By David Hennessy
“Is it that long ago?” Is the response from Episodes star Stephen Mangan when he is reminded of collecting his Irish World Award for Best Comedy Actor in The Galtymore in 2007. “That’s crazy. That’s seven years ago.”
Born in London to two Mayo parents, Stephen continues: “It means a huge amount to be recognised by yourselves because I see myself as Irish and it’s nice that that’s acknowledged because actually most people don’t think of me that way. Anyone who knows the name Mangan will know you can’t get a more Irish name but I’ve spent my life playing posh Brits and quite a few Jewish characters. I’ve never played an Irish man, I think the last Irishman I played was at drama school so it was very nice to be recognised by the Irish community and have it acknowledged that that’s where I’m from.
“Maybe it’s time for me to play an Irishman on the screen. Why not? That’s my genetic make-up. I couldn’t be more Irish so Chris O’Dowd and myself should do something together, play brothers.”
Stephen and Chris O’Dowd worked together on the 2005 film Festival and both have gone from strength to strength since with Stephen sharing the screen with Matt Le Blanc in Episodes and Chris appearing in Hollywood films and his own successful series, Moone Boy: “We got on very well actually. He’s from Roscommon and my family are from Mayo so we’re not that far apart really. And Steve Coogan aswell, who I’ve worked with: His family are from near Westport, another Irish name there: Coogan. Maybe there’s a film to be made with the three of us playing brothers or something,” Stephen laughs. “I’ll get working on it.”
Stephen came to prominence in 2001 by playing the lead in the adaptation of Sue Townsend’s books Adrian Mole, the Capuccino Years. He then went on to feature in the popular hospital comedy, Green Wing and he is also often remembered as Dan Moody in I’m Alan Partridge.
“Like many people, we had a big Irish family. My dad was one of nine, mum was one of seven: Lots of cousins, uncles and aunts. Dad was in business with his brothers based in Finsbury Park so I would spend a lot of time in London with my Irish family but then we’d spend every summer back on the west coast: The long drive to Liverpool, the overnight ferry and then what seemed like the eternal drive in those days from Dublin to Belmullet. It felt like it took a week, we would stop in Longford at The Longford Arms for sandwiches along the way but that trip was part of my growing up.
“We did it every summer and we spent a few Christmases over there as well but I was never in any doubt where I came from. What was interesting was to get a thoroughly English education, to go to an English boarding school and then to go to Cambridge University and RADA, I always enjoyed that contrast between summers in Mayo and time at one of the most established boarding schools in the country. I liked that mix.
“I’m back at least once a year, maybe more. I’ve just booked some flights for July. I’m taking my two little boys who are six and three now, the six year old’s been once before but the three year old’s never been and it’s a long overdue trip really. My wife’s from Liverpool and they’re always up in Liverpool so I need to remind them where the other half of the family comes from.”
Stephen recently took part in a celebrity edition of quiz show, Fifteen to One to raise money for charity. His chosen charity was Marie Curie Cancer Care. Stephen lost both his parents to cancer and says: “They did great work with both my parents when they were dying so I’ve always been a big fan of theirs. I’m always happy to support them. I’ve been a long time supporter of them. They do great work.””
Created by David Crane (co-creator of Friends) and Jeffrey Klarik, Episodes has already earned a number of awards and nominations, including a Golden Globe for Matt Le Blanc who became known for playing Joey in Friends. Matt is playing an exaggerated version of himself but is he really like that? “Bits of him are like that. Some of it is what people think he’s like, some of it is what he is a little bit like and some of it is made up, and I think the fun of watching the show is trying to work out which bits might be him and which bits are just written, and they play around the public’s perception of him.
“You’ve got to say one thing about Matt. He’s a very good sport because a lot of the jokes are on him and especially in this series. There’s a lot of jokes about how he’s passed it now, how he’s getting old and his career is behind him and it takes someone with a good sense of humour to be in on that joke.”
Although he is very recognisable in this country, has working with and being friendly with Matt opened Stephen’s eyes to the intrusion and demands of fame? “Oh God, yeah. I’m known a little bit over here but walking around with him, whether it’s here or in the states, you realise how there’s another level of fame entirely. There probably isn’t a country in the world he can go to that he’s not well known. Friends is on a loop in every continent but what has been the pleasant surprise of it all really is how down to earth he is and how well he can handle it. When I’m walking down the street with him, no one pays me any attention at all,” he laughs. “I don’t (take it personally).”
Asked if he desires or could handle such fame as his co-star, Stephen says: “It’s a different way of living and I’m very happy with the level of fame I have. I have enough for people to put me in their TV shows but I can live a pretty normal life and that suits me down to the ground. I walk my kids to school without people leaping out of a bush with a camera. I don’t have to think about how I look every time I go out and buy a newspaper. I think that sort of scrutiny from the media would be really tough to deal with and I don’t envy anybody who has to put up with that level of attention because you have to shut down, you have to be weary of people you talk to. Everyone you speak to, you’re wondering: ‘What’s their angle? What do they want from me? Are they going to report this back?’ Especially in the age of Twitter and Facebook and everything else, and people try to provoke celebrities to get a reaction so they can film it. It’s not for me. My work’s interesting and I get to walk the streets without being bothered and that’s terrific.”
It may not bother him but something funny does happen quite a lot when he steps out in public and that is fans shouting a loud “Dan!” over and over again in tribute to his appearance in Alan Partridge when Steve Coogan’s character was desperately seeking his attention: “I do get that shouted about five or six times a week which is great. There are a lot worse things people could shout! I was always a big fan of Alan Partridge and to actually be in one was a massive thrill. And then to be in an episode that’s so popular and play a character that from that moment is so memorable is a total joy. I hope I never tired of people shouting that at me.”
Another project featuring Stephen is also about to be released, although it only features his voice. Stephen voices the forthcoming Postman Pat film: “To take it from a five minute cartoon and turn it into an hour and a half is a big undertaking because you want to see an emotional journey. You think of the journey the toys go on in Toy Story, or in a film like Finding Nemo. They’re really emotional rollercoasters. Postman Pat is the nicest cartoon character on television. He’s the sweetest man, he wouldn’t say boo to a goose so what do you do? That was the challenge in making the film, they were looking for a story where Pat is a bit challenged. I think they did a really good job
“He enters a singing competition run by Simon Cowbell. It turns out he’s got an incredible voice, it’s a little like a Susan Boyle moment when he starts singing. The incredible voice of course is being supplied by Ronan Keating and Pat gets seduced by the lure of fame and glamour and showbusiness: It’s a fun movie.”
For the full interview, see the May 17 Irish World.
Episodes returns to BBC2 on May 14.
Postman Pat: The Movie is released on May 24.