Be The Best Writer You Can

So What About Luther Then?

Idris Elba - Luther
Series 3, Ep 2 screened last night, and it was a slightly calmer affair than last week’s opener, which seemed to create levels of terror in the audience that were probably actually bad for the heart. I actually, genuinely, love Luther. In fact I think it’s one of the better British TV dramas in recent years.

There is a downside of course….

It’s heightened, even camp. There are some crazily mannered performances in places, some off-key casting, and plot holes a go-go.

It’s deeply conservative, often brutal, the stories hang together only loosely.

It makes no sense that Luther is still allowed to work as a police officer.

It’s shockingly violent – and within that violence it has a special soft spot for the terrorising and slaughter of women.

All that stuff I don’t like at all. I really don’t.

But It’s Only a Story

But, the argument goes, Luther touches reality only fleetingly, so we’re ok. And as a narrative it really does know how to hold, and scare, and thrill its audience, so that’s even more ok.

You could say Luther is just another spooky fairy story. Another Brothers Grimm style fable. And come on, when there is far, far worse out there, in most computer games and a good chunk of the movies being made, Luther is just lightweight entertainment.

Or is it?

We’re Not Safe

Luther is predicated on the idea that, somewhere close, There Be Monsters.

That the fabric of society is thin, and barely holding together.

“We’re not safe”. It’s an idea that crops up over and over again at the moment.

Watching TV, going to the movies, there’s such a sense of apocalypse abroad. Such a sense of dread. I saw ‘Man of Steel’ the other night. Mass market entertainment. But so dark, so cold, so violent. And I don’t think I have ever seen more sheer STUFF destroyed on screen, ever.

Wherever you look, constant movie trailers about zombie apocalypses. Constant movies about the end of the world. Constant trailers for video games where guys slaughter other guys, or monsters slaughter women, or everyone gets pulped in some chemical-nuclear-metor-strike-alien-invasion.


I followed Luther last night with ‘Outlaw’ on Five Star – a Brit movie from 2007, I thought it was going to be a perfectly amiable Danny Dyer vehicle. (And, yes, I’ll confess, I quite like Danny Dyer. It had Sean Bean and Bob Hoskins too. Even better.)

But, guess what, Outlaw derived its energy from the idea that the police are corrupt, the legal system is ineffective, and criminals habitually collude with the police to murder, deal drugs, rape and torture, all with the complicity of an id-driven population who are happy to turn a blind eye so long as they can have the occasional spa break, designer apartment, lap dance, holiday abroad.

Filmed in a washed out blue-grey, it was relentlessly bleak. The only chink of redemption came from a cowardly character finally acquiring the ‘bollocks’ to execute a gangster boss in cold blood.

Five Star has an ad campaign going on in each commercial break where they have three puppets, three old age pensioners, watching a movie from their sofa. Frankly these old folks seemed like aliens as they oohed, sighed, and ah-ed at whatever they were watching.

Probably Fred Astaire, or Grace Kelly. Silver screen images of a much, much better world. The juxtaposition with Outlaw, the movie they were apparently ‘watching’, was just funny.

Luther has kicked off so much discussion among writers I know. Most of them see it as very accomplished, but astonishingly violent, and even more astonishingly misogynistic. And what really gets people going is that Ben Stephenson (Head of BBC Drama) is apparently happy to say that Luther is brave, that it pushes boundaries.

Real Bravery From the BBC?

I do think Luther is brilliantly done, actually – but you know what would be genuinely brave of the BBC?

They should commission a remake of Kenneth Clarke’s “Civilisation”.

They should have 13 weeks of some genuinely intelligent people talking about the history of civilisation in a genuinely intelligent way. And they should resist the temptation to slow it down and crap it up with celebs and tedious computer graphics and pompous music…

I know, I know. Never going to happen. That’s not where we are at the moment.

But when a commission like that is a less acceptable proposition for our national channel than more women being eviscerated, don’t we know we’re in trouble?

If film and TV represent our society’s subconscious, there’s something very dark under the surface right now.

A collective monster under our collective beds, just like in Luther.

Let’s be careful what we wish for.

Screenwriting Workshop This Weekend In London

With that off my chest I wanted to mention that we still have one or two places left on this weekend’s workshop – it’s this coming Saturday/Sunday July 13-14 and it’s the last until the Autumn.

Tanya Tillett and Bradley Quirk are the special guests. Tanya is literary agent with the Knight Hall Agency, while Bradley is a Pathé Creative Executive, at the heart of the British Film industry, who has worked on ‘Long Walk To Freedom’ and ‘Philomena’, having previously worked at the UKFC and the BFI.

The seminar is in its usual venue not far from Kings Cross in London. More information on the writing weekend

  1. Hey Phil, I think a lot of the ‘dark’ stuff is the way it is for two reasons: 1. there’s much less job security than in any time in 50 years and 2. the easiest way to appear to be new is to push the boundaries of what makes for entertainment (more violence, more sex). Add to that our cultural Attention Defecit Syndrome and you have to wonder whether any of it really affects us that deeply anyway!

  2. Phew! SO good to read this. I thought I might have been the only one “our there’ wishing that the excellent acting and production of Luther could have been better employed in NOT re-telling us what we already know, ‘that the fabric of society is thin, barely holding together’. Surely we have grown up enough to know that what we really, really want to see portrayed in our small screens how to strengthen that thin fabric, even as an illusion – even as fiction.
    Just when we women were starting to enjoy the freedoms that this civilization has thankfully provided for us, along comes shows like this to scare us back into the uncertainties and fears of long ago. It’s simply not fair.
    Is it really up to the Head of Drama at the BBC to pronounce such horror ‘brave’? Is that how content is decided? What a shame.
    Thanks for your clarity in presenting this, Phil. Maybe one of your pupils will come up with something truly brave – uplifting. Why are we scared of goodness?

  3. I have not seen Luther, though I believe it to be overly violent. Man of Steel is certainly bleak and not at all like the Superman I’ve known. Yes, a return to a slicker version of Kenneth Clarke’s Civilization would indeed be my cup of tea. BUT, (the big but!) that’s not what our younger audiences want, after a salacious, violence-soaked diet of video games. Who watches TV the most now… is it younger or older folks? Even allowing for the likes of Luther, where are the equivalent series for those past 50, dear head of BBC?
    While our childen and grandchildren are surfing on-line and playing video games, their elders, like me are STILL watching TV. We want more Downton Abbey etc. Where is it?

  4. My reaction to Luther is that Idris Elba is the only reason the show is watchable. The plots are lamentable – often just annoyingly unbelievable (this get to me more than the violence) – and some of the casting and acting is poor. But the lead actor has such a screen presence, he somehow just manages to carry the show.

    I think your idea of a remake of ‘Civilisation’ is a great one. Looking around at where we are on this planet, this would be a sadly ideal time – a really important time – to hear from thoughtful, informed people about what it’s all about; how we got to where we are. I’d add to your terms and conditions that it cannot be a joint project with the Discovery Channel – no dumbing down or political correcting to suit certain ideologies. And I think there’d be an audience. Forget focus groups and narrow marketing and worries about ‘young people’ and computer games (how young is young re computers?). If an engaging, powerful series was produced, it would get its audience.

  5. Should I be saying this in view of the heavy subject matter (which I agree with but which is depressing)…if you want a slice of easy entertainment filled with light and fun or need cheering up, Despicable Me 2 is a blast.

  6. While I’m not completely anti-violence in tv and film, I would definitely argue there is a case for saying that sometimes when you watch something you are so busy enjoying the story, or how well executed/ slickly presented something is that it’s only later that the violence of what you have just seen affects you. Sort of like the delayed reaction of a hangover when you’ve been drinking or indigestion after you’ve eaten too much fast food. Leaving you with a sort of buyers remorse or feeling of emotional disconnect and unease as described above. Definitely had this feeling before watching something like The Fall on Bbc, and various films. Sometimes violence can be more affecting if not actually shown, just implied but not many people seem to do that anymore, and with so many films tv programmes all competing with each other it can seem like overkill. (If you’ll pardon the expression!) However, looking at it as an opportunity you could say there is a definite gap in the market at the minute for something that warms the cockles and brings people together instead….

  7. Good Morning Phil’s,

    As always, I so enjoy booting up in the morning to find a note from Screenwriting Goldmine – my favorite screenwriting experts from across the pond! Reading your newsletters and blogs helps to shake out the cobwebs and rejuvenate the thought processes. (Well, that and a cup of espresso.) My fingers begin to twitch – as though typing – even before I have finished reading.

    Pleasantries aside, I’m afraid this time I disagree with some of your observances concerning Luther. This came as a complete surprise, as I always seem to be quite sympatico with your musings. Just a few weeks ago when you wrote about your mutated addiction for novels, it was as though my own thoughts were being transcribed! Please keep in mind that I am commenting on the newsletter statements, not on your opinions per se, and not on the show ‘Luther’ as I have never seen it. And for personal reasons – that will hopefully become apparent – I never will.

    From the very beginning, I noticed a huge contradiction. How could Luther be “brilliantly done” if, and I quote, … there “are some crazily mannered performances in places, some off-key casting, and plot holes a go-go, the stories hang together only loosely, it makes no sense that Luther is still allowed to work as a police officer, and it’s shockingly violent – and within that violence it has a special soft spot for the terrorizing and slaughter of women”? With all those caveats, perhaps brilliant wasn’t the word you were looking for. If I am being presumptuous, I apologize, but if what you liked about this drama is that it made you see, or be slightly more aware that the fabric of our society is in fact, threadbare, then perhaps a different adjective would be more appropriate. You also mentioned that “… as the argument goes, Luther touches reality only fleetingly, so we’re okay”. Are we?

    As a writer, I’d like to share with you the one motto I have chosen to embody. My acceptance of said motto was born from an aversion to, and a frustrating inability to alter the status quo of the rampant destruction and increasing violence in our current movie industry. Said violence has not only permeated our movie-going experience but appears to have hijacked us all on a journey of death, destruction and ultimate doom. I share this motto with you now, not out of arrogance or superiority but with a genuine and heartfelt need to justify my contradictory opinions against what our society chooses to write, produce and proclaim as brilliant. “Be the change that you wish to see in the world.” ― Mahatma Gandhi.

    Due to the recent debates over gun laws in America, I’ve read much on the cultural violence of our society, both past and present. Sadly, we are trending toward an exploitation of violence as a means to make money. How very disheartening. It has always been my belief, that what we choose as entertainment speaks volumes about our individual philosophies. Boxing, hunting, ultimate fighting, bullfighting, cockfighting, dog fighting, violent movies and misogynistic video games are just a few of the activities that pass for relaxation and pleasure. There is a GAME that young people play that gives points for throwing a prostitute from a speeding car ( what? ). But then, it gives extra points for running over her with the car, repeatedly! WHAT??

    When asked by my own sons to purchase similar violent video games, I have retorted, perhaps ad nauseam, “Fast forward your life 25 years, would you let your son play this game?” The answer was always, “Sure, why not”. What did they know, they were children. Perhaps the one question that may some day give them pause is, “Fast forward your life 25 years, would you want your daughter’s boyfriend to play this game?” I guess we’ll see when the time comes.

    Granted, not all who watch violence will take up arms and murder prostitutes or heinously slaughter a class of 1st grade children. And yes, there is violence worldwide, not just here — unspeakable violence perpetrated by people who don’t watch TV or play video games. But there is also an evolution of thought and a budding emergence of education to combat such evils – against women, against men, against children, against wildlife, against Earth!

    If the adage ‘we are what we eat’ holds any sway in how un-healthy civilized humans have become, then doesn’t the same hold true toward all that we so complacently turn a blind eye?

    I disagree wholeheartedly! that violence should dominate the silver screen. Not EVERYONE is anxiously awaiting the next violent chapter of the sequels and prequels of existing stories that are already so overbaked and unimaginative. (YAWN) All of which contradicts what screenwriting experts, including my favorite, Two Phils, profess – Be fresh, be genuine, be entertaining. I just read, “don’t kill off your characters in random accidents, as it shows a lack of imagination”. In that same vein, how does blowing up yet another building, city or bridge express any creativity? There is a huge untapped demographic of movie-watchers out there who are woefully disappointed in what is being touted as brilliant. No offense to you, Phil. Most sincerely, no offense.

    As a screenwriter, I have chosen to tell my stories through the change I wish to see in this world. In my first screenplay, I challenge the presumed authority of man’s dominance over the environment, I poke holes in the veneer of purported loyalty between spouses, family members and mankind in general, and I shine the spotlight on the inexplicable hypocrisy of the anti-gay movement perpetuated not only by religious fantatics but also by educated and seemingly normal people. All that without a single explosion.

    This is not to say that crime and/or violent acts, or any other component of our society cannot or should not hold a place in cinema. Of course it should! Though I can only hope that this paradigm will shift in much the same manner as did the use of nudity in American films. When nudity first debuted, it was purely gratuitous, always female and a thinly veiled attempt at selling tickets. It took decades of metamorphosis to be considered as integral to the storylines. This was, of course, aided by the evolution of thought and the budding emergence of education.

    I have heard tell, that every single person has at least one movie-worthy story in their lives. Even if this was true of only half the Earth’s population, that’s over 3 BILLION stories we’re not seeing! Doesn’t it make you wonder just how many of those stories have anything to do with a man leaping from tall buildings wearing blue tights and a red cape? Due to the lack of action/violence in my stories, they may never see the light of a projection screen, which is sad on so many levels, but that is the stand I must take to stay true to myself, to my children, to their children and the world.

    Even as I write this, I am aware of the irony or hypocrisy if you will, of who I believe myself to be versus who I actually am and all that I do – or don’t do, in my personal life. Few lives, if any, could stand up under the critical scrutiny with which we so freely and eagerly dissect our movies and other various forms of art. But we all have the opportunity – if not the responsibility – to continuously reflect on our actions, thoughts and deeds and strive to make this world a better place through our art. To that end, I will continue my quest.

    Thank you so much for the time, energy and passion you both put into your newsletters and blogs!

  8. Nic,

    > Add to that our cultural Attention Defecit Syndrome and you have to wonder whether any of it really affects us that deeply anyway!

    I do hope you’re right. Saved by our own flaws in the end!

    >Why are we scared of goodness. That’s an interesting question. It’s to do with the lack of conflict at the heart of goodness, I guess – and drama without conflict is not good drama. But when I look back at the movies of the 80s I see an optimism on screen that has vanished these days. We’re in the middle of a global recession vs an economic boom? Maybe it’s just that…

    > While our childen and grandchildren are surfing on-line and playing video games, their elders, like me are STILL watching TV. We want more Downton Abbey etc. Where is it?

    Very good point – and the British TV industry, for as long as I have been in and around the industry, which is nearly 20 years now, has always been chasing this younger demographic at the expense of the older. I’ve heard a lot of explanations for this, but in the end it comes down to the simple fact that a lot of the commissioners/editorial teams are pretty young, and they tend to commission stuff that resonates with them.

    >Idris Elba.

    Possibly. Quite possibly. He does do a grand job, though I prefer him in TV to the movie roles I’ve seen him in.

    >Despicable Me 2 – it’s now on the list.

    >the delayed reaction of a hangover when you’ve been drinking or indigestion after you’ve eaten too much fast food. Leaving you with a sort of buyers remorse or feeling of emotional disconnect and unease as described above

    Totally agree.

    Nora Jane:

    An epic comment – thanks so much for taking the time to post it. Firstly I ought to say this post has nothing to do with Philip Shelley – this is my own blog, and though he may or may not agree with me, I can’t speak for him on Luther or screen violence in general.

    Secondly – actually, you know, I think you and I agree pretty well entirely. I’m not pro screen violence at all. (Rather the opposite in fact.) Have another read when you get chance…

  9. Phil –

    My sincerest apologies for giving the impression that you were in favor of screen violence. I remember reading the first – and second time around, where you clearly stated, “All that stuff I don’t like at all. I really don’t.” I am sorry if any one misinterpreted my comments. My intent was to comment on the show, not on your opinions.

    As for the inclusion of Phillip Shelley, I had just read his newsletter and quoted his comment about killing off characters in random accidents. I guess I sort of lump the two of you together and I probably shouldn’t.

    Again I most humbly apolgize if I implied in any way that I know what Phillip’s opinions are, or that I could, or should, comment on his behalf. Perhaps I wrote too hastily! This topic spurs such passion in me, the words just boiled over.

    By the way – I couldn’t be more jealous of any one attending the Two Phils seminar this weekend! It sounds like a wonderfully creative adventure and I would so, so love to attend. Maybe next autumn…

    Have a great time!

  10. Hi Phil (belatedly)!

    Many great comments here, much I agree with. If it’s not too late, I just wanted to add…

    I think you’re bang on and right to challenge “Luther” — I gave up after the first season, even though in some ways I admire its ambition. The underlying message of “we are not safe” is part of that deeper malaise Nora writes about so eloquently.

    When I’m more than usually bewildered by the clamour of ideas competing for my attention (and money), I try to trace the underlying message back to physical fundamentals. What am I being told (or sold) and does it have survival benefit? And who benefits if I believe it (or “buy it”)?

    On the species scale I wonder if we are not intuitively sensing the edge of the Petri dish, and consequently are alarmed, at a survival-based, instinctual level.

    Hence all the zombie apocalypse tropes in film and TV now. In the back of our minds, we know there are too many of us chasing too few resources. If our complex, delicate, sophisticated system should fail — watch out!

    I believe there is also a political benefit, even a necessity, to befuddle us (most of us, most of the time) about exactly how our society works — what the system actually is. I don’t mean political in the party-political sense, simply at the level of how power and resources are shared out amongst human beings and our communities.

    At the level of drama craft, and truth-telling, it bothers me that violence is so often presented without consequences. Showing consequence-less violence as a spectacle or adrenaline ride creates a disconnect between what we know to be reality and the fiction we’re watching.

    We know it’s a lie, but we sit in our chairs and accept it, depending on the skill of the creators of the show. Why do we accept it?

    I agree with you, real bravery from a programme maker would be to champion our civilisation for its achievements, and defend it from all the many forces, inside and out, tending to undermine it.

    Of course, I don’t know how to write this message as a drama…

  11. Steve G…

    Several of the points you made resonated profoundly with me! I love, love, love that you brought up consequence-less violence! (I truly wish that I had included that in my own comment) That is a HUGE vexation for me. I recall a movie scene many years ago in which a character had every bone in his feet broken with a hammer and then he stood up and ran after the culprit. “Why do we accept it?” Indeed!

    Without trying to sound like a conspiracy-theorist, I couldn’t agree more about the political aspects involved. It ties in perfectly with your comment about tracing the underlying message and who exactly is benefitting from this trend. Oddly synonymous with the current fossil-fuel vs. renewable energies conflict.

    And the icing on your cake… Of course, I don’t know how to write this message as a drama…

    I couldn’t agree more!

  12. Nora Jane,

    Thank you very much for the comment — I would have replied sooner but am only just back from holiday…

    Not wanting to be gloomy about it (in fact, most of the time I’m not at all gloomy about it), I do tend to regard these trends as being fundamentally linked to the underlying energy story.

    A great opportunity for writers, I think. Perhaps we can find a way of doing it!

    Best wishes to you, Phil and all.

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