Neil Cross’ work as a writer for television includes several episodes of “Spooks” and “Doctor Who,” as well as the NBC pirate drama “Crossbones,” but by and large, the British native is best known for “Luther,” the Idris Elba-starring detective drama that became an international success, racking up an impressive number of Emmy nominations in America as a BBC America miniseries.
Here’s an interesting twist, though: Cross may be British, but he no longer lives in Britain. As he put it in a recent phone interview with Indiewire, “My dirty little secret is that I actually live in New Zealand.” According to him, though, that’s an essential aspect to his process in writing the drama, which digs into the complicated psychology of not just Detective John Luther, but the dark and complicated London where he lives.
Cross also spoke about the original industry trends that led the BBC to suggest he create a series centered around a solo detective, the reason why he originally thought they’d never get Idris Elba on board and why — despite allegedly ending the series with Season 3 — he and Elba decided to return for a Season 4. An edited transcript follows, beginning with the reveal that, if Cross is based in New Zealand…
How does the physical distance that you have from, you know, “the industry” affect you as a writer?
I mean, the physical distance is really important because then it becomes possible to live your normal, everyday life outside the industry clubs. I grew up reading Stephen King. I read my first Stephen King novel when I was 13. “Salem’s Lot” was the first one I read in 1982. And what I would love about King’s novels is how he wrote about small communities. Stephen King’s novels, with a few exceptions, were never set in the great metropolis. They were usually set in small town Maine. I always found that a very, very attractive idea.
My wife is a Kiwi, we met in London, but she did what all Kiwis do, which is get married and go back to live in New Zealand. And it kind of fulfilled that lifelong dream of the young Stephen King reader that I used to be [by] living in a small community. On any given day, I rarely see a face I haven’t seen before, you know, which is kind of nice.
I believe it. I mean, how does that affect you when you’re sitting down to do something like “Luther,” though, which is so urban?
You know, part of the reason I love it is because at heart I’m an urban soul, you know? I’m a born city dweller, which is why I still find it odd that I live in a non-city, you know — a small city anyway. But to be honest the London of “Luther” is… I’m trying to find a way to say this that it doesn’t sound monstrously pretentious, but, the London of “Luther” is a kind of psychological landscape. It’s not real London. It’s kind of exaggerated [and] operatic. It’s a graphic novel-esque version of London, which is only, in all honesty, possible to maintain if you’re not living there. When I lived in London and I wrote about London, I would write kind of very pre-existing portrayals of the city. But actually being away from it and have it kind of inhabit my imagination enables me to write this kind of specific fictional London of “Luther.”
Do you feel that’s common for a lot of writers, or is it something that you find pretty specific to yourself?
Do you know what, I don’t really know. I suspect it’s quite common for writers… Even when I was a kid and I was writing short stories on a hot day, I would set a short story in a cold place. On a dry day, I’d set a story in the rain. I figure it’s a way to kind of detach your imagination from the reality which is immediately around you. Which is an idiotic way of saying it’s the easy way to make stuff up.
Talk to me a little bit about making stuff up for this latest season, especially because I think a lot of people never expected “Luther” to come back for a Season 4.
A lot of people didn’t, no, including me and Idris, to be honest. We’d thought that we’d not run the course, but we thought that given Idris’ really interesting schedule, it was going to be difficult to do anymore. But, the truth is that we both missed it almost immediately, pretty much as soon as it was wrapped. As soon as we’d finished the edits and that was all done, I began to experience a gap in my life, you know. I tried to apply that lovely Dr. Seuss quote, “Don’t be sad it’s over, be glad it’s happened,” to my kind of lost mood, but we both missed it. We both just missed it.
I think it was six or seven weeks after the previous supposedly final season was broadcast, Idris walked the red carpet somewhere and he mentioned on the red carpet, on camera, that he’d like to do more. And someone emailed me, so I was texting him while he was at the awards ceremony saying, “Shall we do it, then?” and he said “Yeah.”
So I think that we just kind of, you know, I think Idris and I would both love to keep doing it. And it’s a great source of pride and pleasure to me, how much Idris enjoys the role, what a big part of Idris’ life “Luther” is. I’m very proud of that.
Well, it’s an unusual situation because it almost feels like the two of you are much more partners than you normally see with this kind of show.
I know what you mean, I always describe it as that Idris and I have joint custody of the character. It wasn’t a kind of truce that we arrived at. It was just how it’s been between both of since the days beginning.
Was Luther a character that you had had in mind and then Idris just came along, or was the character something that came from collaboration between the two of you?
The character existed, and, in fact, some scripts existed when we sent some scripts to Idris. I can’t tell you dates because I’m rubbish at dates. I can never remember what happened in what year. 1066, England was invaded, that’s the only date I know.
The BBC approached me– I’d been working on other shows for BBC, and I went out for a nice, very civilized kind of lunch with the BBC and they posited to me that at that point in time so many crime shows were ensemble-based. It was kind of post-“CSI,” you know? All the crime shows around evolved to a kind of large team of people, you know, spraying roots with chemicals and seeing blood glow blue. They said that they could feel the kind of, the end of this era kind of moving in over the horizon and that they would like, if possible, a return to the kind of iconic single detectives. And I said that I had had this idea for a character. I didn’t know if the guy was going to be in books or the guy was going to be on TV or what, but I had the character in my head. So, I told them about the character, I wrote some scripts, and we drew up a shortlist for actors.
Now, it was quite a short shortlist and more of the actors on the shortlist were the absolute top of their game, but the executive, Katie Swinden, and I at the time were talking about Idris. It was very common knowledge in the British film and television industry at that time that everybody in Britain was trying to cast Idris Elba in everything and he said no to absolutely everything. So, Katie and I were discussing whether we had the guts to do it, whether there was any point in doing it. We knew he didn’t want to work in England, but we really, really, really wanted him. We really wanted him.
So, we sent him the script and he read it really quickly and miracle of miracles he really responded to it. Idris and I, I think… He was in Puerto Rico shooting a movie, I was in New Zealand, Katie Swinden was in London, and Idris and I were on the phone within I think two days of him receiving the script. Just that first conversation, the very first conversation we had, I just knew it was going to be awesome. I just knew it.
It’s so funny that he was so in demand in the U.K. at that point because I feel like for a number of people I know, their first reaction to watching “Luther” was, “Wait a minute, the guy who played Stringer Bell is British?”
[laughs] It’s hilarious. He used to be very funny about that. We’d be walking down the street and you know, people would say, “Hey, Stringer!” and he’d turn around and go [strong Cockney accent] “Right, mate.” It’s one of those things, he did this incredibly kind of brave, reckless thing where he upped sticks to the States so he could carve his career out. Good on him.
But, everybody, everybody wanted Idris. He could have a few things in the U.K. but what he’d done with that role was so, you know, iconic’s an overused word in the industry, but he was just astonishing in that role. He was both astonishing and charismatic and beautiful and just gravitational in the way that he could command the screen. Even when surrounded by, you know, incredibly talented actors, you still can’t not look at Idris Elba. So, we were very keen but our expectations were low.
After four seasons, you guys have racked up an impressive number of Emmy nominations, and I wanted to ask about that. Because, in the U.S., getting an Emmy nomination is a pretty big deal. I’m wondering what the perception of that achievement is in the British television world.
Well, that’s a very strange question. I mean, one of the peculiarities of my life is that I have never seen an episode of anything I’ve ever written actually broadcast live on television, which is very bizarre. But somebody sent me a clip of the continuity announcer of the BBC announcing the recent special, and they announced it by saying something like, “And now, for the return of the BBC’s greatest ever copper.” And, that knocked me sideways, I said “Fuck” — sorry, excuse my French. But it knocked me sideways to suddenly realize that “Luther” has moved from a kind of… From what was perceived as an outlier show for the BBC; a very dark, very surprising, atypical show for the BBC. It moved from that to becoming kind of a cult hit, and now it’s become what we call in the U.K. a “National Treasure.” And I don’t quite know how and at what stage we passed from one to the other, but nevertheless, although the show has achieved this sort of weird National Treasure status, and enormous audiences and so on and so forth, we don’t get as many [British] award nominations as we do in the States.
Do you have a sense of why that might be?
I honestly have no idea. I kind of… No. I can give you all kinds of conspiracy theories that would sound kind of bitter and twisted and, you know, at the first level I genuinely don’t really care. But, I don’t want to sound glib when I say this, but I care about the audience much more than I care about awards. And there’s something about achieving awards, particularly in Britain, maybe it’s because it’s where I’m from, but there’s something about being nominated for awards in Britain which feels a bit like being patted on the head by the teacher.
You know? I know. I don’t need to be patted on the head by the fucking teacher. And nor does Idris because he’s Idris Elba. So, I don’t really think about it that much. But, I love conversely, without any shame whatsoever, I love the award nominations because I love the whole day. I love the fact that you’re filtering into the theater in the baking heat in a suit and tie next to Betty White, you know? That’s just awesome. I just want to kind of send a little mental message to myself at 13, reading Stephen King books in a caravan in Wales, and giggle.
[laughs] I think probably one element that certainly I think has gotten “Luther” more consideration for the awards categories is the fact that we classify it in this odd category of miniseries or limited series.
There’s weird cultural differences between the U.K. and the U.S. and so on both sides of the Atlantic, it’s perceived as a slightly weird fish. The show is a strange fiction. It’s got elements from other genres that you’ll recognize from cop shows and from horror movies and from, you know, from this and that. But it’s kind of its own thing. It plows its own little furrow, its own happy little furrow.
I’m not throwing a direct comparison here so please don’t haul me over the coals for this, but, which you know, the Beatles started out as a Chuck Berry cover band. The Beatles became the Beatles by first trying to sound like someone else. You throw in all these disparate elements of stuff that you love, and if you really are recreating stuff that you love in your own way, it starts to become your own voice. Then you move from being a Chuck Berry cover band in Berlin to becoming the Beatles.
Not that I have any aspiration to being the Beatles, or that I’m claiming that we are the Beatles. That was just strictly in the name of metaphor.
Never seen “Luther”? Southern California’s KCET will air an encore of Episode 1 on Saturday, March 19 at 8pm PT.