Stephen Mangan is a ubiquitous presence on our screens; most recently, the 50-year-old actor was seen in the fifth and final series of Episodes, The Split (both on BBC) and Channel 4’s Hang Ups, which he co-wrote. This week, he presents Art 50, an ambitious four-part series on Sky Arts that showcases 50 artistic interpretations of what being British means in 2019, from the likes of poet Simon Armitage and musician Nitin Sawhney. He was born in London, where he lives with his wife and three sons.
Last Sunday, you were on Top Gear’s “Star in a Reasonably Fast Car” and you were one of their fastest-ever celebrities. Did you suspect you might be quite good at it?
I hoped I would be, but I had nothing to base it on apart from pure optimism and ego. But partly just out of desperation to beat Matt [LeBlanc] I completely risked life and limb. Any fear I had went out of the window in my ridiculous competitiveness. I spun the car a couple of times and you could see the guys behind the camera see me coming and one of them actually ran away at one point… he thought I was going to kill him.
Next up is Art 50, which was commissioned when article 50 was triggered in 2017. What can we expect from it?
There can’t be a person in this country who is not sick to their back teeth of Brexit. But this project is not about Brexit, this is 50 works of art looking at what it means to be British, so there’s poetry, dance, sculpture, a musical, short films. Nitin Sawhney wrote a new national anthem, rewrote the words, rewrote the music. [Conservative MP] Nadine Dorries gets a mention in it. A lot of it’s very funny, a lot of it is cynical, a lot of it’s very hopeful. It’s an attempt to provide a snapshot of the country right now and it’s fascinating from that perspective.
You share presenting duties with Joan Bakewell, as you do on Portrait Artist of the Year. Did you ever imagine you’d become a double act?
We were on Chris Evans’s breakfast show and he called us “Britain’s new art power couple”. I’ll take that. She’s a joy and also has lots of House of Lords gossip, which is great.
You are very opinionated about politics, especially on Twitter. What response do you get to that?
Yeah, it’s probably an unwise thing to do from my point of view. There’s a train of thought that, as an actor, you shouldn’t put it out there – you shouldn’t host Have I Got News For You, you shouldn’t go on panel shows or Top Gear. You don’t see Daniel Day-Lewis on 8 out of 10 Cats [Does Countdown].
Maybe he’s waiting for a Christmas special?
Maybe he’s going to take over from Jimmy Carr or from Rachel [Riley]. Yeah, I’d love to see him in Dictionary Corner. Actually, he’d be great.
Is your experience on social media more positive than negative?
Yeah, it is. You struggle to love Twitter sometimes because it has become nastier and if you tweet something political then the bots will be on you, the Russians will be working overtime to let you know why you’re wrong. But I still find myself having to respond to Donald Trump and I know he’s probably not waking up thinking: “What does Stephen Mangan think? How has he responded to my latest tweet?” But you can’t help yourself: you’re shouting in the dark, but at least you feel you’re getting your point across.
You have just started shooting the second series of legal drama The Split. What can you say about where it picks up?
Not a lot, but I can tell you that it’s just a few weeks after the end of the first series. Anyone who saw the first series, or who knows Abi Morgan’s work, knows how interesting the characters she writes are. I got stopped a lot in the street by very disappointed people who would say to me: “You let me down! We thought you were nice, how could you do that to Nicola Walker?”
There are no goodies and baddies, everyone’s flawed, everyone has their issues… there’s more of that in the second series.
You studied law at university. Has playing a barrister in The Split confirmed you made the right decision to not pursue a career in law?
Oh God, yeah. It’s like, here’s what you could have won. I’ve got a lot of mates who are now lawyers and I wouldn’t swap it for all the tea in China. I am really delighted to be an actor.
You’re also doing a project called Beasts of London with the Museum of London where you voice Henry VIII’s favourite horse, Governatore. How did that come about?
The Museum of London said: “We have this exhibition; do you want to come and voice a horse? We have Brian Blessed playing a bacterium…” I said: “You can stop there. If Brian Blessed is playing a bacterium that’s all I need to know.”
I’ve since discovered that Nish Kumar, Joe Pasquale and Kate Moss are also doing it. It’s the supergroup no one ever thought they needed.
You’re good at driving, you’re a skilled piano player, you write, you perform… Is there something you are really terrible at?
Art. I am absolutely shockingly bad: drawing, painting, anything. And it really upsets me, because I’m surrounded by these people who can do it – my wife, my children, my sister – and to me it’s a form of magic. My two-year-old is better at art than I am. He can already conjure up a scene with crayons better than I can. I have a negative talent – I make paper worse.
• Art 50 is on Sky Arts from 25-28 March, skyartsart50.tv