It’s been a great year for J.K. Rowling, ok these days when is it not a great year for J.K. Rowling, but in the last 12 months she’s successfully launched the new Fantastic Beasts film franchise, opened a smash hit West End play that extends the Harry Potter series and just announced a Broadway transfer with the original cast. The Potter books are about to become the subject of a British Library retrospective exhibition and, on top of all that, Rowling is expected to publish the fourth novel in her successful detective series, written under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith, before the year is out. Now the first of her Cormoran Strike novels has been adapted by the BBC and a preview of the first episode was premiered at the BFI with cast and crew in attendance.
The Cuckoo’s Calling was Rowling’s first, and at the time entirely anonymous, opening novel of the Cormoran Strike stories which the BBC has adapted into a three-part series, with episode one airing over the August bank holiday weekend. While there is a crime to solve at the centre, the story is primarily an introduction to regular character Cormoran Strike, a former soldier who served in Afghanistan before stepping on an IED and lost the lower half of one leg to blast injury. He was invalided out of the service and has turned private detective, where he meets temp Robin who over the course of the three novels graduates from Office Assistant to fully-fledged sidekick.
Adapting such a well-loved series of stories was an intimidating prospect for director Michael Keillor and executive producer Ruth Kenley-Letts, but Rowling, as ever, has been involved enough in the development of this show to ensure it looks exactly as it should. Episode One is part introduction to the characters and part establishment of the whodunnit that propels the plot, and it opens with celebrity Luna Landry coming home from a glamorous party. It’s immediately clear that the tone of Keillor’s piece is unlike the crime dramas that we’re so used to; it’s not gruesome Skandi-noir or those dark British thrillers where women end up gratuitously and brutally mutilated, but neither is it in the vein of those cosy Agatha Christies on ITV, Strike: The Cuckoo’s Calling is somewhere in between, faithful to its source material but doesn’t take itself too seriously.
The first thing you’ll notice is the quality of the cinematography designed by Hubert Taczanowski which has a grainy but glamourous sheen as it takes in a series of beautiful venues and snow-covered streets of a Mayfair lifestyle in mid-winter London. TV-makers have learnt a lot from Susanne Bier’s The Night Manager, recently discussed at a similar BFI event, and while the locations here are considerably less Bondian, it is none the less beautifully shot, and carefully tailored to the lifestyle of the characters in each scene – Lula’s home feels like a glossy magazine, while Strike’s office is a ramshackle bolthole, cramped, aged and uncared for.
But it also has plenty in common with the first series of Sherlock which revelled in its love of London and eagerness to show a less tourist-heavy perspective on the capital, and one of the joys of Strike: The Cuckoo’s Calling is its dedication to using the locations specified by Rowling in the books as well as presenting a more realistic picture of the city. This attention to detail may only be noticed by Londoners but it adds a layer of authenticity to the show seeing Strike walk down the real Denmark Street to his office or asking to be dropped off at Greek Street and actually being dropped off at the point in Greek Street where he could walk back to his workplace. This meticulous realism, though challenging to film Keillor explained during the Q&A that accompanied the screening, was extremely important in creating the world of the books, and the same effect just couldn’t be met in the backstreets of Cardiff, that so often double for London.
Key to the success of the series, and the two subsequent adaptations of The Silkworm and Career of Evil that have also been commissioned, is casting the roles of Strike and Robin, which Kenley-Letts explained became a fairly easy decision. Tom Burke and Holliday Grainger may not be the obvious choices and given some dissimilarities with their written creations, are bound to have many advanced detractors, but on screen they both perfectly capture the essence of Rowling’s characterisation – which should be a relief to many of the book’s fans.
Tom Burke’s Strike even in Episode One is a fascinating and layered character that accords well with your vision of Rowling’s Private Detective. Without the same height and breadth that Rowling describes, somehow Burke creates Strike’s particular physical bearing on screen, while simultaneously suggesting a man often too preoccupied with work to take proper care of himself and those around him. One of the reasons that Burke is a good choice for the role is Strike’s lack of emotional awareness in the burgeoning relationship with Robin, which becomes more important as the books go on, and an inability to identify why he cares so much for her, as well as a sense of incapacity in being unable to offer more than he does. Anyone who saw last year’s The Deep Blue Sea will recognise similar characteristics in Burke’s beautiful interpretation of Freddie, a former heroic pilot eroded by peacetime who comes to realise his emotional limitations.
During the Q&A, Burke admitted that while this role comes loaded with expectation, his schedule meant there was no time to be intimidated by the role until afterwards. There are plenty of hints at Strike’s past and carefully laid strands of things to come, but one of the most interesting aspects of Burke’s performance is the concept that Strike is living in the here and now, he is created by his past and cannot conceive of any kind of future, but takes each day as it comes – as military veterans often do.
Strike is a very different TV detective, one who isn’t driven by a strange personality or ongoing battles with personal demons that affect every case, instead he is a man who is pleasingly meticulous about his work and a bit of shambles, but not defined by his war service or the prosthetic leg which affects his work only as far as the pain it causes him in the pursuit of evidence and suspects. It’s fascinating to see his disability normalised in this way, as just one aspect of his life, and writer Ben Richards makes the audience wait some time before we even learn about it, asking us to know the character first.
But at the same time, Strike’s amputee status is not entirely ignored and Richards restricts himself to two brief scenes where Strike is shown removing the strapped-up stump from the painful prosthesis, and seeing it in full after a shower. It is created quite seamlessly using CGI with a real amputee as Tom Burke’s leg double, and while the commercial pressures on TV are not yet ready to allow Strike to be played by a disabled actor, this feels like things are moving in the right direction with, in Episode One at least, a sensitive and honest depiction.
Holliday Grainger is an equal match as temp Robin Ellacott and although she’s still finding her feet in this first epsiode, there’s plenty of things for Robin to do. Grainger is the ideal mix of brisk efficiency as she instantly sets about reordering Strike’s chaotic office, and good-natured warmth that instantly builds a rapport with her strange new boss. Very quickly Robin is making useful fact-finding contributions and accompanying Strike to visit Lula Landry’s flat. There is an openness and ease about Robin on the page, as well as a shyness about how knowledgeable she is, which Grainger captures perfectly and, as the character develops during The Cuckoo’s Calling and the subsequent stories, Burke and Grainger ensure the relationship between Robin and Strike has plenty of room to blossom.
It was clear from the Q&A that these adaptations of Rowling’s novels have been put together with considerable care, affection for the source material and attention to detail which comes across on screen. What could have been an overly cheesy or cartoonish screen incarnation manages, so far, to avoid the pitfalls that the Casual Vacancy fell into, and Episode One has set a high bar for the rest of the series. Director Michael Keillor explained that the books and this interpretation of The Cuckoo’s Calling takes many of the tropes of traditional detective fiction that celebrate the genre and make them feel modern. If the positive reaction of the BFI audience is anything to go by, then fans of the author shouldn’t be disappointed, and J.K. Rowling will have have one more thing to smile about this year.
Episode One of The Cuckoo’s Calling will air on Sunday 27th August on BBC1 at 9pm. For more BFI preview events, visit their website. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1