It's a cold, dark, dank winter's evening in London. Perfect Luther weather, in fact, given the hugely successful detective drama seems to take place exclusively in the bleakest hours of the day, with Idris Elba storming around London in detective chief inspector John Luther's signature overcoat.
We meet Elba inside a Baroque, old magistrates court and police station (now a well-appointed hotel), which once saw infamous London mobsters the Kray twins stand trial. He's wearing a woolly hat, and doesn't take it off once as he talks about the new series of Luther. He's definitely in a John Luther kind of mood.
“We shoot at night, we spend a lot of time in the cold, we kill a lot of people, we watch that over and go, ‘What are we doing?’, we go home and dream about it. And then we come back the next day and do it all over again,” he says.
Although not that often, which is why there's so much excitement that the Golden Globe-winning Elba is donning that overcoat once again for Luther season five. Along with The Wire, which of course Elba also starred in, it has become one of the big box set shows of our times, a bold, complex crime drama to get lost and luxuriate in. But where The Wire was laced with social realism in its depiction of the mean streets of Baltimore, Luther is, on purpose, pure escapism. Judging by the first episode of season five – which has its moments of black comedy, too – the comparisons with superhero stories are probably more apt.
The new 'Batman'
"We've always been compared to Batman, and I do get that," Elba says. "There's a graphic novel nature to the styling of the show; Luther wears one coat, a red tie, a grey shirt, always – like a superhero dons his uniform. London is like Gotham: it looks moody, dark, slightly comic book. That's our backdrop. And Luther is a mysterious man. He's a murder detective of course, but he has inner demons that audiences love to try and understand."
This time, he’s under severe pressure and about to do battle with the return of his arch nemesis/quasi-companion, Alice Morgan (Ruth Wilson), presumed dead at the beginning of season four. Meanwhile, a pretty straightforward murder case turns into something a lot stranger with the involvement of a psychiatrist (Hermione Norris), who is not quite all she seems. “She spits at me,” Elba says with a laugh. And with the addition of new sidekick detective sergeant Catherine Halliday (Wunmi Mosaku), there are plenty of compelling new storylines over this season’s four episodes.
And yet for all the loyalty the show inspires in its audiences – and actors – Luther as a character hasn’t actually developed hugely over the past decade. Elba admits Luther is “pretty much the same guy” he was in 2010 – perhaps a bit more cautious, but still very much a force of nature. The show, he says, is actually quite prescriptive – a visceral police procedural – but it’s Neil Cross’s meticulous writing, which provides its energy, within complex, layered storylines.
'It's got a more cinematic feel to it this year'
“What we try to do,” says Elba, now an executive producer (although he protests that Luther’s voice is all the work of Cross), “is up the scale of the show each time. It’s got a more cinematic feel to it this year and I’ve learnt to find ways to keep the performance fresh and real. I remember sitting down with a murder detective from South London once and talking about the toll the job takes. When you choose to pursue people who do incredible evil you have to be able to think like them, understand their psyche.”
So does he like the sound of DCI Idris Elba? “Oh no,” he says. “As a detective I wouldn’t have enough of a suspicious nature. But I would be a good criminal psychologist because I’d want to understand why someone had done something. Part of my job as an actor is to get to the backstory, but John Luther doesn’t really work like that – he calculates how a criminal does something and when they did it, and then gets on with it.”
Some of the intrigue in Luther is that the "getting on with it" is right on the boundaries of what is legally or morally acceptable. "He's not corrupt … but by any means necessary is his philosophy," agrees Elba. "He's not a murderer, but if he was to do it, he'd be pretty good at it. And that's the reason I keep playing him – it's a gift of a part with so many dynamics to it."
A dynamic career for Elba
It's fair to say Elba has generally enjoyed dynamic parts throughout his career – from the crime overlord Stringer Bell in The Wire to Nelson Mandela in Long Walk To Freedom and Heimdall in Marvel's Thor series. Recently, he turned his hand to sitcom with 1980s period piece In The Long Run, and next year, another comedy he has created, Turn Up Charlie, will air on Netflix. Variety is his mantra these days, as evidenced by his parallel DJing career (Elba had a residency in Ibiza this summer) and recording output – he made a Luther-inspired album called Murdah Loves John.
None of which will make the questions about whether he’s the next James Bond go away.
“It’s a question I get haunted with at this point,” he says. “I have no clue. If it was to happen it would be the will of a nation, how about that?”
The Luther movie
It's more likely that Luther will have his own movie; in fact, Elba admits that the focus now is not to make a sixth season, but to scale the show up into a feature film. Neil Cross is currently writing a script that "echoes classic movies such as Se7en or Along Came A Spider" and Elba promises "more murder and more Volvo."
"It's just getting it right, you know? It's not been done very often where a TV show ends up being a successful film series, and there's a reason for that. The landscape of television has changed now. Good television is just as good as any film, I suppose. So we want to be loyal and bring our TV audience with us to a film, but we want to intrigue a new audience, too. With a movie you have more budget and space to make these stories come alive – and as an actor, it can be more fulfilling. But that said, I loved making this Luther."
Even though it was so long in the making?
“Well, it’s one of these shows that wouldn’t work if it was done year-in year-out,” he argues. “It’s very dark, so for my sanity, it’s best done in small chunks.”
Luther season five is on BBC First (OSN) at 1am, January 2; repeated at 10pm.