Luther and the Making of Idris Elba's Career

(Photo: Robert Viglasky, © BBC)

The BBC crime thriller series Luther comes back to WETA-UK starting this month. We look back at the landmark series that made the career of Idris Elba. For both fans of the actor, and fans of BBC mysteries and thrillers, this is a must-watch series.

Alice Morgan: Well that's just faulty logic postulated on imperfect data collection. What if you only catch people who make mistakes? That would skew the figures, wouldn't it?

Luther debuted back in May 2010 on BBC One, a six part crime thriller from writer Neil Cross. Starring Idris Elba as the titular detective, who up until then was only know for the early seasons of HBO's The Wire, the series pitted him against the psychotic killer Alice Morgan, played by the indominable Ruth Wilson. Except...Alice isn't actually the bad guy. In fact, she might just be on Luther's side....at least in her own mind.

The set up for Luther as a series is actually pretty basic. DCI John Luther is your standard Sherlock/Columbo type, near genius in what he does, and--to his superior anyway--worth the fact that he's a total loose cannon/pain in the arse. After Luther sees through Alice in the series' opening mystery, she becomes obsessed with him. Said obsession is ill timed. (These things always are.) Luther is already on to a new case with another crazed serial killer taking out policemen, plus his home life is in a state of unraveling. His estranged wife Zoe (Indira Varma, of Game of Thrones and Rome) has already moved on to someone else despite Luther's pleas to give him another chance. Her boyfriend, played by Paul McGann (Doctor Who's Eighth Doctor) seems mild mannered enough, and yet somehow by the end of the first hour, Luther's already had a violent altercation with him.

Add to that the looming threat that Luther's last case ended with the suspect in a coma--and everyone assumes when said suspects wakes up, he'll finger the detective as having pushed him from the roof of the building, and you can get a sense of how busy this series is, especially since the first season is only six short episodes. A lesser series would easily collapse under all the weight of so many plot entaglements, with an excess of serial killers running around, Luther popping off not only at the bad guys, but at the good ones too, not to mention an entire home life plot that's designed to rachet up our hero's stress level.

Alice Morgan: Whatever else may have happened is in the past. 
DCI John Luther: The past isn't dead. It's not even past. 

But much like Doctor Who during the lesser episodes, Luther is held up principally by the stellar cast. Idris Elba first gained notice for The Wire. But in the early aughts, if one didn't have HBO, seeing shows like that in real time was almost impossible, and the DVDs were sold at cost prohibitive prices. (To this day, there are still loads of peope who've never seen the series). Luther, on the other hand, aired not only on BBC One, but was quickly picked up by BBC America and aired stateside within the next year, making Elba's performance far more accessable to a wider audience, and quickly turning Elba into a household name. 

Ruth Wilson also helps enormously. While Elba has decent chemistry both with his boss DSU Rose Teller (Saskia Reeves) and Indira Varma, Elba and Wilson are like watching a house burn down for entertainment. And it's the kind of relationship where you know you don't ever really want the to fall into bed together either. It's a meeting of two genius minds, one determined to use his for good, while the other is only concerned with using hers for personal gain--and for the gain of those she's decided to care about, which in this case includes Luther. Later seasons attempt to have Luther function without Alice, but it's telling that by the end of Season 3 she's already back in the picture. Watching an angel going about his business is not nearly so fun when the devil's not hanging out on his shoulder.

Luther Season 1 begins airing on WETA-UK starting Thursday June 1st, and will continue every Thursday at 10pm thereafter.