Why you should be watching Luther

As series three of Neil Cross' Luther, starring Idris Elba, is poised to arrive on BBC One, Tom tells us why it well deserves our time...

This feature contains plot overviews but no real spoilers for Luther series one and two.

You might have seen the adverts on telly – the BBC’s Luther is back. The cult series returns to our screens in July, but the first two series may well have passed many people by. Writer Neil Cross will have recently appeared on the geek radar of some people for the first time, having penned two episodes of the seventh series of Doctor WhoThe Rings of Akhaten and Hide. He’s been around a little while though.

He was lead scriptwriter for the BBC spy drama Spooks for two seasons, and in 2010 he was given the chance to create his own crime series, Luther. A psychological spin on the crime procedural, Luther is a dark show dealing with perverse crimes and broken minds.

Its ace in the hole is Idris Elba as the eponymous Detective Chief Inspector John Luther, a mercurial policemen described in the opening episode as ‘nitro-glycerine’. Unstable, temperamental, and extremely talented, Luther is a fascinating main character. It is a role that Elba really sinks his teeth in to. Perhaps against the odds, the series returns for a third series this year. If you have yet to check it out, it is well worth catching up on DVD.

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The series opens in bombastic fashion. The debut episode opens with a panicked man running through an abandoned factory, being stalked by a silhouetted man. Running parallel to this, police are at a suburban home, desperately hunting for a missing girl in a chase against time.

The scene unfolds to reveal Luther confront paedophile Henry Madsen high in the jaws of the factory. An intense, powerful opening, Luther extracts his own form of justice on Madsen. The show has set its tone wonderfully, all before the opening credits have even had chance to roll.

This opening episode is a true joy. Following a stint in a psychological unit after the Madsen incident, Luther returns to work. Thrust back in the deep end, Luther and his new protégé Detective Sergeant Justin Ripley (Warren Brown) investigate the murder of a middle-class couple with no obvious motive. The only suspect? The couple’s daughter, Alice – played with great relish by Ruth Wilson.

Deranged, obsessive and oddly alluring, Alice Morgan is a wonderful creation. The first episode unravels as a game of wits between Luther and Alice, the detective desperate to pin the crime on her. A child prodigy, she subtly flaunts her guilt to Luther, but he has no way to conclusively prove it. Their relationship builds from these cat-and-mouse exchanges to become the spine of the first series, with the two brilliant minds compelled by one another. Luther obsesses over Alice’s guilt – she obsesses over his brilliance.

The first four episodes play out with Luther and Ripley tackling a variety of sadistic crimes. From a Satanist with a penchant for kidnapping, to a former soldier methodically killing policemen, work is pretty busy for John Luther and co. With his estranged wife Zoe (Indira Varma) trying to move on with a new lover, and Alice dipping in and out of his life, Luther has a lot on his plate.

The show really kicks into gear in its fifth episode, the penultimate episode in its initial run. Luther’s trusted colleague and loyal friend, DCI Ian Reed, knowingly allows a diamond robbery to go ahead. When the deal goes south and leads to kidnap and murder, the situation quickly gets out of his control.

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The final two episodes of the first series are a masterclass in an escalation of tension. The score – restrained piano and strings – adds great atmosphere to the action. The finale demonstrates the series’ great use of music at the conclusion of each episode. The powerful Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood by Nina Simone reflects the ending perfectly both lyrically and emotionally. Time and again, the production team choose the perfect song for each episode ending. Other tracks like Gun by Emiliana Torrini and Breathe Me by Sia are used to great effect. Massive Attack’s Paradise Circus is also a great choice for the theme music.

The performances across the board are superb as Zoe, her lover Mark (Paul McGann), Alice and Luther all get dragged into Ian’s destructive machinations. Ian’s collapse into a nigh-on psychotic state is wonderfully realised by Steven Mackintosh. Elba, McGann and Wilson all tackle their parts in the chaos with great gusto, with Luther’s instability mirroring that of Ian Reed’s. Warren Brown is also fantastic throughout – not many actors can make the transition from Hollyoaks to a drama of this calibre with such ease. Without giving anything away, the final episode reaches a tense climax, and finishes with one of the most brutal cliffhangers in recent memory.

With that in mind, it is something of a shame that the second series opens so quietly. I was hoping for a smash-mouth opener following directly on from the series one finale. Instead, we meet our cast a few months after the previous series’ events. It is sedate, and measured, but not quite what I was hoping for.

Luther is returning to work, Alice is… well that would be telling, Ripley is stuck working as uniform police, while former police complaints officer Martin Schenk (Dermot Crowley), so often a thorn in Luther’s side in the first series, is assembling a new unit – the Serious and Serial unit.

The first episode throws him back into the firing line, taking on a masked murderer with a an eye for the theatrical, all the while trying to rescue a teenage sex worker, Jenny, from a perverse internet sex ring. Played by Aimee-Ffion Edwards, Jenny is sparky, and feisty, with an unusual turn of phrase.

Despite my personal dislike for the decision to move the plot several months after the events of the first series, the episode is quick to find its footing, and both the chase to find the masked killer and Jenny’s story prove to be absorbing stuff. The second series ends up becoming as much Jenny’s story as Luther’s. Edwards’ performance is accomplished for such a young actress, and she carries the weight of the story well.

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The scope of a four-episode series comprised of two ‘two-parters’ works well, giving the macabre crimes time to be fleshed out and fully reflected upon. After the story of the masked killer winds up, Luther and the team are left to deal with a killer obsessed with role-playing games bringing savagery to the streets of London. The case pushes Luther to the brink, and provides another intense series finale.

While a thrilling and entertaining experience, the second series just falls short of the magic of the maiden run of episodes. Having said that, if you are looking for a thrilling, often unsettling crime drama, Luther is still about as good as it gets. The third series looks to follow the template laid out by the second, with four episodes divided as ‘two-parters’. The trailer promises a fiery and action-packed set of episodes, and may be on course to match the brilliance of the first two series. If you have yet to watch, try and catch up before the third series premieres. It will be very much worth the effort.

Luther series three returns to the BBC in the first week of July. Come back later this week for our spoiler-free review of the first episode and watch the trailer below:

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