This interview first appeared on the SciFi website in June 2010, and relates to the theatre production of Ghost Stories.
Having broken all box office records and following sell-out seasons at the Lyric Hammersmith and Liverpool Everyman, Ghost Stories will be terrifying audiences at The Duke of York’s Theatre, London from the 25th June 2010.
The show comes from the truly talented and dark minds of The League of Gentlemen’s master of the macabre, Jeremy Dyson, and Andy Nyman, co-creator and director of Derren Brown’s television and stage shows and star of Dead Set and Severance. Darren Mann had the opportunity to discuss the show with both Jeremy and Andy.
Darren: Andy and Jeremy, hi. The general public's interest in the paranormal appears to be at an all time high - why do you think Grand Guignol has taken so long to return to theatre?
Andy: That's a great question. Firstly I’m not sure that the interest in paranormal is at an all time high, I think it is always high. People are fascinated by the whole arena of the paranormal and always have been. Maybe the explosion of the internet & multitude of relatively new TV channels gives us more streams to explore. Grand Guignol was born in the theatre; in fact it was an actual theatre in Paris. The love of horror is so enduring, but naturally movies have become the natural place for them to exist. It's very hard in theatre to strike the right balance between scary & cheesy, I suspect that's why there have been so few successful stage horror productions in my lifetime.
Jeremy: I agree with Andy that interest in these things never goes away – there’s a direct link, surely between Most Haunted and all its variants on TV and Victorian parlour séances. And I think the interest will always be here as long as death exists. (In other words – it’s not going to go away – ever – or at least not until Judgement Day.) As for the Grand Guignol thing – firstly, Ghost Stories is not quite Grand Guignol which was all about gore and violence. Our show is much more to do with creepiness, eeriness and tightening the tension screws. And as for why it’s taken its time to return to theatre – I guess it requires a particular skill-set to bring it about which is fairly niche. Me and Andy in combination just happen to have that odd combination of interests, obsessions and experience.
Darren: Which authors have influenced your writing styles?
Andy: Jeremy is much more literary than I. My influences are almost totally cinema based, but I guess Stephen King, M.R. James & Ramsey Campbell have had most impact on me. It's the combination of heightened & mundane that I find so appealing.
Jeremy: As well as the above (and Campbell was – and still is – a massive influence on me) I would add Robert Aickman who was one of the greatest English writers of the supernatural fiction. And it’s an obvious one – but only occurred to be after the event with Ghost Stories – that Hitchcock (though he’s not thought of as a writer) is a big influence on both of us. (He’s not associated with horror or the supernatural either (apart from ‘Psycho’) and yet ‘Vertigo’ is a brilliant ghost story and his influence defined late 20th Century horror movies, filtered mainly through the film grammar established by John Carpenter in ‘Halloween’ which became the template for many successful horrors that followed). And while we’re on the movies I’d add Val Lewton as a major influence too. He produced a series of low-budget horror movies for RKO in the 1940s that relied almost totally on suggestion and atmosphere for their effect.
Darren: Andy, as a highly praised Mentalist, and the co-writer (with Derren Brown) of 'Séance', I make the assumption that you are sceptical of true paranormal claims. What were the difficulties in writing 'Ghost Stories', knowing that a true ghost story may not actually exist?
Andy: I do have a sceptical agenda I suppose, but like a lot of sceptics I would love there to be something 'real'. All I firmly believe is that you keep asking questions until you can't find a satisfactory answer. Sadly most apparent 'hauntings' could be explained away with such disappointing ease. There were no difficulties in writing the play, it was remarkably easy, Jeremy & I just spent hours talking about what we loved & what scared us, that combined with our 28 years of friendship, meant the play just spewed itself out of us!
Darren: Jeremy, you currently live in Ilkey, Yorkshire, home of one of the more bizarre UFO / alien abduction cases of the twentieth century... which paranormal phenomena interests you, and what is your strangest experience?
Jeremy: I fell in love with the idea of the Loch Ness Monster as a child – and all the legendary sightings. I finally made it up there in my late 20s and found it a bewitching location – bleak and beautiful. Similarly I’m enchanted by the notion of the Yeti and would love to remake Nigel Kneale’s Abominable Snowman film. What’s most interesting with both these phenomena is that they only enchant while they remain elusive. If either of them were actually caught (or found dead) they would revert to pure biology/natural history and lose 99% of their magic. It’s their very elusiveness that makes them fascinating. In other words they’re functioning as metaphors. Now the really interesting question is what are they metaphors for? I, like Andy, am a sceptic – although I am by no means a materialist and am completely open to the notion that much is truly mysterious and unknowable about life. But I do think that most phenomena that are classified as being external (ie out in the world) are actually internal (ie in the psyche). At the end of the day it’s all pure subjectivity. As Kafka put it – ‘we keep coming up against the bony limits of our own foreheads’.
Darren: What circumstances brought you together to write Ghost Stories?
Andy: We've been best friends for the best part of 30 years, staggering to think that! We had been talking for a while about writing together & when I pitched this idea to Sean Holmes (the other director on Ghost Stories), he went for it immediately. I then phoned Jeremy & said it was going to happen. We met Sean on his second day in the job as the artistic director of the Lyric Hammersmith and walked out of his office with a commission & performance dates in the diary. Now we had to actually write a play.
Jeremy: That’s how it happened. It’s funny that we never did it before – but I think the timing had to be right – and we’d learned what we needed to learn in order to try.
Darren: How did you react to the success of Ghost Stories?
Andy: It's been an absolute joy. It's a strange thing, but horror is very life affirming for an audience, you feel you have achieved something when you've witnessed. Performing in the show and hearing people scream & laugh & jump every single night is just wonderful. Jeremy and I just keep pinching ourselves.
Jeremy: “Pinching ourselves” just about sums it up. The whole experience reminds me of the story of Jason Pierce of Spiritualized going out to LA to record Dr John’s piano solo for ‘Cop shoot cop’ on ‘Ladies and Gentlemen we are floating in space’. Pierce played Dr John the track as they’d recorded it thus far – which was ‘outre’ and ‘niche’ to say the least. And the great jazz/blues pianist looked at him in awe and said ‘you telling me they’re paying you to do this shit’.
Darren: Both of you have pretty defined leitmotif running through your works - how did you find working together? Do future collaborators need to be warned of any bad habits(!)?
Andy: Firstly congratulations on 'leitmotif' I had no idea what that meant, good word! I can't imagine any other collaborators; I have adored working with Jeremy. I could happily do it again and again and again. Jeremy: I couldn’t agree more. I’m already looking forward to the next one. I have no bad habits – apart from I make a terrible mess when I eat Bombay Mix.
Darren: On the surface, your collective works on paper, screen and stage are pretty dark. When in your life did you first escape into the realms of the fantastic?
Andy: I was 7 when horror hit me, I saw the first 5 mins of an episode of Brian Clemens’ 'Thriller' series on TV and I was done! It was reawakened when I saw Carpenters 'The Fog' at the cinema. Then I was officially obsessed.
Jeremy: You know, my daughter – who’s five – has just got into Scooby Doo. And watching the old ones again with her (which are really beautifully designed – very atmospheric and evocative) it could have started there. That combined with Aurora glow-in-the dark monster kits.
Darren: Andy, how did you become involved in the forthcoming film Black Death? What character traits do you and Dalywag share?
Andy: I first worked with Chris Smith on 'Severance', we loved working together and when he was given the 'Black Death' job he simply phoned me up and asked me to be in it. I think I share a madness with Dalywag and a non-fear of confrontation.
Darren: And Jeremy, I doubt an interview doesn't go by when The League of Gentlemen isn't raised. I was told that all writers place a little piece of themselves into every character. As far as League is concerned, please tell me this is not true.
Jeremy: It’s all too true. ‘Put your madness into your work,’ said Baudelaire.
Darren: And finally, what can we expect next?
Andy: I have another movie coming out in July called 'the tournament' and I am about to start shooting a series for Channel 4 called 'Campus', it's from the team who created 'Green Wing', so very exciting. But truly for now I just want to concentrate on making audiences in the west end scream like they've never screamed before.
Jeremy: I’m working on a couple of film scripts and another play. But I can’t wait for the next Nyman/Dyson collaboration – which we’ve already started talking about. Doing Ghost Stories with him is one of the most fun things I’ve ever done.
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