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Interview

‘Idris would make an exceptional Bond – but I prefer Luther’: Neil Cross on bringing his TV detective to film

The screenwriter and novelist talks to Jacob Stolworthy about creating bad guys scary enough to take on Elba, and how Netflix talked him out of making a woman the first victim of his latest killer

Friday 10 March 2023 13:11 GMT
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(Getty Images / BBC)

One evening in 2008, Neil Cross posed perhaps the most important question he’s ever asked. The TV writer and novelist, on the phone to a BBC producer, was being praised for a treatment he’d put together for a new London-set series about a volatile trench coat-wearing detective. But there was a problem: the lead character’s name had to change – and an alternative was needed immediately.

“At this point, it was just a show in development,” Cross recalls. “I shouted to my wife in the kitchen: ‘What’s the best name: Luther or Solomon?’ and she went: ‘Luther!’ So I said into the phone, ‘He’s called Luther.’”

Fifteen years and five series later, the first of which was released in 2010, it’s impossible to imagine Idris Elba striding around London, announcing his arrival at crime scenes with a flash of his badge and a gruff: “Solomon.” Elba is back as John Luther for the first time since 2019 for new film Luther: The Fallen Sun, which is available to stream on Netflix. It’s a relentless crime thriller that stands up with, if not the very best of Luther, then certainly the next rung down. It also provides Elba, whose recent credits include Cats and Sonic the Hedgehog 2, with his best role in years; he really is never better than as the morally compromised detective. Luther would simply not be as good without him.

Cross, 54, agrees with this sentiment, a flash of panic on his face when I make this claim. We’re sitting in a London hotel 10 days before the film’s premiere. Cross admits that Luther would “absolutely not” work if Elba wasn’t there “to keep the whole f***ing ship going”. He often wonders what would have happened if fate had kept the actor from the role. “I think about the ‘what ifs’ all of the time. I’m acutely aware that, not only is there no show without Idris, but that Idris is the gravitational presence around which the whole thing revolves. His presence, power, charm and intelligence.”

Many might – and indeed have – said these attributes would make the actor the perfect fit for a certain British spy. Ever since Daniel Craig announced he would no longer play James Bond, Elba’s name has been atop the successor wish list. However, Luther: The Fallen Sun appears to reject the notion that Elba should say yes to an offer: one scene sees the character asking a barman to pick a drink for him. Their choice? A martini. “No,” Luther replies. He opts for some fizzy water instead.

Cross confirms this was “a puckish nod to the Bond lore”, and is equally as playful when asked if he thinks Elba would be a good 007. “It’s not a hot take to express the notion that Idris is one of the most charismatic actors currently on the face of the planet. And I don’t think there is any role that he couldn’t play, so I think he’d make an exceptional Bond… but I prefer Luther.” When I say that the world of Luther feels like the antithesis of Bond’s – a grittier second cousin – and very much an argument for why Elba shouldn’t play the role, Cross smirks. “I agree,” he adds.

Elba, though, is just one component of what makes Luther so watchable. Without adversaries to keep him in business, the series, and its film, would be less thrilling. In The Fallen Sun, Andy Serkis steps up to the plate as David Robey, a tech billionaire who manipulates surveillance technology to his deadly will. Cross says there’s a method to his madness when dreaming up deranged foes for Luther to take down. “In order to make a Luther bad guy frightening, I have to express in some way what frightens me,” the writer explains. He says Robey was the result of a fascination surrounding how, unlike in the past, “our most private or shameful moments are now expressed on the internet”, which he calls “an illusion of a private forum”. Cross chillingly adds: “The difference now is somebody really is watching, and that somebody might be David Robey.”

I’m acutely aware that there is no ‘Luther’ without Idris

Neil Cross

The result is someone who sits alongside the canon of f***ed-up Luther villains with success. If Serkis’s presence initially irks, because he’s so recognisable, any concern is brushed off thanks to the character’s bouffant blonde locks (not a wig) and wide TV-host smile etched on his face; both are unnerving. If his appearance gives off Duran Duran reject rather than soulless bloodthirsty killer, then that’s the point – Cross wants to hammer home the point that anyone you walk past could be hiding a dark secret. In this way, Serkis is excellent casting, and the idea to use him, it turns out, was Elba’s alone.

“The biggest problem with the bad guys is how do you find somebody whose presence poses a believable threat to Idris Elba?” Cross says, concluding: “It’s not an easy thing to do so I thought we had a really big uphill struggle ahead of us. But in a meeting with Jamie [Payne, director] and Idris, I said: ‘Do we have a list of actors?” and Idris went, ‘Oh, we should get Andy Serkis.’ And that was that.”

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Andy Serkis as David Robey in ‘Luther: The Fallen Sun’ (Netflix)

This being a Luther project, there is a lot of violence in the film. However, the opening murder kickstarting this particular chapter is notably of a man, not a woman – a shift in formula for the show. I wonder if this is due to the upsetting prevalence of violence against women pervading headlines in recent years. From The Fall to Line of Duty, and even Happy Valley, crime projects often rely on the depiction of extreme violence against women to heighten their thrills, a notion that is, rightly, increasingly balked at by viewers. However, Cross says “there was very, very little conscious reaction to current events” when writing the film.

“It’s been mentioned before that people are uncomfortable with the victimisation of women in Luther – not unfairly,” he says. “The odd thing, though, is that, if one were to do the maths, there are many, many more male victims in Luther than there are women. But for reasons I fear to interrogate too deeply, the female victims resonate and scare more deeply. So, there was a defiant part of me in the first draft of this, which was, ‘Oh f*** it – the victim is going to be a woman because that’s more frightening.’ And that’s the one moment where Netflix said, ‘Do you want to think about this a bit?’ And I did say, ‘Well, it’ll be less scary.’ I worried that it might be. But actually, they were right.”

Idris Elba in ‘Luther: The Fallen Sun’ (Netflix)

Cross is up for doing more Luther with Netflix. The writer was “aware of the history of failure” when adapting TV shows into a film, but he’s happy with the result and would consider doing a new instalment every three years “without a moment’s hesitation”. He’s also keen to realise his hopes of bringing back Warren Brown’s deceased detective Justin Ripley for a dream sequence. Fortunately, whatever direction Cross steers Luther in, it appears audiences will follow. He’s just thankful his wife favoured the name she did 14 years ago.

“The shape of a name determines how a character is. If Luther was called Solomon, Loomis or Davis, Idris might have said and done the same things, but it would have felt wrong.” He’s hit with another one of those panicked what ifs. “We very nearly had Indiana Smith! That would have spoilt the whole thing.”

‘Luther: The Fallen Sun’ is on Netflix now

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