28 Sep 2017

Neil Cross: exploring our darkest fears

From Nine To Noon, 10:06 am on 28 September 2017

Wellington-based, British-born crime writer Neil Cross has a knack for creating twisted characters that are loved and loathed by TV audiences across the globe.

Originally a novelist, Cross turned his attention to television in the 1990s, writing episodes of British crime drama Spooks and Dr Who. But perhaps his most famous creation is Detective John Luther.

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Neil Cross with Idris Elba who plays John Luther Photo: Neil Cross

Cross is in the middle of writing a new series of Luther and has also created a new pre-apocalyptic crime drama Hard Sun in which he mixes the detective business with end-of-the-world tensions.

He inhabits some of television’s most frightening characters and says this is informed by his own anxieties.

“I’m a very anxious person, I’m a very scared person, I’m scared of the dark. If I’m alone in the house I have to have every light on.

“I can’t bear the thought of any darkness in the house.”

Yet the dark, terrifying scenarios he imagines don’t reflect a streak of sadism, he says.    

“All of it is a function of not what I want to do to other people, but what I’m scared other people might want to do to me.”

Accusations of misogyny have been levelled at Luther, but Cross says such criticism is off the mark. 

“I understand where it comes from. The hard maths is we kill more men than we do women.

“I think it is the case that a lot of the women-in-peril stories stick in the memory because they’re frightening.

“It’s entirely fair to say women-in-peril stories aren’t to one’s taste, but I don’t think it’s fair to accuse Luther of misogyny.”

He tells Nine to Noon he has only just realised a recurring theme of home invasion in his writing might stem from one of his earliest memories.

“My first memory is of a home invasion, my mother’s lover kicking the door down and beating up my father.”

Primal fears are deeply embedded in us, he says.

“It’s something I find it particularly disturbing, it’s a very male thing, it doesn’t matter how liberal your sexual politics, there’s still a kind of atavism in many men, this desire to be able to protect your family.”

Cross is full of admiration for Idris Elba’s portrayal of John Luther.  

“It’s rare in your life to have that perfect actor to not only inhabit the role but to entirely identify it with himself.

“I can no longer remember the character Luther that existed in my head and on the page prior to Idris putting on that coat and stepping before the cameras.”

He and Elba both love the character, he says.

“We have this really nice, tension-free, conflict-free, shared custody of the character. We both love him and we both want the best for him.”

The pre-apocalyptic crime drama Hard Sun was inspired by the David Bowie song ‘Five Years’ which vividly evokes the idea of an oncoming apocalypse, he says.

“We live, I will not be the first to observe, in an age of widespread, very acute, particular anxiety.

“Most drama will kind of tap into current anxieties and the pervading current anxiety is ‘Oh dear God, it’s all going horribly wrong’”.

In 'Five Years', Bowie's narrator has learned the world will only exist for another five years.

“He’s wandering 'round this market square … and because the world is going to end he’s noticing everything.

“The evanescence of the present, the frangibility lends everything this luminous value, everything means something because it might not be there.

“In a song about the end of the world, you get this enormous sense of life, affirmation and joy.”

Apocalypse is a simple fact of life, Cross says.

“The fact is the apocalypse is coming for us all. At some point, we’re going to end. All we have is each other and a little bit of time.”

Cross is excited by the kind of television being commissioned in the Netflix era.

“Slowly, quality, long-form television, culturally, is ousting what we would call the literary novel.

“It’s changing the way we as a culture tell our stories.”

He finds the New Zealand scene less rosy, however.

“There is an intrinsic, systemic state of being sub-optimal in New Zealand television, I don’t know what the root of the problem is.

“It’s expressed in an unwarranted conservatism, a profound lack of ambition, a constant recurring retreat to the comforts of inexpensive reality TV.”

There is no reason why New Zealand shouldn’t make world-class TV, he says.

“There are out there potential international hits. There’s no reason why New Zealand television can’t compete on the international stage the same way Scandinavian countries do.

“There’s no reason why this shouldn’t happen: the talent is there, the ambition in there, the ideas are there, this landscape is here, the infrastructure is there … everything is there, but it’s not happening.”

Neil Cross will speak about the craft of screenwriting at this year's Big Screen Symposium - New Zealand's biggest annual screen industry event. It takes place on 30 September and 1 October at the University of Auckland Business School.

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