TV Interview: Neil Cross – The Sister, Or A Grave Sense Of Guilt

May 24, 2022

The Sister, created and written by Neil Cross and based on his novel Burial, is available on Britbox.



Series synopsis: How far would you go to keep a secret? One rainy evening, Nathan is surprised by an unwelcome face from the past. Nathan has never been able to forget the worst night of his life: a party that led to the sudden, shocking death of a young woman. Only he and Bob, an eccentric old acquaintance, know what really happened… and they’ve resolved to keep it that way. But years later, Bob appears at Nathan’s door with terrifying news that threatens to tear Nathan’s world apart. Because Nathan has his own secrets now. Secrets that could destroy everything he has desperately fought to build for himself and his family.

What did you want to explore in this story?
When I wrote the novel, it was one of the few stories that came to me almost in its entirety. The original nugget of inspiration was just a universal experience. In common with many other British people, I spent my youth and young adulthood drinking far too heavily. I never had a drinking problem. I had what Billy Connolly called a behaviour problem. What stopped me drinking almost altogether wasn’t the drunkenness, the health issues or the money. It was that first strike of anxiety that hits you in the morning when you wake up and you think, ‘What did I do? What did I say?’ And when I remember my youth and young adulthood it’s almost defined by that feeling. Then I read somewhere that a vast majority of murders are not only committed between people who know each other, typically spouses or partners, but also when one party is very drunk. So I just put those two very everyday ideas together. I thought, what must it be like to get yourself completely wasted? And then one day you wake up in a new world and your first thought isn’t, ‘What did I say?.’ It’s: ‘I killed somebody.’ That’s where the story came from. The power of guilt is something which, to some extent, we all endure, we all go through. I still sometimes flush with agony and embarrassment when I think about things I said to people in primary school. The interesting thing about our guilt and shame is that very often when I remember saying embarrassing things or things I shouldn’t have said, I can’t remember to whom I said it. I remember the experience of saying it and the shame – which very often was retrospective shame. So it’s a very powerful animal instinct. The power of guilt and shame is, I guess, what makes community possible. It is a very powerful legislator. I would equate it to grief. In that I’m sure it becomes less acute as time goes on. But then you’ll find yourself opening the fridge and suddenly you will remember. It’s never quite gone. Why people like to identify in entertainment with serial killers is not because they want people to wantonly kill other people. It’s because there is a certain fantasy about how wonderful it would be to be without conscience. To do what you want and never feel that obligation to the community. Which is ultimately what conscience is.


Who is the character Nathan Redman (played by Russell Tovey)?
Normally when we meet the close to everyman character, he tends to be a little older, established with a family and so on. Nathan is a young everyman who we witness growing towards maturity.


What about Bob Morrow (Bertie Carvel)?
I still like to read writers on writing. I find it an intensely relaxing thing to do. Especially when you realise that nobody else quite knows what they are doing either. The first line of my novel is literally, ‘There was a knock at the door.’ And there we find Bob Morrow. Bob is a character that Nathan knew briefly. And with whom he shared an intense experience. Whatever secret Nathan has, it quickly becomes apparent that Bob shares that secret. Whatever that was, Nathan has moved on from there. He has constructed a life, he is happy and content. But that
contentment is shattered when Bob – the face of the past – turns up at his door.


There is an element of the supernatural to this story. Are you a believer?
In certain peculiar respects, this is the most autobiographical thing I have ever written. I’ve got a crippling fear of the dark. I’ve had that since I was a child. It’s a lifelong thing. I’m an atheist, I’m a rationalist, I believe in the scientific method. Until I wake up at 2am. In which case I fully believe in the presence of the dead. Briefly and with absolutely terror; but utterly. There is an indefinable quality of strangeness and difference. When I’m alone, when my wife is away or whatever, I have every light in the house on. So I am scared of and interested in ghosts. I’m interested in the universality of the experience. In real life, as we speak now, it’s a lovely bright, sunny, blue sky morning. I know absolutely with total conviction that the spirits of the dead do not manifest themselves to the living. However, quite a large majority of people at some point will experience the presence of someone they have loved who has died. And the nature of that experience really interests me. Ultimately, I think it comes back to physics and Darwin. But also as well as this abiding interest in the nature of the experience, there is a direct
relationship between a story to tell about the double meaning of being haunted. Nathan is haunted by the past. But as to what the nature of that haunting is, that’s for the audience to discover.


You have said terror inspires you to write along with a prime interest in our ability to love and what that can lead to. Can you expand on that?
Maybe this marks me out as an old softie. I’m most interested in thrillers. In stories that excite, terrify and make the heart race a little bit. I think all thrillers in some way are love stories. All thrillers are about the fear of loss. That loss, for example in Nathan’s case, could just be the life he had made for himself. And the life he has made for himself actually is the people around him who he loves. All thrillers are, in essence, about being separated from what you love. The people you love, the places you love, the communities you love. One of the functions of getting older is that you learn the mysteries of life are unutterably banal. There is no big secret. Everybody across the world wants the same thing: which is each other at peace and enough to eat.


You keep a ‘nightmare tally’. Can you tell us more?
I did when I wrote the original book. From submission of manuscript to my agent all the way through the publishing process to the release of the book — I had a lot of people writing to me telling me the book had actually given them nightmares, which I took to be the greatest possible compliment. The book came out around the same time as I did Luther. Which generated nightmare tallies of its own.


Are there compromises in translating a novel into a TV drama series?
You don’t adapt a book for the screen. You transform. You have to look at any given text and analyse what job it’s trying to do. Then you have to think of a way to translate that to the screen. What was fun about doing this – was doing that with my own book. So, partly, it was a challenge. ‘Can I step back from something I wrote, something I love and am very fond of?’, knowing there are elements that cannot be changed but which must be changed. The biggest challenge for The Sister was how to transform the book for TV. It took me months to work out how to tell the story in the format of television and the number of hours we have to tell the story. Also structuring for ad breaks as well. I realised the way to tell the story was not in an almost directly linear narrative, which is how the novel is. Rather it was to take it to pieces like Lego and have these nested timelines. There is a 2010 timeline, a 2013 timeline and a present day timeline. And they are nested like Russian dolls; which is something I had never tried to do before. I’m a very linear storyteller, typically. It seemed to me to be the right way to tell this story. That was exciting and liberating and it freed me from all these assumptions about the book. About what needed to be kept in.


You must have been pleased with the actors chosen to tell this story?
The cast in this show are carrying an enormous amount of weight on their shoulders — because it’s a small cast. Probably the smallest I have ever worked with. I had a very clear image of who Nathan was and how he moves through the world. Every time you write a script, no matter how experienced you become, between submission of the written word and someone switching a camera on, there is a sense of letting go of the characters you have made up. You might base a character on the page on someone you’ve come across in the past or a combination
of people. But you have a picture which then is inhabited by an actor and inevitably changed. Very often for the better and in surprising and unexpected ways. With Nathan, because so much of the story was autobiographical, I was worried about the thought of casting that role. I thought it was going to be a horribly unfair thing to an actor for me to just be looking at them, thinking, ‘No, you are wrong. You as an entity are wrong.’ But as soon as someone mentioned Russell Tovey I could see the possibilities. And as soon as I heard him say a single line I just knew there was no process of letting go. He just completely was the character of Nathan as I imagined it. That was a strange and unique experience for me.


You say the most common question people ask you is, ‘How can someone so normal write such disturbing stories?’ What is the answer?
The truth is I am scared of what everybody else is scared of. I am so normal and I’m scared of such common things that are so widely shared. That’s what enables me to tell these stories.