He's a thriller writer who's afraid of the dark and never misses episode of Project Runway — yet his work speaks to the blackest corners of the human soul: serial killers, haunted hit-men, tormented cops and now a world under threat of extinction in the six-part BBC drama Hard Sun.

British-born, Wellington-based Neil Cross describes the new show as a unique mash-up of various genres which we haven't seen on TV before. There's a crime story, a 1970s style conspiracy thriller, some sci-fi and complex character arcs.

Certainly the first episode, starring ex-model Agyness Deyn as damaged Detective Inspector Elaine Renko and Jim Sturgess as the dodgy Detective Chief Inspector Charlie Hicks, has enough drama to fuel an entire season of most shows. There's armed robbery, attempted matricide, infidelity — not to forget an international conspiracy around that impending apocalypse — oh, and a guy gets impaled on a tree. So it's surprising when Cross cites the 1980s' hit Moonlighting as a big influence on the series.

"I loved that show and had this idea of doing an anti-Moonlighting — where you had a man and a woman who would never like or trust each other but were forced through circumstances to work together to protect one another."


Then one day, while he was sorting out books to donate to the school fair, David Bowie's song Five Years came on.

"The people in that song learn they have five years left before the world ends — and what could have been a dark dirge of a track, is instead a delicate and optimistic song about the value of everything

'And all the fat-skinny people, and all the tall-short people And all the nobody people, and all the somebody people I never thought I'd need so many people.'

"And I thought, 'that's the world those two characters live in; that's the story'."

Hard Sun stars Agyness Deyn and Jim Sturgess. Photo / Supplied
Hard Sun stars Agyness Deyn and Jim Sturgess. Photo / Supplied

Although he's turned to screenwriting more often than novels recently, Cross still considers himself a novelist first but admits the screenwriting, especially after the success of British crime drama Luther , starring Idris Elba, which is confirmed for a fifth season this year, is more lucrative.

He is the sole writer on both Hard Sun and Luther and when asked why he doesn't share the load, Cross says it's partly because he still thinks like a novelist and partly because he takes a masochistic pleasure in the work.

"The first thing you learn in screenwriting is you have to have an outline. And I never outline, I'm a very diligent and hardworking screenwriter but a very disorganised one," he admits.

"I jump around and characters change and sometimes I'm on episode four of Luther and realise, 'hang on I've got to go back and change episode one'. I don't think another writer would appreciate that. There's a saying about novelists — 'the first sentence is the last to be written' and that's true for me."


And Cross says screenwriters and actors are more fun to hang out with than novelists. Asked about his relationship with Idris Elba, he says simply 'he's family to me'.

"You spend time with novelists and they sit around and tell you how great they are and how wonderful their reviews have been. Screenwriters will tell you about all the terrible things that happened to them. I like that."

No matter what company he keeps, Cross has never had to look far to find scary stories. The blurb for his 2006 memoir Heartland reads like a set-up for one of his nightmarish novels: "When he was five, Neil's mother walked out of the family home. Two years later she returned with a new man; Derek Cross. Neil loved him. Yet underneath lurked another Derek Cross — a monster: conman, adulterer, liar, racist and a cold-hearted manipulator."

Idris Elba is Luther. Photo / BBC
Idris Elba is Luther. Photo / BBC

But typically Cross — whose characters can swing between good and bad, often within the same chapter — chooses to see the good in his stepfather.

"I have a lot to thank Derek Cross for," he says. "He introduced me to books. He'd bring home a big shopping bag of them and would read to me every night before I went to sleep — and that was incredibly empowering — but at the same time, he was a profoundly imperfect human being and that moral complexity went on to form my world view. I mean aren't we are all complicated and compromised to some degree?"

Cross was born in Bristol, raised in Edinburgh by Derek, and embarked on a series of dead-end jobs and dole drawing before he found writing. He's now based in Wellington where he lives with his wife — "she's my rod and staff, knows what a mess I am and still loves me" — and two young sons.

And what would he do given news of an impending apocalypse?

"Oh look, I'd probably lock myself away with a shotgun and a chemical toilet, but I'm never the hero of my stories. The work's always driven by characters and the characters are always more engaged and active in the world than I am. All I do is sit at home and type."

While Cross insists he has "nothing to say with a capital S" — the show is not immune to political events and was in preparation around the time Trump was elected.

"In the last three years, we've entered globally an uncontrolled skid and, for the first time, even normal, centrist people like myself are looking ten years ahead and have no sense where we might end up. That sense of unease and anxiety is encoded in the show's DNA."
Fortunately the fears and anxieties which drive him to write all day, every day — Cross says he's definitely a workaholic and finds it difficult to stop" — have found a wide and adoring audience.

When President Obama met Idris Elba he reportedly said, "Luther — that's me". Nick Cave liked Cross' 1998 debut Mr In-between so much he offered the film a song of his free of charge and Luther, which debuted in 2010, remains a ratings bonanza.

"I never write about what I'd like to do to other people, I always write about what I'm scared other people might do to me," says Cross. "All the urban anxiety and fear that's essayed in Luther and Hard Sun, all of that has its initial locus in me. I mean people say the scariest part of Luther was the man under the bed (an episode in series 3) — some viewers were terrified after that — but the origin of that is I spent my entire life fearing there was a man under the bed.

"Really I'm writing about monsters. I mean Luther has more in common with Doctor Who than Inspector Morse or The Silence of the Lambs. Luther is essentially a monster-of-the-week show and although it exist in this hyper-real, urban cladding they're all really creatures from the Brothers Grimm."

Hard Sun screens on Soho, Sundays from February 4th at 8.30 pm