TV review: Luther up to his Elba in glossy gore but life under the Taliban is truly terrifying

The week’s most shocking programme told the true story of the girls in Pakistan being shot for going to school

Idris Elba returns to our TV screens as the eponymous Luther. Photograph: Steven Neaves.

Idris Elba returns to our TV screens as the eponymous Luther. Photograph: Steven Neaves.

Sat, Jul 6, 2013, 06:00

For the new run of Luther (BBC One, Tuesday) the director, Sam Miller, has taken several screen genres, put them in a blender and . . . no, wait . . . it’s hard even to type the word without remembering one of the scenes in this week’s episode.

A suspect in one of the murder cases, who killed for the right reason, according to maverick cop Luther (Idris Elba), gets a tip-off that the police want to fingerprint him. So he goes to the kitchen, switches on the Kenwood, rolls up his sleeves and, well, let’s just say his missus will have a heck of a time getting all that blood and those bits of cuticle off the ceiling.

And that was one of the less horror-inducing scenes in this police drama, which was determined to be – and succeeded in being – quite terrifying. Who isn’t scared at the thought, and the sight, of a murderer sliding out from under the bed?

Luther has the usual character checklist – dead wife, ace crime-solving skills, trouble with authority, woman-magnetism – and he stormed back on screen in action-hero mode.

The opening credits rolled over a rainy night scene in a gritty industrial estate where a phalanx of twitchy, armed cops are pointing their weapons at the door of a warehouse. Then it opens and a tall figure in silhouette, his hand on the collar of the baddie like an old-school copper, walks from the now flaming building, delivers the criminal to his stunned boss, and swaggers away, his tweed coat flapping behind him as the soundtrack swells.

The fright-night horror-movie stuff comes with the serial killer hiding in the attic of the cool home of the attractive couple. He lures the man up and, soon after, his bloody, dead head smashes through the ceiling of the bedroom below.

His wife does what every soon-to-be-dead woman does in corny horror movies: she hides in the wardrobe. So, of course, the killer finds her right about the time the viewer is ready to have a tension-induced heart attack.

Luther is good at dropping in moments of heightened suspense just as you’re starting to think the script is packed with so many cinematic clichés you might just laugh. That’s if you weren’t so scared.

The top cop isn’t just attempting to catch two murderer: the main case involves a twisted fetishist killing women (of course) in a horrific echo of an unsolved case from the 1980s, and the side case concerns a man who killed an internet troll.

He’s also fighting the higher ups. Someone suspects Luther is really a bad guy, meting out justice his own way, so there’s an internal investigation unit on to him.

It’s typical of the style-over-sense approach in this cinematic, sharp-looking drama that the investigation unit’s office is in a near-derelict storefront factory on a grimy high street rather than in a nice office building with magnolia walls and hairy carpet tiling. It’s best not to think too hard about anything in Luther – even its downright viciousness. Nothing bears too much scrutiny.

Luther is all show, clever camera angles and “gotcha” frights. Unlike The Returned (Channel 4, Sunday), the French supernatural thriller set in an Alpine village that quietly goes about creating a huge, terrifying puzzle.

This week was Victor’s story – the little boy who we now know died 35 years before – and who might be the key to everything that’s happening in the village. Or it could be the dam – never has a dropping water level in a drama seemed so meaningful.

For all Luther’s gloss and swagger, and Elba with his best problem-solving face on, it’s not too hard to guess what’s going to happen in the end of that short series. With The Returned, the most compelling, scary drama on TV in these dull summer weeks, its still impossible to tell.

Last October, Malala Yousafzai became the world’s most famous schoolgirl after she was shot in the head by Taliban gunmen for campaigning through her BBC blog and then, in public, for girls in Pakistan to get an education. As Nel Hedayat found when she visited Pakistan for Shot for Going to School (BBC Three, Wednesday), it was far from being a single incident. The programme’s title is shocking – BBC Three usually goes for them – but this one was simply telling it as it is.

The Taliban has closed more than 400 schools for girls and Hedayat talked to friends of Malala’s who were also shot, and other young girls determined to risk bullets to get an education, as well as teachers still brave enough to give lessons. She visited a school after a Taliban attack and the hospital where the injured 10-year-olds were taken. One of them died before the camera crew left.

Hedayat had much in common with Malala and this added to the documentary’s powerful personal dimension. She too is Muslim, was born in Afghanistan, and fled across the border to Pakistan when she was a year old. She went to school in the region Malala lived in, and now lives in London.

As a young reporter, she brought a freshness to a current-affairs story and made it accessible, giving a clear outline of the situation in Pakistan for girls and the impact of the rise of militant Islam. And, probably because she spoke the language and has a warm, friendly manner, she got good access.

She was permitted to interview the head cleric in a radical mosque, although he wouldn’t look directly at her because of her gender. He defended the shooting of the schoolgirl, and told the reporter she should “wear a burka” and “not travel without relatives”. Life in Islamabad looked familiar, Hedayat said, but travel much beyond there and “you’re going back in time not in kilometres”. Malala, who was filmed in Birmingham, is still recovering.

Cake Decorators (Sky One, Thursday) is one of six documentaries, each celebrating various lobbies. It followed six competitors as they prepared for the annual Cake International Competition in London and it could have been either charmingly eccentric or fun. But the competitors, who spend up to 200 hours on their extraordinary, skilful, sugary creations, were just too dull to carry an hour of TV.

Nick, who wore his anorak throughout the competition, was hoping to get the gold in the novelty-cake section. To win it would, he said, without even the hint of a knowing grin, “be the icing on the cake”.

tvreview@irishtimes.com

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