Novelist and screenwriter Neil Cross has created one 2010’s most memorable TV characters in DCI John Luther. Here he explains how he turned a passionate pitch into the BBC’s dark cop drama LUTHER.
Neil Cross is one of the most bankable British writing talents around right now. Having been lead writer for two seasons of the BBC’s flagship spy drama Spooks, he’s now created their new police show Luther, which stars the post-Wire Idris Elba rediscovering his London accent as a troubled detective chief inspector. Well, perhaps troubled is understating the case somewhat; he’s one seriously fucked-up copper. Here, Cross discusses how he created the show, and how living in New Zealand helped it all come together.
Where did the idea for Luther come from?
The executive producer Phillippa Giles, who I worked with on Spooks, said that the BBC wanted to find a new take on the crime drama. So I went to lunch with them and I was invited to pitch my idea but at that point I didn’t, in fact, have a single idea. I had about 10,000 flapping around my head like bats. I’m a fan of crime fiction. I read crime fiction, I write crime fiction and I watch crime fiction. I was aware of a million and one things that, in an ideal world, I would like to do, things that I hadn’t seen on British TV. My pitch can only be described as a pitch if you were being extraordinarily charitable. It was just a ramble about crime fiction. So at the end of this desperate rant, Kate Harwood (Controller, Series and Serials) said, ‘Look, why don’t you go home and try writing some of this down and then present us with a proposal document’. So I did. I went home and whittled down these ideas to a final shortlist of things that I wanted to do.
Were you influenced by other cop shows?
One of the biggest influences was Columbo; the inverted detective story. It’s a surprisingly rare format. Although I love crime fiction, I’ve got no real interest in mysteries. A red herring is just a kind of prick tease. This sounds more disparaging than it’s meant to be but a mystery is kind of playing a trick on the audience, when you mislead them deliberately. The audience is a willing participant so it’s not like anybody’s being exploited, but that kind of trick doesn’t fall within my skill set. I didn’t know how to write a mystery. I still don’t. It seemed to me that there were so many dramatic opportunities inherent in the inverted detective story format; if we could see the crime being committed in the first two or three minutes of the show then what we had was a crime thriller rather than a detective story.
How quickly did the character of Luther develop?
There are two main spines in crime fiction. Firstly, there’s the British tradition exemplified by Miss Marple and Sherlock Holmes. It tends to have an eccentric outsider who, through the accumulation of tiny clues, which nobody else notices, restores order to the world. Classic British crime fiction is all about the disruption and restoration of order. As such it’s deeply embedded in British notions of class and ‘correct’ behaviour. It’s no coincidence that ‘ the butler did it’ became a cliché. There’s something about the lower orders creating chaos through murder-the fear of revolution and unrest. The parallel narrative is the American crime narrative which, as far as I’m concerned, is more about free will and exorcising the sin and the results thereof. So I wanted to have a character who was as much Dirty Harry as he was Inspector Morse, or as much Philip Marlowe as he was Sherlock Holmes. I wanted to give him serious ethical, moral and possibly even mental problems, certainly spiritual problems.
Did you present the BBC with a treatment or outline?
One of the funny things about treatments is that they’re curiously passionless documents. They read like scientific abstracts. You find yourself writing: in a moving scene we will discover that… or in a frightening scene we will see that… The very definition of the form is that it’s neither moving nor funny nor frightening nor exciting nor anything, it’s just a summary of a story that hasn’t been written yet. So there was a few weeks of me trying to show how it would work before it was written, which is a bit like telling a joke secondhand. In the end I said, ‘Instead of me telling you what it’s gonna be, why can’t I just write it and show you?’ And the BBC very kindly agreed.
Did you have actors in mind as you were writing the show?
I’ve always got various actors in mind when I’m writing a role but they tend to be dead Hollywood actors! I imagine them not in terms of casting, but in terms of visualising the character. We knew that when it came to casting, we were going to aim high. We had a shortlist of A-list names but Idris [Elba] wasn’t even on the list. He was so far out of our reach, we didn’t think it was worthwhile approaching him. But the producer heard that he was looking for a project in the UK. He read Luther and it was that once-in-a-lifetime click. He didn’t just understand it, it completely made sense to him. He knew the character straightaway.
How many drafts did you go through?
Because you’re spending public money the BBC want to make sure that every aspect of the format has been explored. In the same way that they stress test commercial aircraft fly jumbo jets in ways that will never be flown in practice-the first episode is essentially stress tested. It’s taken apart, it’s moved in this direction, it’s moved in that direction, it’s twisted and turned, just to make sure it actually holds its original shape. In total I think episode one went through about 22 substantial drafts, but the funny thing is the shooting script, with the exception of two very key scenes, is almost word for word the first draft script that I sent in, which took days to write.
Were you on set during the filming?
I was in London for the shooting of the first couple of episodes. But I don’t think that a writer’s place is on set. You’re the ghost at the feast. It’s not your natural environment. I don’t enjoy being on set; I feel uncomfortable. I feel like I’m chaperoning my daughter on a date!
Does living in New Zealand pose any logistical problems?
As England is going to bed in the evening, I’m getting up and sitting down with a cup of tea and downloading the previous day’s rushes via the magic of an FTP site. If I have any notes to give, I bang them off and they’re in everybody’s inbox in the morning. So me being here turned it into a 24-hour operation. Similarly, if any rewrites did need to be done, I’m here working, I can write a scene while everybody else is asleep, which can be a massive time-saving efficiency; it can sometimes be an ass-saving efficiency! I very quickly realised that my distance here is purely psychological. In all practical aspects there is very little difference between me living here and being in Edinburgh, say, or in Dublin or Barcelona. People quickly get used to the fact that if they want to speak to me they’ve got to do it before 11 o’clock in the morning or after 6 at night, and they don’t have a mental image of where I am, they just know that that’s when they phone.
Well-crafted TV dramas are often described as like watching a novel. As a novelist and a scriptwriter, what’s your take on this?
There’s a great book called Everything Bad is Good for You which has got a very interesting segment in it on narrative strands in popular television shows. It analyses three of the most popular TV shows from three decades: Starsky & Hutch, Dallas and ER. In Starsky & Hutch basically you just have an ‘A story’, that’s all it is, then by the time you get to Dallas, the early to mid eighties, you’re talking about two or three different plot strands weaving in and out of each other. Even with Dallas, which was considered sophisticated and arch camp storytelling at the time, now looks laboured and tame. By the time you get to ER, there are 10, 15, even 20 story strands in one hour of TV time. I think that the audience is always going to be sophisticated enough to enjoy a well-crafted story. You know, the novel is a popular form of entertainment, and I don’t see any moral difference between storytelling for the screen and storytelling for the page. One of the things that I’m proudest of in Luther is that, for all that it’s flash bang wallop, and for all that it’s unashamed crime thriller, I think it’s pretty smart, and I think the characters in it are pretty smart. It’s an intelligent bit of telly. ♦