The talmudic scholars of gore, horror and ghouls

Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman love ghost stories with a religious fervour.

By John Nathan, March 18, 2010
“Love at first sight”: Jeremy Dyson (left) and Andy Nyman

“Love at first sight”: Jeremy Dyson (left) and Andy Nyman

Just when the theatrical chiller was thought to be something that belonged to the era of cigarette ushers and pot boilers, along comes Jeremy Dyson's and Andy Nyman's Ghost Stories.

The play is the product of the combined talents of the co-creators, writer Dyson - who made the big time with The League of Gentlemen - and Nyman, who has made it big with just about everything he has turned his hand to - acting, magic and that sleight-of-mind aspect of showbusiness, mentalism.

"We absolutely hit it off straight away," says Dyson. "It was a bit like love at first sight," says Nyman.

It all started when the two 43-year-olds were 15. They had travelled down from their home towns - Leeds in Dyson's case and Leicester in Nyman's - to spend a week at Chai, a summer camp for Jewish children.

"I instantly felt an affinity and an affection for Jeremy because my family were from Leeds," says Nyman. "My barmitzvah was in Leicester but the simchah was in Leeds; all my extended family were from there. And I'd bought up this collection of university rag mags, and Jeremy was the only one who went: 'Oh great!'"

"We were best friends from the first night we met," says Dyson. "We had so much in common. He was the funniest person I'd met. Even then he was a brilliant performer."

Us being Jewish has played a massive part in our sense of humour and our lives

"At that time I was doing impressions of the film American Werewolf in London, which in my head was as impressive as the transformation on the screen. Jeremy made me do it in front of some girls," says Nyman.

Despite the fact that they have remained firm friends since the day they met, Ghost Stories is their first collaboration. For material, they tapped into a childhood love of all things ghoulish.

"As children we started talking about horror and films almost straight away," says Dyson. "And soon after we met we would stay at each other's house. It coincided with the home video boom, so we could access the worst video nasty and watch any horror film we could get hold of. And we both had the same big colour books of horror films with all the colour pictures."

So theirs was not a friendship built on Judaism and Jewish culture as the organisers of the summer camp might have hoped?

"Well, we did use to pore over the horror books in a talmudic kind of way," says Dyson cheerfully.

Neither Dyson, the son of an accountant, nor Nyman, the son of a dentist, had any family connections to showbusiness.

"My mum was a keen amateur and was involved in a Jewish drama group in Leeds," says Dyson. "But there was no showbusiness influence. I had to do quite a bit of pushing and persuading of my parents. I used to make Super 8 films and film comedy sketches. I suppose the first step was having some short stories published when I was in my late twenties."

For Nyman, it was seeing Richard Dreyfus in Jaws that made him realise it was possible for a short, stocky Jew to be in the movies. His film credits include Severance with Sean Bean, about medieval hitmen in which Nyman gets his leg cut off; Death at a Funeral; and recently, on Channel 4, Dead Set where he played a tyrannical, mouthy TV producer.

It is all gory stuff, as can be Dyson's grotesque League of Gentlemen (Dyson did much of the writing for the BBC sitcom, but was rarely seen on screen). If much of Nyman's work on screen has a loyal following, it has more of a cult rather than blockbuster status.

But few performances would have been better than his first stage role in over a decade when he played David O Selznik at the Tricycle Theatre in London in 2007. For Ron Hutchinson's play about the making of Gone With the Wind Nyman delivered a high-octane turn that deserved a West End transfer. It was a rare move away from horror and spectacle, although like much of his other work, the Jewishness - on this occasion, in the form of Selznik - was very conspicuous.

"Us being Jewish has played a massive part in our sense of humour and our lives," says Nyman. "And Ghost Stories wouldn't be part of us if some of the Jewishness didn't get in it."

But it is not just in the play that their Jewishness feeds through. The reality TV producer who Nyman plays in Dead Set wears a chai round his neck, the same chai Nyman wears all the time. And while most viewers of Dyson's League of Gentleman will think the least weird thing about the sinister butcher in the show is his name, no Jew would buy their meat from a man called Hilary Briss.

In Ghost Stories, Nyman plays Professor Goodman, a lecturer in paranormal studies. There is a three-line whip from the show's publicists and creators not to reveal the plot. But I can say that at some stage it is revealed that Goodman was known at school as "Jewy Goodman", and that one of the ghost stories concerns a doctor called Rifkin whose mother is a typical yiddisher matriarch. "I take such pride in hearing one of the characters using Yiddish in a way that is not explained to the audience," says Nyman. "It's something you don't get to see in this country and which we're used to seeing in New York."

As for being called Jewy at school, that was made up. "There was one incident in Leeds when I was with Jeremy and another friend and about five skinheads stopped us. They hit one of us, and then the ring leader stepped up to me and said: 'Are you Jewish?' I thought this is one of those seminal moments in your life when you decide. And I said: 'Yeah, I am,' at which point he said: 'I'm so sorry guys.' Then he picked up the guy who had been hit, dusted him off, and left. Get your head around that."

Whether that incident will one day appear in the next Dyson/Nyman offering has yet to be seen. But Dyson feels sure that they will be collaborating again. "We certainly would love to work together again because we've had so much fun. Ghost Stories is one of the most enjoyable things I've ever done."

But it has been a long time coming. It was 1981 when Dyson and Nyman met at that summer school, when they discovered a shared passion for horror, love of stories and a talent for telling them. Now they are each married with children. Dyson still lives in Yorkshire, Nyman in Hammersmith, a short walk from the Lyric. "I suppose the idea was that we would go off and find a bride," says Dyson of that fateful day. "I found Andy."

'Ghost Stories' is at the Lyric Hammersmith, London W6 until April 3. Tel: 0871 221 1729

Last updated: 3:01pm, February 18 2011