JEREMY DYSON

THE LEAGUE OF GEN­TLE­MEN MEM­BER AND CO-CRE­ATOR OF GHOST STO­RIES TELLS IAN BER­RI­MAN ABOUT THE WRIT­ERS AND FILM­MAK­ERS WHO’VE STIRRED HIS DARK IMAGININGS

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The co-cre­ator of Ghost Sto­ries shares the Heroes & In­spi­ra­tions that bur­rowed their way into his psy­che from a young age.

atch­ing Ghost sto­ries, Jeremy Dyson and andy ny­man’s film of their long-run­ning hor­ror stage play, it’s im­me­di­ately ob­vi­ous that these are two writ­ers/ film­mak­ers who are hugely pas­sion­ate and knowl­edge­able about the genre. not only does its an­thol­ogy struc­ture re­call the out­put of Bri­tish stu­dio am­i­cus, but it’s lit­tered with lit­tle homages: an evil Dead point-of-view shot here; a crib from John car­pen­ter’s the Fog there; a sly nod to nigel Kneale 1976 tV se­ries Beasts.

this should come as no sur­prise to any­one fa­mil­iar with Dyson’s ca­reer. his work as the non-per­form­ing mem­ber of the League of Gen­tle­men is equally steeped in the hor­ror tra­di­tion. he’s also writ­ten a his­tory of the su­per­nat­u­ral hor­ror film, adapted the chill­ing tales of writer Robert aick­man, and penned two vol­umes of creepy short sto­ries of his own. But what first led him down this cre­ative path? turns out it all be­gan with a youth­ful visit to the cin­ema in his home­town of Leeds...

2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY

Be­ing taken to see 2001 when I was about seven, on one of its reis­sues, was a ma­jorly for­ma­tive experience. I was ter­ri­bly ex­cited in ad­vance, be­cause I was re­ally into spe­cial ef­fects. I’d been bought a book that Christ­mas, Movie Magic by John Bros­nan, and it had a whole chap­ter on 2001, so all I knew is I had to see that film. I can re­mem­ber it vividly, be­cause it was the only time at school where I was poorly and I pre­tended to be well, rather than the other way round! I re­mem­ber hold­ing my fore­head against a cold glass in my bed­room that morn­ing so that when my mum felt my fore­head I wouldn’t feel hot, be­cause I didn’t want to miss 2001 that night! And I can still re­mem­ber sit­ting there af­ter­wards as the lights came up, hav­ing been blown away, just changed by that experience. From thereon in the idea of mak­ing stuff, in what­ever ca­pac­ity, was set – par­tic­u­larly that sort of tran­scen­dent experience you get with 2001, where you’re taken to an­other place.

THE AR­MADA GHOST BOOK

Around that age I was also be­ing bought lots of col­lec­tions of ghost sto­ries, be­cause it was ob­served that I was into all things spooky. There was one birth­day where I got about five – they must have been go­ing cheap at WHSmith! There were adult col­lec­tions like The Fon­tana Book Of Great Ghost Sto­ries, which were re­ally so­phis­ti­cated, but also a cou­ple of chil­dren’s an­tholo­gies like The Ar­mada Ghost Book. They had some chil­dren’s sto­ries in, but also things like “The Red Room” by HG Wells and a Manly Wade Well­man story called “School For The Un­speak­able”, and those

I was be­ing bought ghost sto­ries be­cause I was into all things spooky

things burned me! Read­ing those com­pletely hooked me on that experience of be­ing scared by a well-writ­ten story, and that flow­ered later on. I had some of the Her­bert van Thal ones

[The Pan Book Of Hor­ror] as well. I like the schlock­i­ness of them. I re­mem­ber there’s a story that’s a first-per­son mono­logue which starts with “It’s easy to kill a gold­fish”, and pour­ing acid into the gold­fish bowl; then “It’s easy to kill a cat”, and pour­ing blue paint down its throat; then it es­ca­lates, of course, to “It’s easy to kill a per­son…” Those things def­i­nitely stayed with me, but they were more light en­ter­tain­ment, be­cause I liked the ghoul­ish­ness in a fun way. The grotesque­ness of the van Thal stuff ab­so­lutely would have found its way into The League Of Gen­tle­men, but I was en­gaged on a dif­fer­ent level by the su­per­nat­u­ral stuff, and that’s there in Ghost

Sto­ries and in my own short sto­ries.

AL­FRED HITCHCOCK

There’s a quote about Hitchcock that I love, from an Amer­i­can critic called Mark Crispin Miller: he said, “De­scrib­ing Hitchcock as the Master of Sus­pense is like de­scrib­ing Turner as the Seascape Whizz.” Hitchcock is such a bril­liant film­maker, who was not ap­pre­ci­ated in his own life­time. He was seen as kind of a cheap tech­ni­cian – or at least, the more in­tel­lec­tual crit­ics would dis­miss him in that way, with faint praise – and yet he was per­haps the purest film­maker that ever lived. I re­ally like these fig­ures who are ma­jor artists, but who are bang in the main­stream, who are ma­jor artists and pop­u­lar en­ter­tain­ers – that’s the thing I ad­mire the most. Me and Andy [Ny­man] share a thing of de­spis­ing pre­ten­tious­ness for its own sake, and the dis­mis­sive­ness of say­ing that if some­one’s pop­u­lar they can’t be a se­ri­ous artist. We hate that, be­cause we think the op­po­site is true: the great­est artists want to com­mu­ni­cate to the fullest pos­si­ble au­di­ence, and there’s deep hu­man­ism in that.

ROBERT AICK­MAN

I think Robert Aick­man is an ex­traor­di­nary writer, and one of those au­thors who’s still got higher to climb in terms of his rep­u­ta­tion. He was dis­missed as a genre writer, in that snobby English way, but he’s a ma­jor writer re­ally – he’s like Franz Kafka or some­one. Just like Kafka, there’s an amaz­ing bold­ness and dar­ing to what he does; his sto­ries are sur­real in the truest sense of the word, in that they ap­pear hyper-real and then they go to weird places. He’s a bril­liant ob­server of hu­man na­ture – par­tic­u­larly a darker, more de­pres­sive el­e­ment of hu­man na­ture. That’s com­bined with a so­phis­ti­cated wit – there are lots of comic ob­ser­va­tions of char­ac­ter that are very deft and acute. Then as a stylist he makes these amaz­ing choices in terms of turn of phrase, as well as the events that he’s de­scrib­ing. The other thing is a sort of non-de­nom­i­na­tional spir­i­tu­al­ity. As an in­di­vid­ual, he hated ma­te­ri­al­ism – he gen­uinely be­lieved that mankind took a wrong turn at the In­dus­trial Revo­lu­tion – and there’s some­thing deeply true about that. It’s not a cranky af­fec­ta­tion: he’s ar­tic­u­lat­ing some­thing real and pro­found about the fail­ings of post-En­light­en­ment ma­te­ri­al­ism, and that lends a lot of weight to his work. You couldn’t do a ver­sion of Aick­man with­out it be­ing a pale im­i­ta­tion. He’s a com­plete one-off, like Kafka, some­body who just de­voted him­self to plough­ing his own fur­row.

RAM­SEY CAMP­BELL

In the early ’80s, Stephen King wrote Danse Ma­cabre, which was his paean to su­per­nat­u­ral film and lit­er­a­ture. He de­voted a whole chap­ter to Ram­sey Camp­bell, and it made you want to read the sto­ries. They were quite hard to track down at that time, but then when I was 18 and at art col­lege I found a copy of a col­lec­tion called Dark Com­pan­ions. That was sem­i­nal, read­ing those sto­ries. Im­me­di­ately, read­ing them, I thought, “That’s what I want to do.” Prior to that I’d never thought of want­ing to write, but af­ter I read those Camp­bell sto­ries, lit­er­ally a week later I wrote my own pas­tiche ver­sion of one. What he shares with Robert Aick­man is this fu­sion of psy­cho­log­i­cal depth, re­ally un­der­stand­ing char­ac­ter and us­ing a su­per­nat­u­ral event to il­lus­trate some­thing from deep within the psy­che – so re­ally it’s a mytho­log­i­cal form; it’s Jun­gian. For Jung, ev­ery­thing is about pro­jec­tion: you take what’s deep within and you project it out onto the world, then mistake the pro­jec­tion for the real thing. With writ­ers like Camp­bell and Aick­man, and film­mak­ers like Kubrick and Hitchcock, that’s what they’re do­ing – they’re il­lus­trat­ing that idea. They set up a char­ac­ter with flaws, and then he meets those flaws writ large in the world out­side, of­ten in the form of some­thing strange. It’s a very old mode of sto­ry­telling, and a very pow­er­ful one.

GE­ORGE SHAW

We stum­bled across Ge­orge Shaw when we were putting to­gether the “look book” for Ghost Sto­ries – when you’re try­ing to put the fi­nance to­gether, you have to cre­ate a doc­u­ment that shows what you’re in­tend­ing visu­ally. Ge­orge Shaw is a con­tem­po­rary Bri­tish land­scape artist, who was nom­i­nated for the Turner Prize a few years ago. I think it was my wife who found one of his paint­ings. It was just an or­di­nary sub­ur­ban semi, painted in a very nat­u­ral­is­tic style, but it was the eeri­est thing you’d ever seen, and you just thought, “Oh god, that’s the look!” In a great piece of syn­chronic­ity, around the time we were go­ing into pre-pro­duc­tion he was artist in res­i­dence at the Na­tional Gallery and had a big ex­hi­bi­tion called My Back To Na­ture, so we went to see it. The first thing you saw when you went in was this enor­mous sketch of these big empty woods, and we just said, “Oh well, we’re hav­ing that!” So we lit­er­ally stole that im­age! It’s the open­ing shot when you go into Si­mon Rifkind’s story – this huge wide shot of the woods with a car tiny in it, very much based on that Ge­orge Shaw paint­ing. And what was great was that we were able to show all the team – the de­signer, DoP, lo­ca­tion man­ager – these Ge­orge Shaw paint­ings, and they all got it im­me­di­ately. So every­body was lined up – it was like a point on the com­pass.

LAWRENCE GOR­DON CLARK

There were also shots from a cou­ple of the BBC’s Ghost Story For Christ­mas adap­ta­tions that we recre­ated for Ghost Sto­ries – there’s one on the moors that’s very much an homage to a mo­ment in A Warn­ing To The Cu­ri­ous, where there’s a wide shot of Peter Vaughan’s hero be­ing fol­lowed by some kind of spirit. We’ve loved those things since we were kids, and they were just as in­stru­men­tal in The League – we were for­ever talk­ing about them. At the first night of the League Of Gen­tle­men tour in Ex­eter, Lawrence Gor­don Clark’s daugh­ter came to see the show and came back­stage af­ter­wards, and it was lovely to be able to say to her how much her dad’s work meant to us. He was just a nat­u­rally gifted film­maker. I’ve read that he def­i­nitely had pre­ten­sions to be­ing more than he was. He saw him­self as be­ing like Hitchcock: he sto­ry­boarded them in a de­lib­er­ately Hitch­cock­ian way, and I think the open­ing shot of A Warn­ing To The Cu­ri­ous is ba­si­cally filched from the open­ing shot of Marnie.I guess he didn’t have the am­bi­tion [to be more suc­cess­ful], but he had the tal­ent to be that if he’d wanted to. He had this fan­tas­tic econ­omy, where he could tell a story through bril­liant im­agery and use of space. They had no money and no time – they must have shot them in two weeks, all on lo­ca­tion – but he was able to con­jure this amaz­ing at­mos­phere just through his choice of shots.

Ghost Sto­ries is out on DVD, Blu-ray and dig­i­tal down­load now.

Watch­ing 2001 was a big mo­ment for a young Dyson.

Al­fred Hitchcock gets some di­rect­ing ad­vice from a crow.

The spooky MR James story A Warn­ing To The Cu­ri­ous was adapted for TV in 1972.

Ge­orge Shaw’s Bri­tish paint­ings in­spired the look of Ghost Sto­ries.

Film­ing Ghost Sto­ries with co-cre­ator Andy Ny­man.

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