Stephen Mangan: ‘I had to learn not to be too gobby’

The actor, 47, on wearing tights, how Green Wing changed his life, and why he wouldn’t want to be more famous

The older I get the more bizarre religion seems to me. I was brought up a Catholic and an altar boy, but it’s recently dawned on me that the Christian story is about human sacrifice. I’m a firm atheist.

I was the eldest child, the only boy in an Irish Catholic family. That came with privileges, but also expectations. I got all the food and my sisters had to fend for themselves. I’m not condoning it. But I also always felt the pressure to get things right, and be a high achiever.

I won a scholarship to boarding school. It was like being on Big Brother. As long as you’re awake, you’re being watched. The first year was miserable. But it was my choice to go, so I couldn’t complain. My parents both left school at 14.

I’ve always been a people pleaser. I was small for my age so I had to learn not to be too gobby. You learn the art of diplomacy. Sometimes the hard way.

My mum died at 45, when I was 21. I took a year out of reading law at Cambridge to look after her. The only good thing to come out of that completely miserable experience was that it made me decide to do what I wanted rather than what other people expected.

I don’t regret my tights-wearing period. I spent five years out of Rada doing the classical parts: Shakespeare, Molière, Noël Coward. I loved it. When I dreamed of being an actor I always thought of sitting in digs in somewhere like Darlington or Norwich waiting to do Hamlet, and that’s what I was doing.

Green Wing changed my life. It was a revelation to have the actors so involved in developing the scripts, and I could really let rip. My character, Guy Secretan, was such an arrogant tosser that I got offered lots of tosser parts after that. Now I’m in Episodes playing a much nicer guy and I’m being offered more nice guys.

My dad died during the second series of Green Wing. We were filming in hospitals by day, then I was going to hospital at night. My parents were unlucky, but they lived joyous, full lives. I’d take 40 years of that over 90 years of misery.

I have a comfortable level of fame. I see people nudging each other sometimes. It’s hilarious watching what happens to Matt LeBlanc. There may be someone in a hut in an African village who hasn’t seen Friends, but he’s the only one.

People equate the ability to show pain with talent. Comedy is totally underrated as a skill: some people can do it, others can’t.

Money certainly makes things easier. But if I just wanted money I’d have been a lawyer. I choose my parts according to how much time they’ll take. If you want me for a year it has to be something phenomenal. If it’s half an hour and the pay is right, my standards will drop.

I abhor what has happened to Britain in the past few years: how more and more wealth is being deposited in the hands of fewer and fewer people. The duty of people in power is to look after the poorest and most vulnerable.

I’d like my kids to know that everyone’s making it up as they go along. You want to find that balance between self-confidence and arrogance, and an ability to enjoy the moment versus an ambition to improve.

Birthday is on 9 June at 9pm on Sky Arts and on demand


Ed Cumming

The GuardianTramp

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