Middle age, melancholy and Stephen Mangan
Stephen Mangan has been thinking about his past, present and future a lot lately. That sort of comes with the territory of playing Ebenezer Scrooge, as he is in Jack Thorne’s jubilant adaptation of A Christmas Carol at the Old Vic for the next six weeks, but it’s also just part and parcel of being 53.
Young people can enjoy the play, he says of the Dickens classic, but “it’s also a story about middle-aged regret… It’s the ultimate midlife crisis story, in a way.”
Mangan – hair off-white (bleached, for the part, although some at the school gates just thought he’d had a breakdown), beard slate grey (all natural), eyebrows Alastair Darling-black (again, his) – has hobbled up to the top floor of the Old Vic for a coffee, having slipped and hurt his ankle during the previous night’s performance.
“It’s fine,” he says, gratefully accepting a chair, “a limp is very Dickensian, it’ll only help.” Mainly, he’s just delighted to be out of the house and doing something with a group of new people. Out doing anything, in fact.
Over the summer, Mangan spoke about how flat – he resisted, and still resists, saying he was depressed – he’d felt in lockdown. Like a lot of people, especially men, he hadn’t quite appreciated how much he relied on work for regular nips of human connection.
“I think you don’t realise how important those daily interactions you have in life are, how important it is to have something to get up for, so I am very happy now to be doing this.”
Lockdown had its bright spots – not least being together with his three sons, aged 5, 11 and 14, and his wife, the actress Louise Delamere – but generally it would be fair to say Mangan did not enjoy it.
“I think it made everyone consider their lives, didn’t it? Everyone’s moving out of London, or moving house or getting divorced,” he says. “There’s so much turmoil out there – you think, ‘Well, is this how I want to live?’ We will look back on this time as so extraordinary, it’ll change the course of so many people’s lives.”
Like most of us, Mangan fired up Zoom to try to forge some connection with the outside world while feeling blue at home. Each week, he’d try to catch up with a few old friends. One was the actor Paul Ritter, perhaps best known for Friday Night Dinner and Chernobyl, who he first met at university. They spoke right until Ritter died, aged 54, from a brain tumour in April. Sixteen years earlier, Mangan’s father died in the same way.
“Thank God for the technology, because at least I got to hang out with my friend to chat for a couple of hours every week. A couple of years ago it wouldn’t have been possible,” Mangan says. He wasn’t able to go to Ritter’s restricted funeral, but spoke at his memorial service last month, held at the Old Vic.
Mangan didn’t choose to play Scrooge in order exorcise any midlife melancholy, but it was that or “an invitation to do some reality TV”. I bet it was Strictly. He smiles but keeps schtum. “It was no contest.”
Any ghost picking over his past wouldn’t find many missed opportunities. Raised in North London, his parents were a builder and a barmaid, and “so Irish that I have 52 first cousins”. At a glimpse, it sounds easy: a scholarship to go boarding school; a place to study law at Cambridge, then Rada; a university friendship group so thick with future screen talent as to be absurd – not just Ritter but Rachel Weisz, Sam Mendes, Olivia Williams, Jez Butterworth, Tom Hollander, Alexander Armstrong, Nicola Walker, Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins …
“They were the people with a sense of humour,” he says. “That’s what’s so joyous about university; you find your gang.”
In reality life was peppered with hardship. He hated school, loathed boarding, and while he loved Cambridge, he had just graduated when his mother died of colon cancer, aged just 45. The fact that he went on to have such a consistently excellent career – from theatre to playing Adrian Mole in the BBC’s 2001 adaptation, then his breakout role as Guy Secretan in Green Wing, plus Episodes, and Abi Morgan’s BBC divorce law drama The Split – is testament to not just his talent but resolve, too.
That said, he’s tremendous at playing the smug fop, which has meant a lot of people assume he’s posh. “Oh yes, but we love to put people in boxes, don’t we?” he says.
It doesn’t bother him, but I wonder if it might if he was starting now, when being pre-judged as upper middle class isn’t quite as helpful to a young actor as it used to be.
“Maybe, yeah. I don’t think it particularly helped when I did start, but I think it would probably be more of a handicap now. You long for a system that is a genuine meritocracy but there are so many factors at play.”
Has much progress been made?
“No. There are always actors I can’t wait to see whatever they do… But there are also actors you see who just have no right to be there. You think: ‘I just don’t get it. Why? How? They just can’t do it.’ But that’ll never change. I’m sure people think that about me,” he says.
Plus, “it’s very tumultuous” in the industry at present – unless you’re the star of a superhero franchise. So to Mangan’s future, then. In the immediate is a Christmas of bah humbug-ing, then another series of The Split, and a comedy about a pandemic that he was shooting in Israel just as the actual pandemic hit. “It’s either the worst timing in the history of cinema, or the best, we’ll see,” he says, laughing.
Otherwise, he says: “I’ve got a five-year-old, so I’m not getting off the childcare hook any time soon, but I want to act until I can’t get out of bed. Paul [Ritter] did a radio play weeks before he died, and I can understand why.”
The deaths of people close to him have inspired Mangan to grasp life. It wasn’t just Ritter – he was also good friends with Helen McCrory and the director Roger Michell, both of whom passed away this year.
“The older you get, the more you realise you don’t have that much time left,” he says. “It’s insane; Roger Michell was no age, my cousin’s husband died at 45 a few years ago, my mum was 45…”
It means he’s keeping busy. He published his first children’s book, Escape the Rooms, illustrated by his sister Anita, earlier this year, and has another coming. He’s written two films; he has various TV projects; and he’s still presenting Portrait and Landscape Artist of the Year for Sky, with a new friend from an entirely different generation, 88-year-old Joan Bakewell.
“She’s amazing. No signs of slowing down at all, and that’s phenomenal isn’t it? She loves getting up in the morning, she can’t wait to get to the House of Lords, or to the Portrait shoots. An appetite for life – she’s an inspiration,” he says.
Mangan is an optimist who “always thinks the year ahead is going to be the best yet”, and he has been feeling sunnier with every day since lockdown ended. The limp already seems to have improved when he stands back up.
A Christmas Carol runs at the Old Vic until January 8. For tickets visit oldvictheatre.com