The demons of a Dr Who scriptwriter

AMY JACKMAN
Last updated 10:01 08/03/2013
Neil Cross
AMY JACKMAN / The Wellingtonian

Neil Cross: β€˜β€˜The worst thing about New Zealand is rugby.’’

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Luther and Doctor Who scriptwriter Neil Cross talks about writing, monsters and sports fans.

What was life like before you moved to Wellington?

I had a complicated life until I was 25. I was born in Bristol and was brought up by my mum and my stepfather in Edinburgh. He introduced me to books. He was also a white supremacist and serial adulterer. He'd bask in other people's love, then grow bored and dump them. We were involved in the Mormon church and he rose to the position of bishop. He was in charge of the tithe and administering it. He took it all and disappeared.

What happened then?

We moved back to Bristol. I was expelled from school and was on the dole until I was 21. At the fag end of the Thatcher years it was really hard to keep signing on to the dole without looking for work and I was a lazy, good-for-nothing, frustrated, angry young man. I sat down and thought, ‘What can I do for the next three years that involves free money from the government and not working?' So I went to Leeds University. It was life-changing for me. After I left I got into publishing in London.

Did you always want to be a writer?

I was writing novels at eight. It was a science fiction epic, which went by the unimprovable title of Another Kind of Warrior. I'd write it beginning to end, but when I'd finished it I was another year older. The quality of writing and thought changed radically, so I'd start it again. I re-wrote that same book until I was 16.

How did you get your first novel published?

I wrote Mr In-Between very quickly when I was about 23. I wrote the penultimate chapter, then realised I'd done something which was written to the best of my abilities. I panicked. I hesitated to finish the final chapter and went into withdrawal for three years. I decided to pick it up again after I went drinking with author Tim Binding.

The publishing culture in those days was the very long lunches, the wines, the heavy smoking. I told Tim about my novel and he said: "Do something with it." Every excuse I came up with about why it wasn't finished, Tim just batted away and said: "You know what writers do? They write." The next day, nursing my hangover, I put the kettle on, made a cup of tea and finished the book.

How did that feel?

Awesome. The best bit was that several publishers were upping each other for the rights. After spending a lifetime wanting to be a novelist, having people, not just willing, but fighting over my book was great.

Did you succumb to the second book curse?

I wrote my second book very quickly because I had to. I had a full time job and I had to face up to the demon of the second novel. It was a complete flop. No one bought it.

How did you bounce back from that?

Nadia [his wife]. My day job was becoming really demanding. Nadia and I were married and it was the first time in my life that I had a stable income, a mortgage and debts. We also had children. I wasn't writing at all because I didn't have time. I didn't realise how depressed I was about it until Nadia sat me down and had a talk to me about it. She said, ‘You might be ok about it now, but in ten years you are going to sit down and say I used to be a writer'. So I handed in my notice and left to write full time.

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Is writing for TV different?

It's not different and it is. Writing a novel is an intense and lonely business, but you have the reward at the end of a very direct dialogue between you and the reader. Writing scripts, you are part of a really big machine and there's something satisfying about that. When you write "Tom shoots Roger", you know it will be expressed by an enormously talented team of people. The dialogue of a show like Luther is not just between you and a reader, it's between you and eight million people. That's magical.

How do you write a script?

I don't know. I just do it. Every time it causes me unendurable agony. You don't think you will be able to finish, and then it just falls into place. The great thing about TV is it has this magic where it does come together in the end. It parades around and suggest that this was always the plan. But it's chaotic and made up as you go along.

Do you prefer writing bad guys or good guys?

I'm good at bad guys. Luther and Doctor Who are monster-of-the-week shows. I'm not interested in drawing on the realities of the life of a working police officer on the streets of London. It's a big graphic novel portrayal of a heightened fantasy London. If you have that world you can fill it with fantasy monsters. They are the best bit.

What makes a good monster?

There's two kinds of good monsters. The monster to whom your existence means nothing. That's something like the Daleks. It's something so alien that it's inhumane in every sense. Then there's the monsters that look like us, but there's something wrong, like Hannibal Lecter. The attributes that we think are best in ourselves - love, conscience, compassion - are all stripped away. They're the people who kill puppies.

Do your sons watch your shows?

My boys watch everything. A kid's imagination is a really powerful thing and you free them from fear and terror of the dark by exposing them to things like Luther, which are monster fairy stories. They are scary, but good scary. I've got a terrible, crippling fear of the dark. I can't sleep in a dark room by myself. If I'm in the house by myself I have to have all the lights on. My kids, who I have deliberately exposed to all of this stuff, have no issues, no fears, no nightmares at all.

Why did you move to Wellington?

Nadia [his wife] is from Wellington and it's not close to my family. I liked the idea of my kids having an extended family around them. We came for a holiday and after three days I thought: why on earth would you not live here? Also I love being a dad. Living in New Zealand, but working for TV in England or America means I'm at home. I got to spend an enormous amount of time with them in their formative years. It's the most worthwhile thing.

Do you see yourself as a New Zealander?

I'm not sure, but New Zealand is home. Kiwis as a culture have certain attributes that I really admire, a confidence without arrogance, enormous acceptance without being superior or smug. I'm the most English man ever. I spend my life in a haze of embarrassment and self-hatred.

All Blacks or England?

The worst thing about New Zealand is rugby. If I had to spend my entire life without hearing the word rugby I'd be very happy. Neither of my sons like it. They like football. It's probably a hanging offence in this country. I watched a rugby game, an All Blacks game, and just thought, ‘This is such an ugly game'. I can understand the pleasure of playing it, but watching it is just ugly.

Do you watch your sons' sports?

I used to go and watch them play football but the other parents drove me to the point of murder. Kids have got the rest of their lives to fight like sharks in the womb to achieve success. When they are 8 and running around a field with a ball, just let them enjoy themselves. I just don't understand it. I haven't used sports fans as a monster because I can't get inside their head. I can get my head into the mind of a serial killer, but not a crazy sports fan.

- The Wellingtonian

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