The Big Interview: Stephen Mangan

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CREATIVE SIBLINGS Stephen Mangan is pictured with his sisters Lisa and Anita. Pic: Marie Mangan

Anton McNulty

Stephen Mangan is a man of many talents. The London born actor, comedian, presenter and writer has starred in a number of television roles in the UK and is best known for playing Guy Secretan in the Bafta award winning sitcom, Green Wing; Dan Moody in I’m Alan Partridge and Postman Pat in Postman Pat: The Movie.
As a stage actor, he was Tony-nominated for his portrayal of Norman in The Norman Conquests on Broadway and also starred in Jeeves and Wooster in Perfect Nonsense, which won an Olivier Award for Best New Comedy.
He has recently started writing children’s novels and his latest novel ‘The Fart That Changed The World’ has become one of the top selling children’s novels in 2022.
His late father James was a native of Doohoma and his late mother Mary was from Tullaghanduff, Geesala and he grew up in London with his sisters Anita and Lisa. Every summer the family would travel to Erris to spend their holidays with their many cousins and relations.
Stephen talks to The Mayo News about his latest book which is illustrated by his sister Anita, his holidays in Doohoma, his career in acting and ponders if his beloved Spurs will finally win the Premier League.

AMN: You are best known for being an actor on stage and on television but you have now started to write children’s books. How did that come about?
SM: This is my second children’s book, the first one was called ‘Escape the Rooms’. I worked with my sister Anita on both of them and she illustrates them and I write them. She has always been a fantastic artist and I always had ambitions to write and a few years ago we decided to give it a go. I initially thought we would do a picture book for very young children with very few words and lots of drawings which would take me a day or two. But Anita persuaded me to write novels instead for eight to 12 year olds and it has been great fun. I have really enjoyed it and it feels like a whole new career in a way. It is good to work with my sister.

AMN: Your new book is called ‘The Fart That Changed The World’. An interesting title, can you tell me what it’s about?
SM: It is a book about the butterfly effect and how one small action can lead to another action and a whole chain of events which ultimately have huge consequences. In this particular instance the thing that sets off the chain of events is a royal fart. I have yet to meet a child and lots of adults who don’t find farts funny. It will not win me a Nobel Prize for Literature but it will entertain. It is a fun adventure story with lots of great characters and lots of great drawings from my sister.

AMN: Was it enjoyable working with your sister on these books?
SM: She definitely kept me going. Anyone who has written a book for whatever age group will tell me how much work it is. There are moments where you never see it reaching its conclusion and you start losing the will to carry on. I didn’t want to let her down and she kept me going and I’m so pleased that she did. It has been great fun. If you had told us when we were kids we would end up working together one day we would have found it ridiculous. I suppose like all siblings we made each other laugh a lot and we fought a lot. On those long car journeys from London to Mayo we’d fall out every ten minutes but we always got on and had the same sense of humour and understood each other. So yes it has been pretty harmonious so far.

AMN: Were you an artistic family growing up?
SM: My mum was a great reader and when she came to London she went to the theatre a lot and that’s probably how I got into that. But there were no actors or artists or singers or anything like that in my family. Dad and his brothers were builders so I don’t know where that gene came from.

AMN: A number of comedians have found their way into writing children’s books. What do you like about writing for children?
SM: What I like is that kids will go anywhere with you and they have great imaginations. They are open to all sorts of silliness and stuff that doesn’t make a lot of sense if you break it down. It is just the joy of it. They are also very honest readers and if you are boring a child they won’t be polite and sit there. They will let you know so in a way it’s a real challenge to write something they will not want to put down. Adults will stick with books just to say they read them out of sheer bloody mindedness but children won’t do that.
I was a real bookworm when I was a kid and always had my nose in a book. I have three kids of my own and there is so much on offer on a screen these days, I wanted my boys to get the same pleasure out of reading that I did. I was trying to show them that there is other stuff going on besides Minecraft.

AMN: Both your parents were from Erris and emigrated to London. Growing up, did you have a strong sense of your Mayo and Irish heritage?
SM: Oh yeah. My dad and his brothers had a construction company together in London. My aunts worked there and we would always be in and out of each other’s houses. Then every summer we’d go back to Doohoma where my dad was from. You’d drive to Liverpool which was three or four hours at least, then the Dublin ferry was eight hours overnight and from Dublin to Doohoma was another six and a half hours in those days. It took a day and a half to get there so it did feel like you were going somewhere far, far away. We were very aware of where we came from. I feel like I spent half my childhood there, even if it was for just my summer holidays.

AMN: As a child did you enjoy having to spend your summer holidays in Mayo?
SM: I loved it because we had 52 or something first cousins and there was always a whole gang of us back. You got this instant gang of mates who are your friends automatically because they are related to you. Unlike in London you had that freedom to go where you liked and do what you wanted. So from a young age it was great fun and was always something I looked forward to. I took it for granted because it was who I was and it was like having a double life. I lived in London and had an English education but I had this big Irish family. It’s funny I never played an Irish man in any acting job I ever did. A lot of English people don’t think of me as Irish ... I seem to play posh English people so there you go.

AMN: Do you still travel back to Erris with your own family?
SM :The August Bank Holiday weekend in Ireland is the week me and my cousins try to come back so we are all there at the same time. Unlike when I was a kid, you can go surfing and body boarding and kayaking and all these things to do. When you have three boys you are always looking for ways to tire them out. It is ideal to chuck them in the sea for a while with their cousins and tire them out.
When I was young I remember lots of visiting and sitting in people’s houses and not knowing who they were as mum and dad caught up with them. The smell of the peat fire and people trying to force feed you tea and bread and cakes and not always understanding what they were saying to me.
When you are a kid you don’t realise how beautiful and stunning the place is. The scenery and coastline and the view across to Achill and the really wild remoteness of it. It is not on the way to anywhere else so it still feels like a bit of a secret. I live right in the centre of London and I have a full-on busy life and a lot going on so being able to go to a place with beaches and the ocean in front of you, I think it is a stunning part of the world.

AMN: You mentioned that there was no artistic influence in your family. How did you get into acting and performing?
SM: I really enjoyed it at school and it became the thing I was really into. A lot of kids have a thing that they love whether it is music or art or football but they never think they would make a career out of it. We did not know any actors growing up and there were no artistic people in the family so I might as well have wanted to become the Pope or an astronaut. It seemed such a remote thing to do for a living. I was heading to be a lawyer. When I left university mum got ill and died when she was 45 and I think that turned my life around. I thought well she died at 45, her mum died at 47 so I may only have 20 years left and I might as well give it a go so I did. I’m glad I did.

AMN: Showbusiness and acting is not always easy to break into. Was it tough for you to get noticed and get work in the industry?
SM: I was lucky I think. I always managed to find work but it was tough. I spent three years in drama school and I was working in theatre jobs which were low paid. All my mates were lawyers and went to university and all earning way more than me. I felt like a student for most of my 20s but I was one of the lucky ones who has managed to make a living out of it. There is a lot to be thankful for … it is a great job and I absolutely love it.

AMN: You have had a varied career between stage, television, film and comedy. What do you prefer?
SM: I have an itchy brain and I like to mix it up. When you are filming for a while you long to hear an audience laugh. I do a lot of comedy so there is a buzz to hearing a thousand people in a theatre laugh. But when you are doing theatre for six months and you are working six nights a week and haven’t seen your family, a good mix is always healthy. With that variety you feel like that job is something new and it is easy to be enthusiastic about it. I get bored easily.

AMN: Can you describe the feeling when you are on stage and performing in front of a large audience?
SM: It is fantastic and there is nothing like it. The feeling of nerves before you go onto the stage is exhilarating and terrifying but is fun. Most actors will tell you they love theatres because every night feels like a special occasion and you got to go out and do it. It is not like sitting down to watch a TV series you made which will be the same every time someone watches it for the rest of time. The group aspect of performing is very important and is the reason I have never done stand up. I don’t understand people who go out on stage alone. Who will you sit with in a bar afterwards to talk about how it went? 

AMN: You secured a part in Alan Partridge playing the role of Dan Moody. You said after that people would shout Dan at you on the street. Does it still happen?
SM: They do it all the time. In fact, someone did it in Belmullet the other day. I was walking on a beach and passed some bloke and about two minutes later he came running back shouting ‘Dan’ and went off running again. He must have been going, ‘I recognise that guy from somewhere’ and it suddenly clicked and he gotta do it while he can. There are worse things people can shout at you!

AMN: You’re a big fan of Tottenham Hotspur, how do you think they will get on this season?
SM: I am a big fan and have been a season ticket holder since 1997 and I get to every home game I can. Two of my oldest boys are obsessed as well and things are looking good this season. In the Pochettino era I went to the Champions League final so the last few years have been good. We have consistently finished above Arsenal and that is all you can ask for.

AMN: Is there any projects in the pipeline which the public can look forward to over the next few months?
SM: I am writing a series which we will be shooting later in the year but it hasn’t been announced so I can’t talk about that. I will write another children’s book in the winter which will be out in the spring so there is plenty going on. I have three boys. The hero of the first book was Jack, the hero of the second book was Frank and my other boy is called Harry so I have to write another book for Harry or there will be hell to pay!