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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.