I spy - the Wellingtonian who helps write Spooks

SHADOWLANDS: Spooks scriptwriter and novelist Neil Cross with pet terrier Jack.
SHADOWLANDS: Spooks scriptwriter and novelist Neil Cross with pet terrier Jack.

What's a suburban dad doing cruising the net for the latest on dirty weapons and killer viruses? Neil Cross talks to Anthony Hubbard about the race to stay one step ahead of the real spooks.

Neil Cross gets the kids ready for school in a "really unfashionable" suburb of Wellington and then spends the day plotting and killing. Sometimes he doesn't leave the house for weeks at a time. Cross occasionally thinks his life is weird: "I do, I do."

He writes spy stories for British television and was lead writer on the BBC's Spooks. When Spooks is screening, recruitment for the British security service, MI5, goes up. "But when we kill a character recruitment dips enormously and we kill people consistently," says Cross, smiling. The writers enjoy these deaths. "I think I have the highest hit rate."

SPY DRAMA: The Spooks cast.
SPY DRAMA: The Spooks cast.

The writers of Spooks have to be able to foretell the future. "We start story-lining a year before it screens, and when it screens it has to be just ahead of the news." The series now screening in New Zealand is centred on Iran and nuclear weapons. If Israel had bombed Iran's nuclear plants late last year, the Spooks storyline would also have been blown up. So Cross watches the news "like a vampire. `Don't do it now, bastards!"'

Cross, 40, steered Spooks for a long while out of Crofton Downs, a middling suburb stuck on Wellington's bleak middle hills. As the show's lead writer for series six and seven, he had to foresee the course of world espionage from a small office looking out on a bank of gorse. He googles in bizarre and sometimes nasty places, and assumes that Echelon, the worldwide cyber-snooping system, often picks him up.

The man himself is solitary and domestic, a novelist who thinks most novelists are scummy people, a fond dad who has the name of his Kiwi wife, Nadya, tattooed on his inner left wrist. He hasn't made many New Zealand friends in his six years here.

"If you do my job," he says, "it's almost impossible to ever meet anybody, because I never leave the house." But he was happy to be by himself back in England, too.

"I'm almost certain my email is monitored. It would be astonishing if it wasn't. My internet searches include how to make dirty weapons, how to weaponise viruses, assassination techniques and not just casual surfing but deep, deep, deep, deep, you know.

"For one potential episode I spent about three days looking at very, very racist websites, so there's racism, there's nuclear technology, there's dirty bombs... vile, vile, vile stuff all coming into this little house in Crofton Downs. `If this guy ever leaves the house, we're in serious trouble!"'

Spooks is about a group of MI5 agents based in a secure set of London offices known as The Grid. Among the show's advisers are retired MI5 officers, as well as former spooks from the CIA and the KGB, but Cross "very rarely makes use of them. Because of the amount of research I've done, I don't trust the word of spies. And what I want to know from these advisers isn't what they're going to tell me."

Series seven was very harsh on the Russians, and Cross remembers a first read-through with the cast on episode one.

"I'd done a search and found this stuff that Karl Marx had said about the Russians, something about the Russian beast never slumbering and its avariciousness, and this was going on and on and I just heard a voice behind me going, `This is all bullshit'."

It was an ex-KGB man, "a guy in a black three-button suit with a black polo neck behind it, dark hair swept back. Nobody in the history of the world has looked more like an ex-KGB agent, and he sat at the back about two feet away. After that I avoided him, I shifted to the other side of the room."

Another peculiar incident happened at a meeting in a new building of Kudos, the producers. There they were in the glass-fronted boardroom, with coffee, cake and muffins, ready to start discussing storylines for a new series, when the executive producer's phone went. Uncharacteristically, she took the call and hurried out, returning 10 minutes later to explain to the baffled production team that MI5 had been on the line to discuss a potential legal issue over Spooks' use of the title "MI5" on American TV.

Cross and the others didn't think the call was a coincidence. They were convinced the security services were ringing "just to say, `We're listening'. It was a very strange moment".

Spooks has dealt with Islamic terrorism, but Cross thinks that as a source of good drama it is limited. The great tradition of spy fiction is moral equivalence the murky similarities between the spies on either side of the ideological divide. The fascination here is that you never know who is loyal to whom, and the ideological battle is secondary to the game itself.

Islamic terrorists have no such fascinating fuzziness. "There's a political ideology, but it's a very basic and ultimately uninteresting political ideology. They feel alienated, they believe different things, and, as a kind of collision between the two things, they want to destroy us. There's not a lot to bite on. There are not many stories to tell.

"Spooks has successfully told lots of variations on this story, but ultimately I think their psychology is not interesting to explore."

Cross has recently moved on from Spooks to his own BBC cop show tentatively called The Fall but he has plenty of ideas for future espionage stories.

"The developing story over the next year, I think, is the kinds of security and defence repercussions of financial collapse. You're going to see the birth of all kinds of radical groups. One of the things MI5 fears most of all is a resurgent revolutionary middle class, middle-class radicalism. That would be an interesting story to tell."

The "tsunami" of social and cultural unrest could also foster racism and boost the fortunes of the crypto-fascist British National Party. There would also be a good story, he says, melding terrorism and banking. The Syrian terrorist Abu Nidal is said to be an immensely rich man. Suppose his treasure was in Barings Bank at the time the rogue trader Nick Leeson brought it down. And suppose Leeson was working for the British spy service? That could be fun.

CROSS WORRIES that he will lose touch with his British audience, even though he goes back to Britain four or five times a year. So he builds a British bubble, listening to Radio 4 "all day", reading the British press online, looking at what the fans say about his show.

"It's a strange life. I never quite feel at home either there [Britain] or here. I mean, the only place I feel at home is at home in my house."

He has always been solitary, he says, and he has wanted to be a writer since he was seven: "My family is my social life on the whole." The boys get home from school in the afternoon, and he writes "amid the bustle of family life".

Writing, he says, is a neurotic compulsion, and if he doesn't write he gets irritable and restless. Writers tend to be solitary anyway, he thinks, although in his case the tendency may have been stiffened by the long period of bullying he suffered as an English child in a Scottish school.

"The myth of the alcoholic writer is actually a function of these solitary people having to find some confidence to mix in public and only being able to do it while drunk. It was certainly true of me. I drank very heavily when I was forced to not be solitary."

That was when he worked in the sales division of a large British publisher. After being expelled from school, he spent years on the dole. Then he went to university and studied literature, doing undergraduate and post-graduate theses on the American novelist Joseph Heller. Heller was his hero. "I even changed my middle name to Yossarian [the name of the central character in Heller's masterpiece, Catch-22]. It's on my passport."

He joined the publishing house so he could meet writers. He was shattered by their banality and nastiness (see sidebar, left).

He turned his novel Always the Sun long-listed for the Man Booker Prize in 2004 into a screenplay. His agent touted it around, and two big production houses ended up bidding for it. That in turn led to the invitation to join the Spooks team. Yes, he says, it sounds like a fairytale.

He and Nadya brought their two young sons to New Zealand six years ago after getting sick of London, its traffic, its lack of green spaces, its clamour. A year after September 11, there was still a constant anxiety about terrorist attack.

It's all very different in Crofton Downs.

Cross describes himself as a libertarian leftist and is bothered by the state's intrusion on our lives. The Echelon system, the electronic surveillance network that links New Zealand with the United States and Britain, scoops masses of information every second from our emails and other communications. Echelon, he says, is the real tie that binds Wellington and Washington, because New Zealand is the main listening station for the South Pacific. "I love the mouse that roared thing, the way New Zealand stopped American warships. But there's very little strategic interest down here, so there's no reason for American nuclear vessels."

If New Zealand had decided to get out of Echelon, he suggests, the fight with the US would have been far more serious. So how did a left-winger feel about writing a spy show that acts as an unofficial and unpaid recruitment agency for MI5?

"You know," he says, "I've never really thought about it... [but] I often made the joke amongst the team that we were a left-wing team making a right-wing show."

He reconsiders and changes "right-wing" to "conservative". "In any case, Spooks isn't a political platform of mine." MI5, he notes, says on its website that it never engages in assassinations. He doesn't believe this. There is documentary evidence that an IRA enforcer the man who tortured and killed supposed informants was a British SAS man under deep cover. He systematically killed loyal IRA terrorists.

Spooks shows the spies killing people in one episode they let off a bomb in Tehran but the writers strive to keep the audience's sympathy for their characters. In that episode, "we showed how much they didn't want to do it and how great the threat to Britain was had they not done it. That's the kind of choice these people have to make in real life. And not everybody in that kind of job likes what they have to do."

Burial by Neil Cross is published by Simon & Schuster, $32.99.

Sunday Star Times