The opening credits of Strike – The Cuckoo’s Calling episode 1 identify the series as adapted from a book by Robert Galbraith, but viewers will be aware this is a nom de plume for JK Rowling. Not least as the series marketing has been very clear on this point.
With the Harry Potter series concluding, Rowling wanted to write a novel for adults. To circumvent the weight of expectation and the assumptions attached to being one of the most successful novelists alive she wrote under a pseudonym. Published in 2013, The Cuckoo’s Calling introduced the world to Cormoran Strike, but the world wasn’t very interested – at least not initially. Despite positive reviews, sales were low, as would be expected for a first novel by an unknown writer. One might expect this television adaptation to have been put in motion after the true author was revealed and sales shot up, but the BBC sought to set up a meeting with this exciting new novelist before the twist in the tale.
The hero of the story is private detective Cormoran Strike. He has a shabby office on the edges of Soho, is broke with a soon to be ex-fiancée, and has forgotten to cancel the temp.
Most agency workers would see the mountain of bills on the floor and leave, but Robin Ellacott is intrigued by the prospect of working for a detective and investigating the death of supermodel Lula Landry. Strike has been hired by the murdered woman’s adopted brother to examine the police investigation. Ruled a suicide, Bristow is convinced there is foul play.
Strike is a part hard-boiled noir type gumshoe and part gentile British sleuth. He has the overcoat and shuffling gait of Columbo (something we discover is a genuine disability), but while his personal life is chaotic, he lacks an obviously tortured psyche.
Tom Burke (from the BBC’s Musketeers and War and Peace adaptations) plays the lead role with charm. An able bodied actor, Burke did seem to take a little while to settle into a convincing gait for a one legged man, but this may have been a ploy to make the revelation of his injury a shock to viewers unfamiliar with the source novel.
Bright, attractive, and perky Holliday Grainger plays Ellacott like a character who has wandered in from an Enid Blyton story. However, fans of the novel will know there are as yet unrevealed depths to the character.
As an opening episode, this laid a solid foundation. Director Michael Keillor has a CV that includes episodes of Line of Duty and Mr Selfridge. Production values were on a par with American cable drama (the series is co-produced for US channel Cinemax). Location filming in central London added greatly to the atmosphere.
Strike is an intriguing character who both fits and confounds crime fiction conventions, and the interplay with Ellacott as his ‘Watson’ was engaging. The mystery was teased just enough to pull in the audience but screenwriter Ben Richards knows that it is the central characters who are the real puzzle and sensibly concentrated on providing a sketch of Strike that we will enjoy seeing coloured in future episodes.
Did you tune in for Strike – The Cuckoo’s Calling episode 1? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below!
WARNING: spoilers for Strike – The Cuckoo’s Calling episode 2 below. Still catching up? Read Stuart’s review of episode 1 here.
The first episode of the BBC’s adaptation of The Cuckoo’s Calling – the first of JK Rowling’s Cormoran Strike mysteries – ended with Strike (Tom Burke) pulling a woman’s body out of a boiling bath. Rochelle Onifade was a close friend of Lula Landry, the supermodel whose death by apparent suicide he has been hired to investigate. This was a deviation from the novel in which Onifade’s body is fished out of the Thames, providing a cliffhanger hook for the next episode. Is she dead or could Strike revive her? Rather thoughtlessly, following the first episode, the BBC immediately spoiled the ambiguity with a ‘in the next episode’ recap that showed her body in a morgue.
The police think the death is a drug overdose, but Strike is convinced she was murdered to hamper his investigation and the perpetrator may be the same person who killed Lula. His initial prime suspects include film producer Freddie Bestigui, who had a fractious relationship with the model, and Lula’s on-and-off actor boyfriend Evan Duffield, who has a habit of wearing a creepy wolf mask in public and wearing black leather gloves like the killer in an Italian thriller.
However, there are questions. Why is the dead model’s oleaginous uncle Tony Landry (Martin Shaw) so keen to ward Strike away from the case? Who was the hoodie wearing figure caught on CCTV pacing outside the model’s flat on the night of her death? And why did Tansy Bestigui (Tara Fitzgerald) tell police she heard a fight upstairs that night when the flats are completely soundproofed?
While the plot took centre stage, we learned a little more about Strike. Despite his scowl and crumpled demeanour, he is very comfortable moving in the dead model’s rarefied social strata. We discover that his mother was also a model who had committed suicide – and that Strike refused to accept this as the cause of her demise. He dropped out of Oxford following her death and joined the army. As comfortable as he with high society, he is also contemptuous of it. In a revealing drunken rant to assistant Robin Ellacott (Holliday Grainger), he complains about smoking being banned in pubs and a lack of social housing.
Like the protagonist, director Michael Keillor continues to mix grit and glamour. We are taken from Strike’s spartan office to pound the pavements of Soho, before a night in a glamorous Dalston nightclub and a nightcap in a model’s bohemian apartment.
Strike and Ellacott’s platonic chemistry (will that last?) is among the series’ most appealing aspects. As Watson to his Holmes, she is an interesting foil. Her boyfriend disapproves of her working for the detective but despite being offered a good job in PR it is clear something about detective work is compelling for her.
Two episodes in and Strike – The Cuckoo’s Calling is shaping very nicely as a replacement/substitute for Sherlock. It shares its high production values, but for the moment is focused on sleuthing like Sherlock‘s early stories prior to its dive into self-conscious post-modernity.
Did you tune in for Strike – The Cuckoo’s Calling episode 2? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below!
WARNING: spoilers for Strike – The Cuckoo’s Calling episode 3 below. Still catching up? Read Stuart’s review of episode 2 here.
The third and concluding episode of Strike – The Cuckoo’s Calling, the BBC’s adaptation of JK Rowling’s first Cormoran Strike mystery, began with the titular detective waking up with the mother of all hangovers and throwing up in a waste basket. Despite this inauspicious start, this episode saw Cormoran really knuckling down to the task of solving the case of murdered model Lula Landry. It also brought assistant Robin Ellacott to the fore demonstrating she is no slouch in the sleuthing stakes.
The murdered woman was mixed race, and adopted by the wealthy Bristow family. Cormoran and Robin discover that she was investigating her true father’s identity and had tracked down her brother who was serving in the British Army.
Strike tells Robin that in most cases when the truth is made clear it is almost always just something really sad. The key to Landry’s murder involves the discovery of a will and the uncovering of a blackmail plot.
Although this was a complex mystery, with many potential suspects and no small amount of red herrings. The ultimate solution, while surprising, became instantly clear like a camera lens suddenly snapping into focus. JK Rowling’s plot and Ben Richards’ sharp and concise adaptation misdirected attention like a skilled magician, but hid all the clues in plain sight.
Director Michael Keillor and editor Gareth C Scales created a spellbinding sequence in which Strike solves the mystery. With the urgent music of composer Adrian Johnston all the key moments and details played out in a series of quick cuts showing Comoran’s mental process. However, the sequence omitted the ultimate revelation. Like a consummate fan dance, we saw only pieces, never the whole.
As much as the episode worked as an exciting thriller, it also hinted that Comoran and Robin’s developing relationship was deeper than simply professional – something not lost on Ellacott’s frustrated fiancé. This is assisted enormously by the terrific onscreen chemistry of actors Tom Burke and Holiday Grainger.
Wearing out his shoe leather in a heavy overcoat, Burke makes Strike feel like a contemporary updating of a classic seventies era TV detective – a younger, more virile Columbo perhaps. Grainger’s Ellacott feels like a Home Counties’ Nancy Drew coming out of her University years and rebelling against the cosy middle-class life set out for her. The obvious attraction and fascination between the two characters feels like it could become romantic, but there is something deeper and darker. Why does she turn down a lucrative job in HR to offer her services to Strike? Something is driving her fascination with detective work, but so far there are only the faintest hints as to what that may be.
This has been a luminously shot and classy series, mixing Soho grime with Mayfair glamour. While the mystery was conclusively wrapped up, if feels like there is a lot more to be discovered about these two characters. We have merely scratched the surface of Cormoran’s daddy issues and the details of his mother’s death. Nor do we know what drives Robin to step out from behind her desk to actively participate in the investigations.