Stephen Mangan, one of the most disarmingly likable comic actors around, is not obvious casting for Dickens’s isolated, abject, miserly Scrooge. But sitting in a dressing room on a December afternoon, he appears unnervingly transformed. His good-looking, rueful face with its great outbreak of a smile (familiar from TV shows such as Green Wing and Episodes) is topped with a thick grey mop of hair which he has had specially dyed to look the part in A Christmas Carol at the Old Vic. “It took seven hours at the hairdresser to get it bleached – my scalp was in bits”, he volunteers. And he has a new grey beard to match. “Mangan actually means luxuriant growth of hair – ‘mang’ is a type of mane,” he laughs – which sounds like the esoteric answer to a quiz question I have not asked.
Mangan, 53, is a huge fan of quizzes: “I’ve always loved quizzes, linguistic puzzles, logic challenges and silly stuff,” he says, and we start to chat about the seasonal pleasure of Christmas games and the lively scene from Jack Thorne’s stage adaptation of Dickens’s novel in which Scrooge’s nephew and friends rack their brains: is it an animal? Does it live? Does it growl? Eventually, they crack it. The answer to their riddle is: Mr Scrooge himself.
Mangan’s fondness for quizzes has an offstage life too. He has recently published a book for children, Escape the Rooms: an entertaining, heartfelt, problem-solving adventure. It is, in the least mournful way, about the process of grieving – something he knows about having lost both parents to cancer when in his twenties. Two bereaved children have to unlock the secret to a teasing sequence of rooms to free themselves. The book is illustrated by his sister, Anita, who when she puts her nifty pencil to paper turns out to have a gift for the gruesome. “We’re only a year apart and very close,” he says. His pride in what she has pulled off is evident: “Our family had its own sense of humour. I didn’t need to explain anything to her.” The story’s upshot is: “Be kind to yourself, don’t try to solve it all in one day” – as good a message as any at Christmas.
Mangan admits to feeling frustrated by the “enforced division” between comedy and drama, believing the best stories make you laugh and cry. “It might sound odd,” he says but, in his book, he hopes to “unlock grief through comedy”. And in his case, grief really was a key to unlocking his life. After his mother’s death (she was 45), he decided life was too short to be a lawyer (he had just graduated in law from Cambridge). He auditioned for Rada instead: “Acting was what I’d wanted to do as a career but had not perhaps had the courage.”
One of the nicest things to emerge through our conversation is Mangan’s urge to encourage and console others. He volunteers that the “overwhelmingly tough” stage of bereavement does not last. And when I ask how he contends with life’s more workaday challenges, he suggests (for himself and us) the proactive route out of an impasse: “The best way of doing something is to start doing it. We’ve all got things we put off but write that first word or knock on that door or pick up that phone – you don’t know how it’s going to end – but begin it.” It is a hopeful strategy yet his optimism is always tempered by realism and he acknowledges: “It’s over 30 years since my mother died and I’m still dealing with it.”
He remembers his childhood Christmases vividly. His parents were Irish Catholics and the family lived in north London. Christmas was “hugely exciting – we were the kids who were in our parents’ bedroom at 3.30am, saying: ‘Is it time to open the presents yet?’” He was, he confesses, an altar boy and laughs: “I figured if you had to go to church, you might as well be in costume and on stage.” And yes, his family played all the Christmas games. Was he any good at charades? His reply is unexpectedly diffident but when I ask about his quiz prowess, I tempt him into boasting: “I’m not bad. I’m quite competitive. I did Celebrity Mastermind and I’m happy to say won my heat and I’ve done Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? Twice.”
He lives in Primrose Hill and has three sons (14, 11 and five) with the actor Louise Delamere. Two of the boys have graduated from believing in Father Christmas but the youngest is hanging on in there. The family is now conspiring to keep the festive deceit going. Mangan must be fun as a dad – you need go no further for clues than to consider the proposed title for his second children’s book: The Fart That Changed the World. “It’s a working title,” he says. I can’t imagine a child who wouldn’t want to read on.
But could we get back to Scrooge? By the second half of Matthew Warchus’s celebrated production, Mangan’s Scrooge is taking on a hectic benevolence. He is wearing his heart on his red, ragged, brocaded sleeve and there is not a dry eye in the house. Is the role moving to play? “It is – there is blow after blow to my emotional wellbeing. Scrooge has this awful realisation that he hates who he has become. He’s in his 50s and has time to do something about it. It gets me every time because we all have regrets. I find it odd when people say they have no regrets. Who doesn’t? Who doesn’t have friendships or loves they handled badly and would do differently now? Who doesn’t have people they love but who they feel they don’t show it to enough?”
“For Scrooge, giving is the revelation,” he concludes. How extravagant is Mangan himself? He is good on meals out, he says, but it is his wife who takes on the chore of Christmas presents and the opportunities for getting it wrong. “She’s great at it,” he adds. Scrooge is given a weirdly tattered scarf as a Christmas present. And I say we all know – and most of us have been given – that scarf. What is the strangest gift he has ever received himself? “I was given an aubergine at university by someone called Penny. I never worked out why … with emojis now, aubergines have come to mean something different…”
Before parting company, we bond on the issue of Christmas crackers and that moment of sitting around like tipsy kings and (in Mangan’s household and mine) trying to guess the punchline to cracker jokes. Could he possibly have a stab at explaining why cracker jokes and their accompanying questions are so bad? Before attempting it, he exclaims at the feeble gifts inside (“How many little screwdriver sets do you need?) and then: “I don’t know why the jokes are so bad, it is crazy. Once the acting dries up, I’m going into business to make Christmas crackers with good jokes and quizzes.” Mangan’s crackers – they will be worth the wait for sure.
• A Christmas Carol is at the Old Vic, London SE1 8NB, until 8 January
• Escape the Rooms by Stephen Mangan, illustrated by Anita Mangan, is published by Scholastic (£6.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply