluding: “It’s not an easy thing to do, so I thought we had a very big uphill battle ahead of us. But in a meeting with Jamie [Payne, director] and Idris, I said, “Do we have a cast list?” and Idris said, “Oh, we’ve got to get Andy Serkis.” And that was it.”
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this is one Luther project, there is a lot of violence in the film. However, the opening kill that kicks off this particular chapter is primarily a man, not a woman – a change in formula for the show. I wonder if this is due to the alarming prevalence of violence against women that has dominated the headlines in recent years. From The fall to Line of dutyand even Happy Valley, crime dramas often rely on the depiction of extreme violence against women to heighten their thrills, a concept that is rightly increasingly frowned upon by viewers. However, Cross says that “there was very, very little conscious reaction to current events” when he was writing the film.
“It’s been said in the past that people are uncomfortable with the victimization of women Luther – not without reason,” he says. “The strange thing, though, is that if one did the math, there are many, many more male victims in Luther than there are women. But for reasons I’m afraid to interrogate too deeply, female victims resonate and frighten more deeply. Well, there was a challenging part of me in the first draft, which was, “Oh, the victim is going to be a woman because that’s scarier.” And that was the one moment when Netflix said, “Do you want to think about this a little bit?” And I said, “Well, it will be less scary.” I was worried that it might be. But actually, they were right.”
Cross is ready to do more Luther with Netflix. The writer was aware of the history of failure when adapting TV shows into film, but is happy with the result and would consider making a new installment every three years “without a moment’s hesitation”. He also wants to realize his hopes of bringing back Warren Brown’s dead detective Justin Ripley for a dream sequence. Fortunately, whatever direction Cross Luther in, it seems the public will follow. He’s just grateful that his wife favored the name she made 14 years ago.
“The shape of a name determines what a character is like. If Luther had been called Solomon, Loomis, or Davis, Idris might have said and done the same things, but he would have felt wrong.” He hit another one of them who panicked. “We almost had Indiana Smith! That would have ruined the whole thing.”
‘Luther: The Fallen Sun’ is now on Netflix