Luther creator Neil Cross on Idris Elba’s return to screens

Luther: The Fallen Sun trailer stars Idris Elba and Andy Serkis

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Luther creator Neil Cross’s family are quite used to him laughing out loud while doing something completely innocuous then dashing from the room to fetch a notebook. They know it’s a sign he’s dreamt up a new and particularly evil idea for his most famous character.

Today he recalls the time he laughed out loud a few years ago – just after Luther star Idris Elba filmed the final scene of series five and producers were pondering whether to make a film of the juggernaut franchise. Walking Idris back to his trailer, Neil suddenly struck upon a new plotline for that film: Luther should escape from a prison cell and solve a crime.

Television’s most maverick detective – the one who refuses to die despite often being the target of malicious serial killers – is back for his biggest and boldest adventure yet with the Netflix film Luther: The Fallen Sun. And just as Neil decided on that very day, it starts with the former police officer in his most difficult situation yet: behind bars as his life of shady legality finally catches up with him.

When a madman he failed to catch goads him with more murders, he’s determined to break out and solve the crime. But this time he is not only the hunter but also the hunted, with Detective Odette Raine (Cynthia Erivo) enlisting his old boss Martin Schenk (Dermot Crowley) to join the chase. This is Luther meets Bond meets Batman.

But while 007 and the superhero have gadgets and cars, Luther has only his wits, his Volvo and his tweed coat (20 of them were made with authentic Harris Tweed for the film).

Lutherland – that heightened Gotham City-esque London where Luther tracks down murderers – has never looked more stunning though and, for the first time, we see the hunt move to another country as the detective meets his most dangerous foe yet in a barren yet beautiful Icelandic lair.

Elba, who has been repeatedly linked to the role of James Bond with the stepping down of Daniel Craig, has never looked more appealing as his own man. And, in some ways, this film, which he helped create with Neil, is his response to the franchise.

And it’s much, much darker.

“While I prefer Luther to Bond, there are similarities,” says Neil. “They are both underwritten by a particular sense of Englishness – Bond and Luther are the most English things in the world, in ways I can’t fully articulate, but there are our [English] jokes, our references, our gags.

“I did have a very deliberate image of Luther on the white cliffs of Dover for the film because it feels important. If I could have put in a Spitfire flying over him, I would have done.

“But I think what separates these characters is that Bond is fundamentally an agent of the state.

“Luther is more of a knight errant – he is driven by a strong sense of right and wrong and that is what gives him this unstoppable ability.” Idris has inhabited John Luther on television since 2010 and the new streaming film is a long-hoped-for ambition.

He says he is constantly astounded at the evil Neil creates for his character to deal with. “All this dark stuff comes from that man’s head,” laughs the actor. “What an imagination! He really understands how to push someone’s fear boundaries without being grotesque.”

But for Neil, the killers he creates are easy to understand; they are the people we are all afraid of. They are the bogeyman hiding under our bed, alongside us on the empty bus or – in this film – listening and watching us through the technology in our homes.

For someone who spends so much time thinking up evil deeds, Neil is very friendly and funny. He’s a fan of cosy crime – he loves Endeavour and Colombo in particular – but when he writes he chooses subjects he is scared of.

“Real serial killers are sad, inadequate little men – I don’t think they are hugely interesting,” says Neil. “What I am interested in is the psychology of the people who hunt them. At its heart, Luther is a kind of ‘monster of the week’ show like Doctor Who and the X-Files. Most of the bad guys are essentially folkloric – like the guy in the Mr Punch mask skipping around the streets of London.

“What I write about is the stuff I’m scared someone will do to me or someone I love. I live in a perpetual cloud of anxiety and fear. Famously, we had the guy under the bed and that comes from me being scared of there being a man under the bed.”

The latest baddie, David Robey, played by Andy Serkis, is a psychopathic millionaire who gets his kicks by spying on ordinary people and – when he catches them doing something bad – blackmailing them.

“I am interested in the ethical idea of how you behave when nobody is watching,” says Neil.

“Throughout our history, our behaviour has been modified by the idea that someone is watching – be it God or some sort of ego – and the question of what inhibits us from enacting our most shameful drives.

“But what is extraordinary at the moment is that people are sharing their most shameful selves willingly on the internet under the mistaken assumption that nobody is watching.”

Of course, in this age of surveillance cameras, facial recognition technology and AI [artificial intelligence] helpmates like Alexa or Siri in our homes, someone is always watching. “It might be the state or it might be someone like David Robey,” Neil adds.

“And they are harvesting shame, which when it is weaponised against people, is the most terrifying thing I can think of.

“You see it in the way people are losing their jobs because of something stupid they said on Twitter ten years ago. So, what we are representing is that every day anxiety writ large.”

Robey does such monstrous things that Serkis, whose casting was suggested by Elba, admits when he first read the script he was so disturbed that he had to take a shower.

“I had a real visceral reaction to it. I thought ‘I don’t know if I want to go into this world because it’s so, so, dark,” admits the actor who found fame as Gollum in The Lord of the Rings trilogy and has previously played serial killer Ian Brady.

“But the job of the actor, when you get parts like
this, is to start the debate which the character will bring about.

“Primarily, it’s about our connection to the internet, surveillance, deep fake, AI, all the new technologies which we have handed our souls over to. Robey is someone who understands it, has grasped it and found a way through his own moral dimensions.

“He sees Luther as a face of hypocrisy; a policeman who is supposed to be a good person. So, he feels like he is attacking hypocrisy while also being a voice for the many isolated individuals who can’t connect with other humans apart from over the internet.

“Most importantly, this is a piece of entertainment. But while everything is slightly heightened in Lutherland, its story feels compelling and real and psychologically complex.

“It does make you think about the internet and how, in the wrong hands, it can have devastating effects even if we also know it’s a really incredibly powerful democratic tool to allow people to have a voice and share their stories.”

Serkis went to Iceland for part of the filming but says some of his favourite scenes were down, deep beneath the streets of London in abandoned Tube stations.

“We were in this station near Charing Cross which was very spooky to shoot in,” he says.

“It hasn’t been used for 50 years and they had all the old posters up.

“There was one which we came across, asking people to vote for people to join the European Union from 1973. It was incredible.”

The actor sports a blond bouffant style for the role – all his own – and he says one of his challenges was making Robey seem scary but also ordinary.

He deliberately wears clothes which don’t quite match each other. “He doesn’t have a sense of self,” says Serkis. “He’ll choose bits of other people that he’s watched, observed, manipulated and then he puts himself together in that way.”

Serkis was a Luther fan before taking on the part and believes the errant policeman is just the hero we need for these troubled times. “He takes the law into his own hands which, obviously, isn’t always good, and he’s flawed,” says Serkis.

“But he knows he is flawed. And he is a truth speaker – we don’t have enough of those at the moment.

“And he’s not afraid to stand up for what he considers to be wrong.”

  • Luther: The Fallen Sun premieres globally on Netflix on Friday

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