Stephen Mangan: “What is comedy? It’s laughing at someone else’s pain.”

As an actor, and now as a writer, Stephen Mangan instinctively finds himself drawn to projects that dig deep into human pain – and the more jokes, the merrier. “I’ve always believed that comedy is a fantastic way to deal with the most profound and difficult of emotions,” Stephen tells Weekend over Zoom. “That’s sort of what comedy is about. If someone slips on a banana skin, what are we laughing at? We’re laughing at someone else’s physical pain. There’s a deeper mechanism going on inside of us.”

It’s a philosophy that finds full expression in the 53-year-old’s first children’s novel – a collaboration with his illustrator sister, Anita, that arose when a publisher approached the pair of them about working together. Escape The Rooms is the story of two children, Jack and Cally, who are thrown together on a madcap journey through a series of chambers in which they must solve riddles, crack codes, dodge deadly traps and outwit a succession of colourful opponents, including a troll with the world’s longest eyebrow hair and a talking frog who’s banned beards.

“Writing for children, and having children, I know how boundless their imaginations are,” says Stephen of the book’s rich seam of skewed, Edward Lear surrealism. “They’ll go anywhere with it, as long as it has an internal logic. I wanted to make it surprising, entertaining, funny, sad, frightening…”

The latter quality is most vividly represented by the Slow Children – squat, zombie-like figures who emerge shuffling from the shadows like the stuff of nightmares. “I think children like to be frightened, as long as they know they’re safe,” says Stephen. “With a book, they can shut it and put it down. I suppose the trick is to bring them to the edge of being scared – but not so much that you traumatise them.”

As the story progresses, it also becomes increasingly apparent that The Rooms are an allegory for its bereaved heroes’ journey through the stages of grief. “That wasn’t an aim when I started,” says Stephen. “Clearly, it’s just something that’s part of my psyche. My mum died when I was in my early 20s, and I lost my uncle, who we were very close to, when I was a teenager. And I wanted the book to have a bit of depth. In the books I enjoyed as a child, there were always bigger themes behind the silliness.

“Also, I wanted to write a book that touched on childhood loss in a way that was funny and silly and not a sort of heavy. I think the way children deal with grief is very different to the way adults deal with grief. They step in and out of it. I know from my experience, I was very confused by the fact that, at times I would feel really traumatised and devastated, and then minutes later I would feel absolutely fine – almost elated. And I wanted to say: that’s okay, that’s normal.”

As well as turning novelist, Stephen – who has three young sons with his wife, fellow actor Louise Delamere – is set to make his screenwriting debut with an adaptation of Harry and the Wrinklies, Alan Temperley’s 1997 children’s book about a boy who’s sent to live with eccentric elderly relatives following the sudden death of his parents. It’s hard not to see a pattern emerging…

“Well, it’s such a common theme in children’s stories – virtually every story you can think of, from Bambi to Harry Potter, involves a parent or parents dying, and children being thrust out into the world and having to cope,” he muses. “Partly, I think, because it forces children to suddenly take responsibility, or to have agency over their own lives. In a way, I think, you’re preparing yourself for that day. What is bringing up a child, but giving them the tools to cope with going out into the world and standing on their own two feet? That’s the job description of being a parent, in many ways.

“I think everyone knows that, whether they have lost a parent or not. Certainly I don’t think these stories are just for children who’ve suffered loss, in the same way Cinderella is not a story just for children being brought up by wicked stepmothers.”

In a sense, Stephen owes his entire career to his early experience of loss and grief. “Oh, without question,” he says. “My parents had both left school at 14, because that was the only education on offer to them. They were very bright but uneducated, and like a lot of immigrants – my parents are from Ireland – they impressed on me the need to do something practical and useful.” So, having previously won scholarships to two independent schools, he went off to study law at Cambridge. 

“And then Mum died. She was 45. Her mother had died at 47. And I thought: wow, I might actually only have 25 years now. I don’t want to be a lawyer, I want to be an actor. It gave me the courage, more than anything. I had my second audition at RADA ten days after my mum died.” (His dad lived to see his career take off – fuelled by his breakthrough role in Channel 4’s hospital comedy Green Wing – but died of a brain tumour in 2005, aged 63.)

Mum was 45. I thought: wow, I might actually only have 25 years now. I don’t want to be a lawyer, I want to be an actor. It gave me the courage, more than anything.

Stephen Mangan

At Cambridge, Stephen had acted alongside Rachel Weisz and Olivia Williams, and it was here he met his close friend Paul Ritter. “It’s just heartbreaking,” he sighs, talking to Weekend a few days after the Friday Night Dinner star’s death, aged 54, from a brain tumour. “At university, I didn’t know if I could pull off being an actor, and the two of us would sit in my room and say, ‘Do you think we can do it?’ All we wanted was be in a play, living in digs and doing a midweek matinee in somewhere like Darlington.”

As it was, they went all the way to Broadway, appearing together in Alan Ayckbourn’s The Norman Conquests. “It’s been incredible to see the outpouring of love for Paul,” says Stephen. “I feel sort of cheated as a fan, let alone a friend. But there you go. Life is cruel.”

Stephen’s Broadway triumph earned him a Tony nomination. “That was incredible,” he grins. “I’d find myself in rooms with all the other nominees – Liza Minnelli would be over there, Dolly Parton and Angela Lansbury over there. And then me. Or they’d be like, ‘Stephen, Alan Alda is at the stage door, he’d like to say hello…’ It blows your mind.”

A few years later, his agent tried to persuade him to move to LA to capitalise on the success of Episodes, the Anglo-American sitcom he starred in with Tamsin Greig and Matt LeBlanc. (Somewhat ironic, given that he played an idealistic British writer being fed into the ruthless La-La Land studio machine.) But it’s never really appealed, he says, because he prefers to be busy – a bit of theatre here, a Radio 4 drama or a telly there – rather than “sitting unemployed for six months” waiting for a big payday job. “Also, LA is weird. They have no weather. What do you talk about?” 

Besides, on home turf he’s made a good career out of playing a pleasingly eclectic range of British icons – everyone from Bertie Wooster (which earned him an Olivier Award) to Adrian Mole, Tony Blair and Postman Pat.

“Yeah, it’s funny,” he smiles. “As a kid who wants to go into acting, you think you’ll be play James Bond. And the industry takes one look at you and is like: ‘No, you’re Adrian Mole…’”

Escape The Rooms is published by Scholastic, £6.99

THE ASCENT OF MANGAN 

Stephen was born in Enfield, north London, to Irish parents who ran their own building company. He and Anita have a younger sister, Lisa.

For the past 20 years, he has been treated to daily shouts of “Dan!”, in honour of an iconic moment from I’m Alan Partridge. “The joke in the show is that Dan doesn’t hear Alan, so he shouts it again and again and again,” smiles Stephen. “So sometimes I’d have to stand there for a minute, while a shop assistant goes, ‘Dan! Dan! Dan!’ But there are worse things people can shout at you, put it that way.”

Another British icon Stephen’s name is regularly associated with is Doctor Who. Would he be up for taking over the TARDIS? “Yeah, cool,” he says. “It’s part of the DNA of this country. I’m lucky enough to be friends with quite a few of the former Doctors, and know how much it’s changed their lives. And Dirk Gently [who he played on TV from 2010-12] was obviously a character that came out of a couple of Douglas Adams’ Doctor Who scripts, so… Yeah.”

This article was originally published in Waitrose Weekend on June 10, 2021. (c) Waitrose Weekend

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