'Luther' Postmortem: Creator Neil Cross on That Shocker, Those Scares

Mandi Bierly
·Deputy Editor, Yahoo Entertainment


Warning: This Q&A about the Luther special that premiered Dec. 17 on BBC America contains spoilers.

Would Alice (Ruth Wilson) return? That was the question fans of Luther were asking when Idris Elba decided to put the coat on for a fourth time. Creator/writer Neil Cross spoke to Yahoo TV about Alice’s fate in the 2015 special, the series’ latest clever use of suspense, and why we need to see more of John.

Related: A Look Back: The Story of Luther and Alice

At a New York screening of the special earlier this month, Idris was asked if it made him nervous to do Luther without an appearance by Alice, and he admitted that it did a bit. So first question: Did you always know that you wanted to “kill off” Alice? And I have that in quotes, for now, which we’ll get to later. Or was it an idea that came to you after you realized that you couldn’t get Ruth back schedule-wise, if that was the case?
[Laughs] That was a cunningly worded question. I’m just pacing this lawn killing time while I formulate an answer. Neither of those things, really. At the end of the previous series, we thought that was the end of the show. When Luther threw his coat off the bridge, that, for me, psychologically was the end of Luther. When we decided to do it again — much more quickly than any of us had anticipated because we missed it — we sort of sat down and thought, what do we do? What story do we tell? It was only when we’d agreed to come back and we got all excited about the possibilities of the future that I thought, “Well, what happened last time wasn’t so much the end of Luther, but it was a kind of natural end to the Luther and Alice story. By inclination, training, and experience, I was a novelist before I ever wrote for the screen, and when I had time to think about a special and what we were going to do, what kind of stories we could tell, I thought, "Well, what we saw was the end of the first book.” Everything up to the moment where we see Luther throw his coat off the edge of the bridge in the final episode is a repercussion of the very first scene of the very first episode. There’s a constant knock-on effect of falling dominoes. That moment as we’re walking off with Alice really was the end of those repercussions. That’s the line under that story. This was an opportunity really to begin a new chapter.

So you never seriously thought about bringing Alice back?
My first assumption was that we would. When I sat down and sharpened all my pencils and got out my notebooks, my first assumption was that, yeah, of course we would tell a Luther and Alice story. But then it just became more and more apparent to me that, in fact, that story has been told. I don’t want to give you the impression that it was an easy conclusion for me to come to, because I love Ruth’s portrayal of Alice. I love writing Alice, and for reasons which I hesitate to interrogate, I find it very easy to write. She’s far more clever, far wittier than I am, and in a slightly spooky way, she’s far better read, because she seems to quote from books that I never opened.

She comes to me very naturally, and when I’m writing Alice I’m always writing with a smile on my face. I’m not feeding the hungry, but the responsibility of the special isn’t to entertain myself. It was to give the audience, an incredibly loyal audience, the best possible Luther story that we could.

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What can you tell us about Luther’s life at that cottage by the sea? What was his current state of mind?
What I like about that sequence is that he’s a creature away from his natural habitat. All of us, no matter how much we crave a break — whether we live in some teeming metropolis or some tiny town — we all crave a break in a different environment. As spiritually great as that break might be, it’s also a bit discombobulating, because we lose our sense of who we are a little. I think he’s taking his time away. He’s getting over stuff. He’s reading.

I can tell you this now: on those cliffs, Beachy Head in the south of England, there is in real life a permanent suicide detail. People just monitor the cliffs night after night, and they save dozens and dozens of people a year from killing themselves. Actually what Luther’s been doing is, he’s been on suicide watch — he’s still been saving lives, still been saving people. It was written in the script, but when it came to the crunch, the National Trust, which is a government body that owns the land, wouldn’t even let us use the word “suicide.”

Alice was living there with him as a couple?
Alice was living with him. They had a bit of a plan with this money. They were going to run away. They were going to not quite be Bonnie and Clyde, but they were going to run away and have a good time… Whether Luther ever actually would have gone is a question that must remain unanswered.

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At the end of the special, should we still be questioning if Alice is really dead? Or, in your mind, is she definitely dead and we should be more curious about Luther figuring out if and how Megan (Laura Haddock, pictured) managed to kill her?
Death of the author and all that. The audience can speculate in whichever direction they choose. I would neither encourage nor discourage discussion. Not in order to give any hints, but just because I’m a fan at heart, and half the fun of being a fan of stuff is that you get to talk about the implications of things, of errors and omissions and lines of dialogue. That’s half the fun of the whole thing.

One theory being tossed about our office is that perhaps Alice didn’t want to run away with Luther after all, with the man he had become without the coat. Perhaps it was true: if she didn’t eventually kill Luther, Luther would eventually kill her. Maybe she saw he needed to work to be a man she didn’t want to kill, and the mystery of her “death” was her way to get him back into the game… How do you feel about that theory?
It’s an internally consistent and perfectly valid theory.

Related: Idris Elba Explains Why Luther is His Bond (and a Fictional Hero for Today’s Real World)

Fair enough. Idris seemed to insinuate at that screening that just because Alice wasn’t in the special doesn’t mean she couldn’t be in a movie. I suppose whether or not she’s alive, there could at least be an opportunity for flashbacks. At this point, are you thinking the big screen would have to be the next step, or would you consider doing another one-off BBC America movie?
I think that it goes for both Idris and me that we will do what we think is the right thing, again, by the audience. We had lots and lots of offers to do a feature, but it didn’t feel like the right thing to do. Features always take place in a slightly different universe than the one on TV. One of the burdens that we labor under is both of us feel an enormous sense of loyalty to the audience. The first consideration always is, how do we do the best thing by them? Which also means, by the way, how do we do the best thing by the characters that the audience loves? That’s the primary consideration — whatever we do next, there’s never going to be an un-thought-through or knee-jerk response. We’ll do what we think is the right thing to do. Which is usually the best thing to do.

With Luther telling Megan, “I’m coming for you,” it would seem that’s the next story you’d tell. Safe assumption?
I’d like to see that. And for what it’s worth, I’m not very metatextual in the show, because I think winking at the audience too often is counterproductive, but that’s one of the few deliberate callbacks in the show. That line is one that he says to Alice in episode 1.

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Luther visits Alice in Season 1, Episode 1

Let’s talk about the sequence when Luther puts back on the coat after DCI Theo Bloom (Darren Boyd)’s death. That montage was one of my favorite TV moments of the year. I got chills. I wanted to cheer. I think it’s because it’s the real return of Idris to this character, but also because of something Idris articulated at that screening, which was on the same day as the San Bernardino shooting. Idris said, especially in today’s world, everyone is scared. People wish there was someone to stand up and say, “What the f–k?” And here’s Luther saying, “I’m going to put on the coat, put on the tie. I got this, guys.” It’s why he’ll continue to play him. Did your script detail exactly how epic that moment should be?
Yeah. My life is nothing but writing, so the scripts are particular about everything, and that bit was very, very precisely scripted for exactly that feeling and exactly the stuff that Idris was articulating. It’s really important to have people respond to Luther the character, and to Idris the actor.

There was a great poster for Indiana Jones and The Temple Of Doom. I don’t know if it ever got used, or if they only used it in an early promotional thing in the UK. You don’t see it very often, but all the poster was was a picture of Harrison Ford’s face with the words, “Trust him.” That’s really what you want from your hero. The great virtue of Indiana Jones, who’s my personal, great cinematic hero, is that he doesn’t have super powers. He does get knocked down. In fact, he gets the s–t kicked out of him regularly, but he keeps getting back up. I think that’s the secret also to why people respond so positively to Idris and to Luther — because he takes the kicking and he keeps coming. He’s compelled to help. He’s compelled to do the right thing by people, and I think that’s an incredibly attractive quality. We all want that. I want someone like that in my life. I wish I was him.

Read Cross’s initial script for the sequence.

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I also wanted to talk about the new way you found to torture viewers. We spoke during Season 3 about how you create suspense, and you said you’ll write things in the stage directions like, “‘Hold for as long as we can bear it, and then a beat more.” How did the idea for the special’s opening sequence come to you? We’re just begging for her husband to get home… and it turns out the man we’d been watching is the killer not him. The crowd applauded at the screening. It’s the same thing with the elevator sequence: you just want the elevator to come so that woman can get into it and away from the killer, who we assume is posing as the janitor we hear in the distance… and it turns out the killer is in the elevator. Where did those ideas come from?
They kind of come in two ways. One of them is a very visceral and unpredictable process, which is just I’ll be at the wheel, or I’ll be cleaning my teeth, or doing the laundry, and I’ll have an idea. My wife always knows when I have a particularly scary idea because I burst out laughing. It’s a great joy in my life to have a scary idea. I can’t remember exactly how I got the idea for the reversal in the pre-title sequence, but I do know that I ran straight to my wife and said, "What about this?” and told her the story.

I don’t quite know where it comes from, except that it comes from a place of anxiety. I’ve always said the place the bad guys in Luther come from is not a function of what I would like to do to other people; it’s what I’m scared other people might do to me. There’s a genuine undercurrent of fear in all of these things, but above that chilly undercurrent of fear, there’s a faster, maybe even slightly chillier undercurrent of glee, because I love the idea of scaring people.

The other side of it is I’m quite intrigued by slight of hand, and I read quite a lot of books by magicians. That quality of misdirection is really a function of empathizing with and understanding your audience. To know what people are expecting, and to respect what people are expecting, and then just slightly move in a different direction, like the elevator gag, is just a pleasure to me.

Related: Idris Elba on the Return of ‘Luther,’ His Ongoing Therapy Sessions

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Final question: Idris has called this special basically a pilot for a movie. Through the seasons, you’ve whittled down the number of episodes used to tell a Luther story to one now, if it’s film size. Was this special more satisfying as a storyteller, or do you prefer having more time with Luther?
There’s advantages and disadvantages, and pleasures and displeasures, to either. I think the one thing which I do slightly miss is being able to spend a little bit more time with some of the supporting characters like Schenk. [Actor] Dermot Crowley and I cooked up a little story for Schenk years ago, a little bit of background story, just a little plot. I’ve never been able to tell it because we’ve never had the time. We’re always cramming so much story. I do miss that kind of freedom. I love Schenk. I love Benny. All of the characters who survive the depopulation of that world I love desperately, and I would like to spend a little bit more time with them. But at the same time, it’s intensely satisfying to get in, do something quick and really pure, and get out again.