My personal road to Ghost Stories began in October 2000 at the Sitges film festival in Spain, the Cannes of horror movies. I was cornered by actor Andy Nyman who was promoting the Martin Amis adaptation Dead Babies. I thought Nyman shone in the film, but him turning out to be my biggest fan – in a non-Misery kind of way, you understand – came as a bit of a shock.
Nyman told me he’d been a die-hard horror obsessive since the age of ten, when he saw Only a Scream Away, an episode of the 1974 TV anthology Thriller. He also revealed how he and his best school mate Jeremy Dyson (who went on to co-found The League of Gentlemen with Mark Gatiss, Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith) would voraciously scour British horror magazines The House of Hammer, Starburst and Shivers for my reviews. Out of mutual respect developed a close camaraderie. Since then, I’ve watched Nyman’s meteoric rise, from directing illusionist Derren Brown’s live shows to starring opposite Liam Neeson in this year’s The Commuter. He kept close tabs on me, too, and became the first celebrity supporter of the annual FrightFest horror event in London, which I co-founded in 2000.
It was as he was walking past the posters for The Woman in Black in the West End that Nyman conceived Ghost Stories. After all, how could it be the only horror show in London? So he and Dyson set about concocting their own stage shocker, “The Vagina Monologues with poltergeists”.
Sean Holmes, artistic director of London’s Lyric theatre in Hammersmith, encouraged them towards a portmanteau of tales along the lines of classics Dr Terror’s House of Horrors and Dead of Night, an anthology format that Dyson had already mined in The League of Gentlemen. Ghost Stories focuses on a professor of parapsychology, who as a renowned sceptic of the supernatural is given three baffling para- normal cases to debunk. Over the ensuing taut 80 minutes – with no interval! – the haunting tales are brought vividly to life. Theatrical sleight-of-hand, “smell-o-vision” (a strong whiff of bleach greets the audience on entering the auditorium) and vintage soundtrack excerpts add to what is an already immersive experience.
The play debuted in February 2010 at the Liverpool Playhouse to critical acclaim, transferred to the Lyric, then became a West End smash. Numerous international productions, including one at the Sydney Opera House, con rmed its cult status. Signi cantly, it attracted audiences who were not regular theatre-goers and had never experienced suspenseful fun in that thrilling environment. I saw the play umpteen times and marvelled at how cleverly manipulated its jolts were.
Nyman and Dyson insisted on directorial control when it came to adapting Ghost Stories for the screen, determined to do it on their own terms. Backers at production companies Altitude and Warp granted them that autonomy. But there remained a problem. A big part of the play’s success is how it tailors horror-movie clichés to the theatre environment. So how to make that work for cinema audiences? Nyman and Dyson’s solution was to make it even more cinematic, accentuate the oddness and to add extra references for genre fans (so bravo if you spot the nod to 1944 ghost story The Uninvited).
Because Nyman insisted I be involved in the production somewhere, I interviewed key cast for the publicity materials. In truth, I think he just needed a personal mascot around, as he kept telling the bemused crew how influential I’d been in his life. He was also adamant that his rabbi bless the sets, in the same way those 70s devil movies wheeled in priests to stave off bad luck. It must have worked: everyone agreed it was a smooth shoot.
Nyman cast himself as the professor, a role he’d made his own on stage, joining a stellar cast led by Martin Freeman and The Fast Show’s Paul Whitehouse – both of whom were drawn to the screenplay’s inherent weirdness. On set, the pair revealed their own horror influences, from Freeman’s mum letting him watch Psycho when he was seven (“For years after I was scared at the bottom of staircases”) to Whitehouse being similarly traumatised, but by sheep rather than Hitchcock (“I had a scary moment when I used to go night fishing in Wales – a sheep coughing at four in the morning is very frightening!”)
Location filming took place in Yorkshire – practically Dyson’s backyard. On my regular set visits, I watched Nyman and Dyson behind the camera, never arguing, never fazed by their monumental challenge. Freeman and I noticed them rubbing their hands together with glee like kids in a candy store, thrilled to be sharing their horror vision with the world. “You could see their 12-year-old fanboy selves pop out continuously,” Freeman observed.
Because of our friendship, it was Frightfest that first announced news of the film version (in cinemas from Friday 6 April) and hosted the premiere at this January’s Glasgow Film festival.
And as to a possible sequel, of course I’d answer the call again if a lucky mascot is needed.
Sign up to the Radio Times newsletter for the latest TV and entertainment news