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31 August 2017updated 03 Aug 2021 6:59am

JK Rowling’s preposterous The Cuckoo’s Calling at least offers a retro antidote to Victoria

The BBC detective programme's seams are showing, but at least it's not as silly as the return of ITV's royal biopic.

By Rachel Cooke

I haven’t read any of the crime novels that JK Rowling has published as Robert Galbraith. I bought the first one, The Cuckoo’s Calling, when friends praised it, but soon afterwards its author’s real identity was revealed, at which point I put it in the Oxfam box (thus proving that she was absolutely right to try to get this one out minus any Harry Potter preconceptions). Still, I’ve no regrets. Now I’ve seen the BBC’s three-part adaptation of The Cuckoo’s Calling (27 August, 9.05pm) – the Corporation also approached Robert Galbraith before anyone knew who “he” was – I know I did the right thing. Preposterous isn’t the word.

Rowling’s hero Cormoran Strike (Tom Burke) is supposed, I think, to be gritty and real: a gumshoe for the digital generation. If this is so, why is everything about him save for his groovy parentage – his estranged father is a rock star called Jonny Rokeby – so weirdly old-fashioned? He works out of a set of Soho rooms where his name is written in gold letters on a glass door. He breakfasts on curry, and dines on beer. He affects not to have heard of a Very Famous Rapper. He even has, in the form of a temp called Robin (Holliday Grainger), a beautiful Girl Friday who, though she persists in wearing heels and a nice coat to his filthy office, isn’t averse to helping him out with a little identity theft, should the need arise.

Combine these things with his biography – an Oxford drop out, he served with the Royal Military Police in Afghanistan where, in the course of a heroic act, he lost part of one leg – and Strike starts to seem more of a fantasy figure than anything else: as irresistible to women as he is to unsuspecting coppers (it isn’t long before a detective inspector called Eric, who looks all of 12 years old, is sharing CCTV images with him). You could, I suppose, see all this as homage: the office is straight out of Chandler, the references to Afghanistan recall Dr Watson, and Robin is an update of, among other female sidekicks, Agatha Christie’s Tuppence. Somehow, though, this isn’t how it works. Burke, a brilliant and highly lovable kind of actor, can make even the most clichéd dialogue come alive. But then you get to Martin Shaw doing his best “posh” voice – he plays a menacing lawyer – and the seams really start to show. (The script, incidentally, is by Ben Richards, the writer of Outcasts, but since JK Rowling is an executive producer, it seems fair to assume that she happily signed it off.)

Oh, well. As late summer fare goes – maybe that should read “fayre” in the circumstances – The Cuckoo’s Calling is perfectly enjoyable. The plot, which involves the murder of a Top Model, is intriguing, if not exactly fiendish, and there’s something about the drama’s pace (slowish) that I rather relish. For all its references to hipster Dalston, it has the feel of a slightly creaky late-Seventies cop show. In the end, I am definitely more inclined to buy a contemporary drama that is a touch retro than a historical drama that seems neither to notice nor care how 21st century it is.

I speak, of course, of Victoria (27 August, 9.05pm), back on ITV for a second series. My God, it’s silly. Victoria, having given birth to her first child, still comes off like Betty Friedan in a tiara – though it’s obviously awkward for such an unabashedly sentimental series that the real Queen, feminist or otherwise, heartily disliked babies. (Daisy Goodwin, its writer, makes up for this with extra spooniness in the matter of Albert: who, after all, could blame a girl for neglecting the nursery when she has such an epic plank – sorry, I mean hunk – at home?)

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Meanwhile, life at court has taken on a somewhat Brexit-y air, what with Vicky having to remind Albert that Britain is a country with “a past as well as a future” (even as Afghanistan is lost, she cleaves to Trafalgar). “Give it a good chew,” says the Duchess of Buccleuch (Diana Rigg) to a quivering aristo who’s found a cockscomb floating in her soup. As she also pointed out: “Cockaleekie soup is a good Scottish dish.” Not for the new mistress of the robes the French fancies that will one day make Her Maj so very, very fat.

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This article appears in the 30 Aug 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The decline of the American empire