Am I a Luther convert? Yes. The plot might not stand up, but it's a cut above most cop series

The show's garnered praise for Idris Elba's performance, but really its most important character is London.


Not even a TV critic can watch everything, so this, the third series of Luther (Tuesdays, 9pm), is my first. Luckily, it’s pretty easy to catch up. Luther is nothing if not hyped, which is why I’ve known ever since it started in 2010 that DCI John Luther (Idris Elba) is a maverick cop (though in this instance the cliché “maverick” means “borderline nutter” as opposed to someone who isn’t crazy about paperwork).

I was also aware he was involved in some funny business with a brilliant killer played by Ruth Wilson – though she seems to have disappeared this time round. In series three, her character appears only on a noticeboard, where her photograph has been stuck alongside all of Luther’s other “victims” by the coppernow investigating his dubious methods.

Yes, Luther is under investigation and it’s his loyal sidekick DS Justin Ripley (Warren Brown) who’s the mole. I doubt this state of affairs will last – Luther is almost certain to win Ripley round in the end – but it’s fun for now, a pleasing seam of reality making its way into what must be one of the most preposterous shows ever made. Not that I mind. However loopy, Luther is still quite frightening, the kind of programme that makes you worry about walking home from the bus stop (as usual, most of the violence – and there is plenty of it – is directed at young women).

It makes you jump and sometimes (perhaps this is just me) it makes you run out of the room with your hands over your eyes. In the first episode, a killer, having decided that he would not allow the police the satisfaction of taking his fingerprints, went into his kitchen and shoved his hand in his blender – a refreshingly edgy take on the 21st-century craze for juicing.

It’s quite clear that Neil Cross, Luther’s writer, is deeply in love with his creation. His passion is there in the small stuff: a serial killer who dresses his victims up like Siouxsie Sioux (“late-Eighties post-punk”, as Luther explains it to Ripley); a serial killer who fishes in the Thames for freshwater crayfish and then eats them for his tea with a bag of chipshop chips. Why does Luther drive an old Volvo estate? I don’t know but I like that he does. Delightfully at odds with his tendency to dangle suspects by their ankles over the edge of tower-block balconies, its low-slunk bulk is one reason among many why the viewer is never quite sure how to take him. Luther not a loveable rogue; he’s a monster with a badge. And yet he is sometimes on the side of the angels, morally speaking, and he cruises around London in the same motor in which I used to travel to Brownies. I wonder if there are Wet Ones and a tin of sugar-dusted “travel sweets” in the glove compartment.

Elba’s performance as Luther has been much praised (he won a Golden Globe for it in 2012) but he doesn’t have an awful lot to do in the way of nuance. I prefer Dermot Crowley’s turn as his boss, DSU Martin Schenk; one look at his hair (lank as day-old underwear) and skin (dishcloth grey) and you absolutely believe in him. If you could hand him his police pension there and then, you would, just as an act of pity.

But Luther’s most important character is London. The series is beautifully shot, blues always bleeding into greys and every pano - rama framed or gloriously bisected by some bridge or tower. You watch it and think: this is what album covers used to be like, kids. (Though I also think, sometimes: my God, I’m seeing Blackwall in a whole new light. The location scout deserves a medal.)

So, am I convert? Yes, I think I am. It doesn’t stand up, any of it, plot-wise but it’s still a cut above some cop series. And it stays with you. I keep thinking about a certain stiletto heel, as seen from the perspective of a man who is hiding beneath its owner’s bed . . . Tonight, I will be checking out my boudoir very carefully, just in case.

Monster with a badge: Idris Elba in Luther. Photograph: BBC Pictures.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 08 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The world takes sides

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Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis