Neil Cross, the acclaimed NZ-based novelist, scriptwriter and creator of Luther, tells Duncan McLachlan about violence and drama, being scared of the dark, and what makes him headbutt walls. Alert: contains spoilers for Luther. And Moonlighting
On 4 May 2010, the BBC introduced us to DCI John Luther. His friends called him John. To the rest of us he was Luther. He taught us to lock our doors. It reminded us that the scratching on the windows was not always caused by trees. It made me start, again, to check under my bed. The Luther of Luther polices that world. The concept is simple. Week after week, Idris Elba’s character would catch a new serial murderer. One killer pretended to be a taxi driver, and stole objects from the women that he killed. Another captured children in order to replicate a fabled Victorian killer.
Every man has his maker. Luther’s is Neil Cross and he lives in Khandallah, Wellington. I met him at the unpretentious Parson’s Cafe and we shared a pot of tea. For someone who has so successfully created characters that have terrified me, Neil is decidedly unscary (no offence, mate!). He has that sharp, clipped, English accent imbued with his working class upbringing in Bristol and Edinburgh. For a while he lived a few minutes’ walk from Highbury, the former home of Arsenal Football Club in North London. He moved to Wellington with his wife Nadya, who is a New Zealander. He has NADYA tattooed on his left wrist. They have two children.
The Spinoff: What are you working on right now?
Neil Cross: Many things. Sorry that’s very weak tea. I have got a new show for the BBC that starts shooting in January.
Do we know anything about that?
You know dribs and drabs. It is called Hard Sun. The line we use is that it’s a pre-apocalyptic contemporary crime drama.
It’s about to happen. The first inspiration for the show was Bowie’s “Five Years”. The song that begins David Bowie’s album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. And it’s about sitting in a cafe having just learned that the world is about to end. And watching the world go by knowing that the world is about to end. And it’s a really intense, really quite beautiful and moving wild apocalyptic song. And that was the inspiration. So for a long time the show was actually called Five Years but we changed it to Hard Sun because that’s a cool title.
Yes it is quite racy. But did you say it was crime?
But there must be a romance aspect to it? I always think with these apocalyptic things, you know: there has to be a love interest.
No – look, this is an interesting question – it’s very difficult to answer this without being specific and I’m not allowed to be specific. But in many ways it is about love. The whole show is about love, but not necessarily romance. I write very well about love. I don’t think I write that well about romance. Because romance is told. On television, romantic stories tend to follow a certain pattern. Do you know the show Moonlighting?
No. [Please laugh at or with me because most of this interview consisted of Neil Cross throwing TV show references at me, and me going, “Yup?!? Great, great show. Oh yeah that’s a classic. Loved that bit.”]
It was Bruce Willis’s big break [with] Cybill Shepherd. A kind of lightweight private detective show, where they were private detectives working together. They clearly loved each other but they never expressed their love for each other. Everybody wanted it to happen. What always stuck in my mind as a writer was the last episode in the final series. They got together, and the minute they got together the viewing figures started to decline as did the show. I mean it just didn’t have that engine behind it anymore.
The final episode, which is now forgotten, was extraordinary. The characters were talking and as they were talking crews started to disassemble the set around them – and she was going, “What’s going on? What’s happening?” And he was going, “Well it was all about will we won’t we and then we did and people stopped caring.” And then it kind of ended with Bruce Willis and Cybill Shepherd standing there on the empty lot as their fictional world was de-created around them.
But whenever I watch a show I always get very angry at the end when I don’t get the resolution that I wanted. When he doesn’t end up with her.
Well the thing is the first kiss. We are culturally accustomed to the first kiss being the end of the story. But it’s not. It’s the beginning of the story, but it’s the beginning of an entirely different story. So I don’t really write that kind of stuff.
But all your detective writing is very genre based. Do you still find creatively that you are able to not feel stale?
[Laughing] I am laughing precisely because I know exactly what you mean. It’s a daily struggle. But it’s something that I’m acutely aware of. I have got an inbuilt horror of repeating myself. But every great pop song ever written has gone verse chorus verse chorus medley repeat chorus to fade. And that could be “Ticket to Ride” or it could be “Single Ladies”. So within the restrictions of the genre there is in fact room for infinite repetitions. And the real key is not the limitations of the genre itself, because, as I say, they are bounded, they are infinite, the real key is to watch out for repetition and lazy thinking. That’s what causes me the most self-doubt; the most sleepless nights; the most headbutting walls: thinking, “Does this feel a bit like what I’ve done?”
Where do you stand on Brexit? For me, as someone who grew up in London, it has all been very distressing.
I clearly self identify as working class and although I was a Remainer, a reasonably passionate Remainer, it’s a rational choice. It’s not a choice you make from the heart. You weigh up the two alternatives and you choose the better of the two options. And for me that was by some margin, the better of the two options. I wouldn’t describe myself as a chest thumping European. But the nature of the debate turned it into a chest thumping debate. I mean we had kids marching in the streets of London saying, you know, a vote for Europe is a vote for love. Well it’s not. It’s a vote for a trading block, and a kind of hyper capitalist trading block at that. You know the European union does not love you.
Yeah, you just get economic benefits from it.
Yeah and cultural benefits. But what distressed me afterwards was the contempt levelled at the working class people who voted for Brexit.
No, I agree, I thought it was gross.
It was truly grotesque and it made me angry. And for a few weeks it actually pushed me in the other direction in that kind of defiance.
I found it was so interesting how quickly people assumed that a vote to leave meant you were ignorant.
Yeah you were ignorant. You were bigoted. You were racist. You were little England.
You were everything wrong.
It was truly hideous. And that, I mean generally it has been an upsetting time for everybody, but that particularly made me very upset.
I was reading your memoir Heartland, which is a lovely book, and one of the things that stuck out was the violence in your life growing up. You were bullied a lot at school. In Chapter One there is a very visceral picture of your father being beaten by your mother’s lover. How has that affected you growing up?
In all honesty I just think that in general those were more violent times. I think that kind of stuff just happened more often. I mean it remains the case that in terms of physical assault you are most likely to be assaulted when you are a young man. Despite the way that we perceive the news and we perceive the victims of random violence, it tends to be young men as both the victims and the perpetrators of random violence. And I look back on it and I look at my children’s school life in New Zealand and I think it’s largely devoid of violence.
But all this violence hasn’t made you feel any differently about these sorts of issues?
I don’t think so, no. I think there is something about us, something about men that, no matter how well read we are or how well-intentioned we are or how superlative our sexual politics, there is a certain atavism about men. And I have experienced moments of atavism. Certainly when my son was born I had a really strange few months. I was a younger man, in my early 30s, and there is a psychic shock of, I don’t know if you have kids yet …
Well when you take your first child back home with you it’s a kind of genuinely profound psychic shock, not least because you are drop kicked out of the centre of your own universe but as much as you now have this profound responsibility to keep this person safe.
It actually terrifies me.
It messed me up. I spent the first year or 14 months of his life agonising about whether or not, if it came to it, I would be able to protect my son and my wife. And it got to the stage where I was secretly placing weapons throughout the house.
You actually kept a hammer, didn’t you?
Yeah, I kept a hammer in the hood of the pram and stuff. And you know I started to fantasise. It got very Travis Bickle. I started to fantasise about getting into violent altercations so I could prove I was worthy of protecting my son. And, yeah, I think, although mine possibly was edging towards being off kilter, that experience in general is not that unusual for men. You know a lot of men go through that. And still for a lot of men no matter how excellent your sexual politics and no matter how well read and liberal you are I still think there is in many, if not most, of us a fundamental desire to provide for your family.
Recently, actress Doon Mackichan criticised Luther for its alleged misogyny. She said that there was too much of an emphasis on brutalised women, that it amounted to a form of crime porn.
Well, it’s not true. Not only do I disagree with it, it’s objectively not true. I do the maths on this kind of stuff quite carefully but if you were to do a tally of male and female victims in Luther, if anything, the male victims will outnumber the female victims.
Well it’s the female victims that we remember acutely. I don’t quite know why that is. I mean I’m aware of it, I know it’s true. I often illustrate this by saying that the most prolific serial killer operating in Britain in the 1990s, if one disregards Harold Shipman – although that is germane to this point as well – if you disregard Shipman, the most successful serial killer, if that’s the right word, in Britain was a guy called Colin Ireland. And no one has heard of Colin Ireland.
I haven’t, no.
And that’s because he killed men. He killed gay men. And Shipman killed over a hundred people – well in excess of 100 people, they think.
And they caught him?
Oh yeah he was a doctor.
OK. That’s a good way to kill people.
The reason you don’t know Shipman and the reason he doesn’t sort of haunt our imaginations like a bogeyman, like some sort of demonic nightmare, is because he killed old people. And for some reason again, not reasons that I necessarily agree with, but reasons which I deliberately exploit in my work, is old people and gay men don’t resonate at the same level. The loss of them doesn’t seem to matter to us, quite as much, on a narrative level. And I don’t think it’s right. I don’t think it’s laudable, but it’s true.
And what’s the fascination with horror? I watched Mama [a horror film co-written by Cross and produced by Guillermo Del Toro], I was home alone at the flat and it was the worst idea. Why do you like freaking people out?
Because I get scared. I don’t write about what I’d like to do to people. I write about what I’m scared people will do to me. So I’m scared of the dark, I’m scared of ghosts. I don’t believe in ghosts – I have an entirely rational kind of scientific mechanistic logical world view – you know, in the day time. At two o’clock in the morning my philosophy changes rapidly. I think most of ours does.
My God, I know.
I am very scared of the dark. I can’t be alone in the house with the lights off. With any lights off anywhere in the house. Even if there is a cupboard with a light in it. If I am alone in the house I have to turn the cupboard light on. I can’t bear the presence of darkness when I am by myself. And so I just write what interests me and what interests me is what scares me. That’s the truth.
One of the things that Luther plays out is that inner tension that you have where you have to be part of a system and an institution which has rules but then you also have a moral compass which says no, I should actually just save the person.
Quite, but that’s also true of everyone who has got a job. I’ve worked in shops where you know you shouldn’t be refunding this elderly customer’s money because she bought the goods legally but you do it anyway because it is the right thing to do. And everybody comes across that essential dilemma in their working day or working life.
Do you find that script writing and book writing is what gives you your meaning in your life?
Um, no, yes. No. No, yes, no. There’s my answer.
It gives me a function and it allows me to do something I really enjoy and that I feel compelled to do, and which by kind of luck and circumstance provides pleasure to people and that’s really nice. But I am also aware that I am not solving cancer. You know, I’m not curing cancer. I’m not feeding the hungry. Which is not to denigrate what we do because I think to provide entertainment is a bit of a calling, with a small c. But, you know, I have nothing to say, I have no important insights about the nature of humanity or the nature of the world.
And that frustrates you?
No, no it’s the opposite. I think that most of the big truths are actually very banal small truths. So I’ve got no desire to articulate any Capital T Truths about the world because I just don’t actually think there are any. There’s us and our little lives and our little stories. And you know the most important thing in my life is my family. But I am immensely proud of what I do and I feel immensely privileged to do it and I have an inordinate amount of fun doing it.
The thing with Luther is that most of the time Luther is thinking about killing himself. What is that about?
Well that’s weirdly about what we just discussed. It’s about him recognising that the thing he has to do is also the thing that destroys him, which again is a not uncommon state of affairs for many people. He is in a constant state of existential crisis. He doesn’t want to be who he is. And I think one of the reasons that the Luther and Alice relationship is so important to people is what these people see in each other is what each of them is aware each is missing in themselves. Alice attracts Luther because she is entirely self aware and entirely happy with what she is and the choices she makes. She feels no guilt. She lives for what she thinks is right. And he admires it and covets it.
One more question then, and it’s about Alice Morgan. How annoying was it that you had to kill her off? I mean it was pretty frustrating for everyone involved. Was that because of The Affair?
Yeah it was The Affair. I will answer that question with a raised eyebrow.
A mysteriously raised eyebrow.
Catch Luther in all his gloomy glory on Lightbox below
The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed daily digest of New Zealand’s most important stories, delivered directly to your inbox each morning.