Life & Culture

Andy Nyman: Counting his blessings in biblical times

The actor who shone as Tevye in last year's Fiddler on the Roof tells Linda Marric about life in isolation


The word versatile could almost have been invented for actor-writer-director and all-round mensch, Andy Nyman. He is known to many as the man behind some of magician Derren Brown’s most elaborate TV stunts, collaborating with Brown on, among other things, TV shows such as Russian Roulette, Séance, and Messiah. Nyman is also the co-creator, with childhood friend Jeremy Dyson (The League of Gentlemen), of the cult stage show Ghost Stories, which the pair adapted for the big screen in 2018. What’s more, his turn as Tevye in Trevor Nunn’s Fiddler on the Roof last year was acclaimed by critics and audiences alike.

Long before Ghost Stories, magic shows and countless other film and TV appearances, Nyman had a small role in Nigel Kneale’s spine-chilling 1989 TV adaptation of Susan Hill’s gothic novel The Woman in Black. The ITV drama was a huge hit at the time and is now being released for the first time on Blu-ray in a restored special edition. The release also features an audio commentary from Nyman, another long-time friend Mark Gatiss (The League of Gentlemen, Sherlock) and author and film critic Kim Newman.

Because The Woman in Black was Nyman’s first ever TV role, he is excited to be reacquainted with the work. “As a genre fan, it’s so refreshing to see it again,” he tells me on a Zoom call from his home in London. “It’s so frightening and so beautifully made and it’s such an intelligent piece of work. It never patronises the audience.”

But he also acknowledges that 30 long years have passed since he filmed it: “The first thing is the absolute shock when you realise, ‘Look how young I was’, and I’m not even sure if it’s on the commentary, but before we even started Mark said, ‘You’re not gonna believe this, but you could be your son, Preston.”’ (Preston, the spitting image of his dad, is also a prolific TV actor.)

Nyman remembers exactly where he was when the programme went out live for the first time in 1989, how it felt to see it and what immediate impact it would have. “The fact that it was going out on Christmas Eve was a big deal,” he says.

“I went home to Leicester to watch it. I was with my parents and sisters and we sat down in the front room and watched it and it was incredibly exciting. And, not to underestimate that thing as an actor, it was the very first time I saw my name on the screen, the very first time I saw my name in the Radio Times or the TV Times… those are big things, they’re not to be taken for granted. It’s not about ‘Oh suddenly I’m famous!’, but it’s the first time you see it pay off in concrete terms, in terms of an achievement of things you risked. The funny thing is, like most actors you can’t bear to look at yourself but seeing your name… you can’t criticise that.”

Nyman’s history with the horror genre has been a long and fruitful one. Does it feel weird that the first TV he did was also a horror? “It was just happenstance that the first thing for me to go up for was a classic ghost story. When I got the job I was just over the moon. I’ve had this beautifully varied, wonderful career, but it’s amazing that within that there are these moments and jobs in a genre that I absolutely adore. To get to do the film of our ghost stories was such an extraordinary achievement and just such naches.”

When discussing all the varied things he has worked on, Nyman is at his most enthusiastic while talking about his ongoing work with his best friend Jeremy Dyson, notably their screen adaptation of the cult stage show Ghost Stories. “You know, Jeremy and I met at Chai summer camp,” says Nyman, “and one of the things that’s really interesting about Ghost Stories as a film is the British Jewish experience. It was a really interesting thing to do and that opening sequence [of a barmitzvah] was an amalgamation of mine and Jeremy’s barmitzvahs in Leeds.

“Jeremy’s mum and my mum are there, the siddur that’s used was my siddur… And that’s something that really interests us, because the British Jewish experience is very unrepresented, partly because our experience —which has been highlighted in the past few years — is ‘shhhhh shhhh’, so it really matters for us that it’s out there, within the film.”

As lockdown starts lifting for some around the country, Nyman tells me of his own experience of shielding with wife Sophie who, he tells me, is at very high risk. “Work-wise, everything stopped March the 13th for me. We’ve been isolating properly since then and the only time we go out is when we go for her to get chemo. Other than that we go out for occasional walks in the area. We’ve been isolating in our flat for 125 days or something now. Thank God we get on really well as a family — that part of it is wonderful, us all being together.”

He is extremely frustrated with the way freelancers like him have been treated by various governmental bodies. Of that treatment he says: “It’s troubling looking at work and looking at our industry and thinking, what on earth is going to happen?

“Many of the projects that I had have just evaporated. Thank God there’s this £1.5 billion given into the arts, but freelancers have been completely ignored. I have not earned a penny or had one penny of assistance since March the 13th.”

He feels “there’s a real snobbery with the arts. People probably look at me and think, ‘Well, he’s rich, he’s been in films, made his own film’…People have no concept of the reality. You can have one good year and that could pay for three atrocious years that you’ve had leading up to that. There’s also a real snobbery with the arts where it’s ‘oh it’s just for the elites’. But that makes no sense. The arts is one of the most profitable industries in the country — in London alone it earns £5 billion a year, from theatre alone.”

Visibly frustrated by how the creative industry has been treated by the current government, he adds: “The first thing that gets cut in school is art and creative thinking. The honest-to-God truth is that creative thinking will save the world. The encouragement of creativity is an essential part of furthering absolutely everything. It’s fundamental to the human experience.”

Away from the horror genre, Nyman recently starred as Tevye in the brilliantly received stage production of Fiddler on the Roof, directed by Trevor Nunn, which ran at the Menier Chocolate Factory and then transferred to the Playhouse Theatre. 
“It was a mitzvah,” he says. “It was an extraordinary thing to be asked out of the blue to play the role. And it was an amazing thing to have one of the greatest living directors in the history of theatre.

“When Trevor and I met, he wanted to know what my vision of Fiddler on the Roof is, and that’s a scary thing to have to answer something like that.

“I said, I’m not interested in it as a comedy or as a flippant thing, I want to tell the story with absolute honesty of my zadies and of the truth of all that.

“I want to tell the story of a man and his family, who are my family, and of what happened to us, and the Jewishness is in there. And Trevor felt exactly the same about it.”

Generous with his time to a fault, I get the impression that Nyman would happily talk for hours about his craft, his family and the friends he’s worked with for decades now. He reveals that he prefers acting to writing, but writing means spending more time with Dyson and that’s why he likes doing it.

What are his hopes for the future? “What’s happened is biblical in so many ways, but it’s one of the most amazing, profound gifts of being reminded of a blessed life which most of us live most of the time.

“Whether you’re frum or not, being grateful for a piece of bread, being grateful for a lovely life…

“What you pray for is that they find the vaccine. And please God, we can go back to what we had, maybe with a bit more gratitude and kindness this time.”


The Woman in Black comes out on Blu-ray on August 10

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