Strike star Tom Burke: “If JK Rowling is happy, I’m happy”

The star of BBC1's hot new crime drama Strike on playing TV’s best new detective – and the debt he owes his godfather Alan Rickman

Good news, television fans. The next great British TV detective is here. His name is Cormoran Strike and his first case, The Cuckoo’s Calling, begins on BBC1 over the August Bank Holiday weekend.

Adapted from the crime fiction books of JK Rowling, originally published under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith, the series introduces us to private detective Strike, played by Tom Burke – a charismatic actor with fine pedigree and a history of playing cads and bounders, troubled souls and utter bastards.

There was dashing and dangerous Dolokhov in BBC1’s stellar War and Peace, troubled swashbuckler Athos in The Musketeers and a startling turn as Ryan Gosling’s depraved older brother in Only God Forgives. Now Burke is stepping into the spotlight.

Tom Burke plays Cormoran Strike

“The idea of it being sent out into the world into people’s living rooms makes me feel a bit sick,” he says. “It feels violent. I don’t know why, but I feel nervous about it.”

He compares his feelings ahead of the transmission to the first time he stole a penny sweet as a child. “I remember feeling kind of excited and kind of horrible at the same time.”

Expectations are sky high, as they are for anything connected with JK Rowling. So what can we expect from the BBC’s biggest event drama since Sherlock? Not a reinvention of the private eye genre, that’s for sure.

Classic crime drama

Many tropes of classic crime drama are here. The private detective with the messy personal life and even messier office? Check. Our hero sporting a hangdog expression and long overcoat? Check. A sleuth on the verge of a financial breakdown? Check. A complex backstory feeding into the work and character of our lead? Check.

“If you constantly try to escape from the genre, you end up writing a Western without any horses,” says Burke, quoting crime novelist Mark Billingham.

“The genre is something to be playful with. So you build a palate of things one would naturally associate with that genre and then bring in other things so it is not derivative.”

Mercifully, some more recent crime drama tropes are absent. There’s not a single lingering shot of a naked female corpse in the episodes we’ve seen to date. Nor does Strike have any misplaced compulsion to ape the style of Scandinoir.

Instead, it showcases a London that is dying fast. Strike’s office is on Denmark Street, Britain’s own Tin Pan Alley, whose guitar shops and the legendary 12 Bar Club have been largely demolished for Crossrail.

Strike’s haunts are the endangered old-school cafes and pubs of Soho and, like the establishments he favours, Strike is of a dying breed – an analogue detective in a digital age.

I love watching Columbo. Everyone does, don’t they?

“I am thinking about recent incarnations of superheroes in films where they say: ‘We are still going to give him bat ears, but we are going to come up with a good reason why,’” says Burke.

“So, my thing with Strike’s coat is that this is a man who fills up with stodgy food and a pint on any occasion he can. There is an element of him trying to insulate himself. The coat is this big, solid block shape. There is something in him that is exposed and fragile and needs to be covered and protected.

“I love watching Columbo. Everyone does, don’t they? So the coat was a massive part of building the character. We nearly went shorter. But above the knee is Luther; too long is the full Columbo.”

He’s a remarkable actor

Rowling has been heavily involved throughout. As an executive producer, she has read every script at every stage. And the author is full of praise for Burke’s performance.

“I’d seen him act on TV before. Then he was cast and so I went and looked at other things he’d done because I really wanted to know who was going to be playing Strike. He’s a remarkable actor,” says the author.

“The thing with Strike, particularly in the early book, he’s quite taciturn. He’s quite buttoned up, so you’ve got to say quite a lot without saying a lot. Tom’s magnificent at that. He’s a clever person and he just does justice to that.”

Tom Burke in War and Peace
Burke as Dolokhov in War and Peace

Of Rowling’s involvement, Burke says: “When there is something that needs to be said, she will absolutely step in. But she is also very generous and trusting.

“I gather she is very pleased with the results. In a way, that was the biggest thing. If she is happy, I’m happy.”

Acting dynasty

Rowling, of course, has form for adaptations that do rather well. And before filming began, Burke re-watched the entire Harry Potter franchise. But not just to immerse himself in JK Rowling’s world.

“I am a massive fan of the books and films. And you probably know Alan [Rickman] was my Godfather?” he says.

“I re-watched the films just to see his whole beautifully crafted arc. Both to touch in with him and also to see how one sustains a character, because potentially I could be doing this for many years. And I think it is a masterclass in acting.”

Burke grew up among actors. His mother Anna Calder-Marshall is perhaps best known on screen for her Cordelia, opposite Laurence Olivier’s Emmy Award-winning King Lear. His father, David Burke, is fondly remembered as Dr Watson in The Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes alongside Jeremy Brett. But Rickman was instrumental in Burke’s career path.

“We were close,” Burke adds. “Alan was an absolutely enormous influence on me. I maybe wouldn’t have gone to drama school if he hadn’t been so insistent.”

Strike: The Cuckoo’s Calling is on BBC1 on Sundays