Full disclosure: the fact that large parts of J.K Rowling’s detective novel were filmed twenty metres from my front door may mean that I found this BBC adaptation more exciting than it objectively was. It’s hard to be critical of the show I have to thank for lining my walk to school with artificial snow in the middle of spring. And, to be entirely honest, it’s possible that I missed some crucial scenes, what with my dad making snarky comments about our neighbour’s flashy yellow sports, everyone arguing over whether that ugly block of flats was Imperial College accommodation or a swanky housing development off Hyde Park, and the concentration it took to carefully inspect the face of every extra in an attempt to spot my own, undeniably photogenic, features. (The search was unsuccessful, in case you were wondering, but who knows, my big break could be just around the corner.)
Conflict of interest aside, I really do think Strike: The Cuckoo’s Calling is worth a watch. I first encountered the surly war-veteran turned private detective Cormoran Strike when his author was known to the world as Robert Galbraith, back in 2013. But Galbraith was soon revealed to be no more than a pseudonym for the genius behind the infamous wizarding world herself, thanks to one very astute Sunday Times book reviewer and the magical software of Hertford philosophy professor Peter Millican (proving once for all that Oxford is the Hogwarts of the real world). Rowling has since expressed disappointment at so soon losing the freedom afforded her by the pseudonym. But I doubt she complained much when the BBC snapped up the three-book trilogy for a lucrative Sunday night slot.
Casting Tom Burke as the eponymous detective was a good move. He’s got the whole hairy-and-grumpy-yet-oddly-attractive thing down pat. Strike is a compelling character: principled, damaged, sexy. So although the scene where he graciously allowed a super model to seduce him might have been taking things a little far, Burke’s wisecracking charisma as he stomps round London did full justice to Rowling’s creation. Holliday Grainger and her perpetual pout was equally convincing as Strike’s assistant, Robin, whose chirpy northern charms are saved from being irritating by an ever-present undercurrent of dry humour, and her willingness to do fairly offensive imitations of suspects over the phone.
The mystery itself isn’t the most original thing ever, pill popping blondes, secret wills and long lost parents all make an appearance, but no one I watched it with who hadn’t read the book saw the twist coming (but, then again, my sister can be a bit slow about these things). Anyway, as with many detective shows, I don’t think solving the crime was really the point. The point was Strike’s one-liners: “My dad’s a Cypriot from Swansea and my mum’s a West Indian Scouse.” Pause. “Must have been a nice quiet wedding”. The point was the shots of the shiny dark-chocolate interior of Victorian pubs, the sexual chemistry between Burke and Grainger, and the equally blatant chemistry between their long wool coats, (which neither of the characters could possibly afford by the way, but I’ll forgive the fashion directors because they were just so god damn beautiful). The television show, like the novels, was about compelling characters and London locations, and both elements were spot on.
In cutting a five hundred-page novel into a three part series, things were inevitably lost. E.M Forster called the novel form ‘life by time’ and that is not a description that translates easily into a three hour TV adaptation. The slowly solidifying friendship between Strike and Robin, Strike’s skill in gradual melting the resistance of truculent interviewees, and Rowling’s almost Dickensian knack for evoking the streets of London were all slimmed-lined for the format. However, such is the nature of putting decent literature on the small screen and I’m not going to complain about it too much. Principled, damaged and sexy is exactly what I’m looking for in a TV show. If you too feel like there’s a hole in your life this Sunday evening, what with the lack of Downton or David Attenborough, give the second and best story, The Silkworm, a watch. My street probably won’t appear this time, but don’t let the disappointment put you off.