He might be rumpled and gruff, and often enjoy several more pints than he should, but detective Cormoran Strike, as played by Tom Burke, has become
He might be rumpled and gruff, and often enjoy several more pints than he should, but detective Cormoran Strike, as played by Tom Burke, has become a bit of a sex symbol.
So it’s no surprise that his will-they-won’t-they relationship with his professional sidekick, Holliday Grainger’s Robin Ellacott, gripped the nation in the first three hit series of Strike, based on the bestselling books written by Harry Potter author JK Rowling under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith.
Now, after a two-year wait, a fourth season is ready to air, following the plot of the most recent novel Lethal White. But will we find Strike and Robin together at last?
When we last saw the pair on screen in 2018’s Career Of Evil, they were in a won’t-they phase. Robin was bereft after being fired by Strike for gross misconduct, and decided to still marry her drippy yet controlling fiancé Matthew.
After a two year wait the fourth series, Strike: Lethal White begins Sunday 30 August on BBC1. Robin Ellacott, played by Holliday Grainger (right) and Cormoran Strike played by Tom Burke
Strike tried to make amends, but was unaware his number had been blocked in Robin’s phone by Matthew. So after a mad dash, he arrived in time to see them exchange vows. As Robin turned at the altar, she saw Strike and beamed.
The new series begins with a hug at that wedding that promises so much more. ‘There’s this beat, this moment, that happens near the start, which the book frequently returns to. It’s just a hug, but it’s like something happened,’ explains Tom, 39.
‘Robin and Strike don’t quite know what, and they carry that throughout the four episodes of this series. They’re a little awkward at times, unsure how to get back to where they were before.’
In Lethal White, Strike has a new relationship that he doesn’t seem quite ready for. His difficult ex-girlfriend Charlotte (Natasha O’Keeffe) is also pregnant and back in the frame. And Robin’s marriage is under increasing strain.
In Lethal White, Robin’s marriage comes under strain while Strike deals with his pregnant ex girlfriend Charlotte
But she’s back working with Strike as a private detective-in-training. ‘They’re now in a slightly awkward work relationship,’ says Holliday, 32. ‘Robin knows she shouldn’t have married Matthew. We’re on a new case, investigating the blackmailing of an MP but – spoiler alert – that turns into a murder investigation.’
In fact, they take on two cases. One is the job involving MP Jasper Chiswell (Robert Glenister) and the man he says is blackmailing him, Jimmy Knight. The other falls into their lap when Jimmy’s brother Billy arrives in Strike’s office, saying he saw a child being strangled years ago.
‘A lot of Lethal White takes place in and around the Houses of Parliament, following an old aristocratic family,’ says Holliday. ‘It’s an alien environment to many reading the book, but you feel like you’re getting a glimpse of real people in the real world, via these characters.’
It’s the sort of twisting tale we’ve come to expect. But Tom believes Strike and Robin’s relationship is key to the show’s appeal. ‘I think it’s the really slow-burn relationship cooking away that keeps people hooked. The biggest mystery is what’s happening between them,’ he says.
Lethal White episode 1: Robin Ellacott (Holliday Grainger) with Cormoran Strike (Tom Burke), Lorelei (Natalie Gumede)
‘I think people in real life are happy to maintain slightly ambiguous relationships for years. It’s a frisson of the beginning of something. It’s like a perfect piece of china you keep in a cabinet – you don’t want to spoil it, so it stays on your periphery.’
Strike, who is the illegitimate son of a former rock star, is juggling the women in his life. ‘There’s Charlotte, the blast from the past, and there’s Lorelei, his lovely new assistant. He’s started a relationship with her, but he’s not really in the right place for it because of Robin,’ explains Tom.
‘I don’t think Strike’s a Lothario, but he craves a certain emotional comfort in his life. Just like he loves stodgy food and beer, he gets this comfort from women. And he’s had this painful childhood which is a raw nerve. His relationship with Charlotte is like wilfully running towards pain. A part of him must want that.
‘I talked to Jo [Rowling] and Natasha [O’Keeffe] about it, and the main thing we came away with is that Strike and Charlotte are connected somehow, bonded by being outsiders in their own families. That can bring people together in a powerful way. You get a sense, certainly in the books, that whatever else Strike and Charlotte’s relationship was, they were very sexually compatible. And Lorelei is a genuinely kind, decent and interesting person. As somebody who doesn’t have the simplest life, or job, having that immediacy is something he craves, however much there is a question mark about Robin.’
JK Rowling had planned to write three of the books under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith before anyone realised it was her
Tom seems to have a huge fondness for his complicated character. Strike is in his late 30s and is a former Special Investigation Branch investigator, and wears a prosthetic leg after losing the lower half of his right leg in a bomb attack in Afghanistan when in the Army. A lack of self-pity is one of his defining features and one with which Tom can empathise.
‘I feel less blinkered when playing him. I feel much more aware of anybody in the crew or cast who may be having a fragile time and I notice things more than usual, which makes it a very nice part to play,’ he says.
‘I remained in remarkably good spirits for the whole shoot. I was like, ‘Oh my God, I’m a spiritual giant.’ Then I went onto something else and was back in that slightly nervy place and thought, ‘Oh, it’s just the part.’
JK Rowling was keen to cast Tom, who had auditioned to play Ron Weasley’s eldest brother Bill in the Harry Potter films, as Strike. She loved his performance as Dolokhov in War & Peace and went to watch him in a play without anyone knowing.
But it still required a transformation. For the role of the ‘grizzly bear’ of a man, skulking under his huge trench coat, he went on a protein diet to bulk up and spent time with amputees including former soldier Barney Gillespie. On screen, the representation of the prosthetic leg is authentic, right down to him rubbing ointments into the stump or trying to move around after he’s removed it.
‘When I asked Barney how you’d run with a prosthetic leg on, he said, ‘Oh you wouldn’t, it would be agony so only if your life depended on it.’ So I had to invent how Strike runs.
‘I get recognised and people come up and say, ‘Have you brought your leg?’ I get endless jokes about that.’
Strike encounters his future business partner, Robin Ellacott, only when she turns up to work as a temp secretary he thought he had cancelled in the first series
Self-effacing like Strike, Tom feels he can relax into the dishevelment more than he could with Dolokhov’s ‘peacockish vanity’ and thinks he doesn’t look ‘too dissimilar to Strike’. In fact, he’s far cleaner-cut than the bearded detective, who spends much time in his grubby office surrounded by takeaway boxes and beer bottles.
Strike is certainly the antithesis of the immaculate Robin. This series, however, we see the feisty woman in different guises. ‘Robin has a great sense of fun,’ says Holliday. ‘She goes undercover with the MP in the House of Commons, wearing brown contact lenses. When I read the book, I was dubious that contacts could change your appearance much, but I was so wrong – it transforms your whole face. And it’s fascinating the effect that has on your personality too.
‘She also goes to Camden Town, where she starts working in a jewellery shop to infiltrate a left-wing protest group. So I’ve also got this black wig, black clothes, Doc Martens and gothy eye make-up look going on.’
Given that she and Tom have inhabited these characters for a while now, since the first tale, The Cuckoo’s Calling, aired in 2017, what do they think their future holds? ‘I don’t know. Marriage and babies, happily ever after?’ muses Holliday. ‘I think the most exciting thing is when the ‘will-they-won’t they’ becomes the heartbreaking ‘not quite there yet’.’
Tom feels differently. ‘In drama I’m quite in favour of catastrophe. I’d like things to go very, very wrong.’
As JK Rowling plans to write at least six more Strike novels, we have plenty of time to enjoy the mystery.
- Strike: Lethal White begins on Sunday 30 August on BBC1.