Writer Neil Cross is responsible for some of our worst nightmares.
As the creator of Luther, he’s the reason why you now double check your doors are locked and windows closed before bed.
Despite the horrors, Luther fans want more of Idris Elba in his signature tweed coat, blurring the lines while catching the bad guys, even as he seems to lose more of himself in the process.
A Luther movie has long been mooted to be the works, but it looks like confirmation of when it’s coming is imminent, Cross reveals to news.com.au over Zoom from his home in Wellington, New Zealand.
“I can tell you that Idris and I, and Jamie Payne, our director, will have a pretty big announcement pretty soon. I’m not allowed to say what it is yet, but I can definitely tell you that what it is not is Luther season six.”
The prospect of more Luther means more night terrors, but whenever Cross is told how much his works have scared the bejesus out of people, he cracks a wry smile.
“That’s the highest compliment I could be paid,” he says. “I take great pleasure in frightening people. I always feel like it’s like being a sportsman and scoring a goal. It’s like ‘yeah, top that’.”
Cross says the dark side of human nature is something he finds “endlessly fascinating and exciting, but troubling”.
That compulsion to explore where others dare not is what’s led to his success as the screenwriter of TV shows that also includes Hard Sun, Crossbones and his latest series, The Sister.
The Sister is adapted – or transformed, as Cross refers to the process of taking a story from one medium to another – from a book Cross published in 2009, Burial.
Starring Russell Tovey, The Sister is a crime thriller centred on Nathan, a man haunted by a secret from his past, which literally re-enters his life on a rainy night with a knock at the door.
Nathan is a morally murky character whose past actions are dubious at best and who has everything to lose. Cross says he picked Burial as the first of his own novels to make for TV because it’s the one whose characters have stayed with him the most viscerally.
“All of the characters in Burial just never left me. It’s haunted me and part of the reason it’s haunted me is because there is a lot of me in it. It’s the closest I’ve ever come, I think, to little bits of autobiography in fiction.
“There’s a lot of me in Nathan. My wife was the first reader when I finished the book and she kind of went, ‘my god, it’s you’.
“I didn’t really know until she told me. I knew I had a lot of compassion for the character. I did not identify with his actions, but I identified with his motivations quite profoundly.”
Cross’s leads often live in this grey zone, but it’s the villains among his creations that have frightened people the most.
In The Sister, it’s Bob, the scraggly haired knock on Nathan’s door while in Luther, there were the twins or Jeremy Lake, the cold doctor with his glowing mask, or any other number of very human wretches you hope to never meet.
It’s not that Cross can get in his killers’ minds that makes him such an effective, chilling storyteller – it’s that he’s driven by fear of these sadists.
“I’ve never written about what I would like to do somebody,” he explains. “I write about what I’m scared somebody’s going to do to me. And I think the reason Luther scares people is because it comes from an honest place. I write about things that scare me, that’s why it translates.
“Any of us, at any point in our lives, could be a victim of this kind of event.
“But equally, what is less explored, is that given the right circumstances and the right pressures, any of us could be the perpetrator. We all carry within us the ability to be the victim or the perpetrator, and that tension in the human heart really, really fascinates me.”
Perhaps it would amuse Cross’s fans to know that he does what any other viewer might do to release themselves from the grips of anxiety induced by his work – he watches TV that’s the opposite of an uneasy thriller.
“I watch humungous, humungous amounts of reality TV,” he says. “I’m the world’s biggest fan of reality TV.
“The more stressed I am and the harder I work, the more Drag Race I watch. At the moment, we’ve got a show here called Dog Almighty, it’s a reality show for dogs, and my house loves that.
“And I love Zumbo’s Just Desserts. I would love to meet Zumbo, I would love to have Zumbo make a cake for me, that’s one of my life’s ambitions.
“I live the world’s quietest, most content and dull life. I spend all day working at home if I can and in the evening, I lie on the sofa with my wife, my son if he’s around, and we watch RuPaul. It’s a nice way to live.”
With Wellington only a three-hour flight, perhaps when the border between Australia and New Zealand re-opens, Cross can knock on Sydney chef Adriano Zumbo’s home.
Even though he lives halfway across the world from the pulse of where his shows are set, the Bristol-born Cross has lived in New Zealand for many years – his wife is Kiwi.
“Do you know I’ve only ever written for the screen from New Zealand?” he asks. “Luther, in its way, is a New Zealand show.
“I’m in this weirdly abusive relationship with London in that I love it and it’s really bad for me. When I lived there, it just ate me alive. It’s so big and noisy and it’s just this great slavering, piss-stinking beast of a city.
“I did love it, I absolutely loved living there, but I found it was a great place to be young, not a great place to be a young parent. It’s no longer fun living in a Lou Reed song when you’ve got two young kids.
“I’m still addicted to London as an idea. It’s quite odd because even in the decade since we’ve been doing Luther, it’s changed.
“The places we call Lutherland, which is kind of that territory out east around Shoreditch, Hackney and Haringey, it doesn’t exist like it did. Those areas where we had guys in clown masks running around are now inhabited by the super-rich.
“I find it much easier to write about London when I’m not there. When I’m in London, it’s so busy chewing me up and eating me alive that I can’t write about it.”
He would also love to make something about New Zealand. Until then, we’ll just have to contend ourselves with his UK-based work, including that new Luther instalment – as far as consolation prizes go, it feels like winning.
The Sister is streaming now on SBS On Demand and broadcast on SBS on Wednesday nights at 9.30pm
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