Circuit Training

Circuit Training 145: Can we Call Stephen Mangan a comedian?

Stephen Mangan

In the 2005 film Festival Stephen Mangan plays an egocentric celebrity stand-up - no, we didn't ask - revisiting old haunt The Edinburgh Fringe. Which is perhaps why Circuit Training felt oddly convinced that the popular actor had trodden the comedy boards in a previous life.

Mangan is currently onscreen as co-host of Landscape Artist of the Year, a regular on panel shows and now a writer of humorous children's books, too. He's even billed as 'comedian' on Wikipedia. Which he feels a bit weird about, as we'll discover.

The North Londoner has certainly starred in some notable comedies, from I'm Alan Partridge to Green Wing, Episodes to his own hugely underrated Hang Ups, a prescient Skype-fuelled affair with one of the best casts you've ever seen. Or should see. And, yes, down below we do get some nice behind-the-scenes dirt on Dan. Dan? Dan!

He's both a key participant and a keen fan of classic comedy. On Friday night Mangan launches Bristol's Slapstick Festival, a five-day celebration of virtuoso visual humour. David Mitchell, Sally Phillips, Barry Cryer, Lucy Porter, Ronni Ancona, Richard Herring and Lee Mack will all be lauding classic clips, with Arthur Smith, Armando Iannucci and other luminaries also waxing lyrical.

Mangan's main event is the Silent Comedy Gala at Bristol Cathedral, no less, with a live improvised score accompanying Buster Keaton's full-length masterpiece The Cameraman, plus - like Partridge in sports casual - some magnificent shorts.

First up then, let's get all misty-eyed about some monochrome maestros.

Is this Slapstick Festival launch gala one of these gigs you say yes to because you just fancied going anyway?

Oh yeah, I've always been a huge fan of slapstick, and tried - with varying degrees of success - to incorporate some of those skills into stuff I've done. A whole festival dedicated to slapstick, what a laugh!

I like Bristol a lot - we filmed Dirk Gently there - and I really wanted to take my children along as I'm desperately trying to open their eyes to these wonders. My youngest is really into Pokemon at the moment, which makes me want to poke myself in the face with a stick.

Dirk Gently. Dirk Gently (Stephen Mangan). Copyright: ITV Studios

Which would be quite slapstick in itself...

That's true. Kill two birds with one stone.

There was a whole generation of kids who grew up watching old black and white comedies, at teatime on BBC Two.

I remember spending hours and hours watching Harold Lloyd, Laurel & Hardy, Buster Keaton - I don't remember so much Charlie Chaplin being on. It was that or the Open University.

6Music played Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia recently, which is a perfect few minutes of comedy - that's good gateway Laurel & Hardy.

Those films, they are genuinely little mini masterpieces. And your appreciation changes when you start making programmes, because you start looking into their shots.

A clip I once shared on Twitter, Buster Keaton being punched through a doorway: he does about four backward rolls into the distance and then collapses, but he has to do it so that he's always visible through the doorframe. And then you start noticing other things: the guy that punched him staying still, so that he's not [visible].

It's just fascinating to me how they put it together and how just how skillful it was.

Hang Ups. Dr. Richard Pitt (Stephen Mangan)

The modern Buster Keaton I suppose is Tom Cruise, how people go on about him doing, say, his own running.

Wasn't Keaton known as The Boy You Couldn't Break or something? Even that famous scene of the collapsing house, that's not camera tricks, that's a one-shot. 'We could kill our leading actor here...'

I suppose I'm so interested partly because I came from theatre, where you have to do it in one go, in front of people, and have to work out how to make it work. I mine a lot of that stuff.

I played Bertie Wooster on stage, a lot of jokes and movements like how to walk on the spot, I remember copying that from Keaton. The Man in the White Suit, we did a lot of slapstick and physical comedy. Hang Ups, for Channel 4, running into glass doors... it's right in my wheelhouse.

It's funny, the cool alternative comedy I was into - Monty Python, The Young Ones, Reeves & Mortimer - a lot of it was really silly. Vic & Bob literally clanging each other with frying pans...

Bad slapstick is like anything bad: it's tedious, if you can spot it coming. But think of that Vicar Of Dibley clip when she walks into the puddle and disappears. It's such a joy to surprise an audience with a bit of physical comedy that they weren't particularly expecting.
It just sort of hits a different sweet spot in our brain, it's universal, we all get it, from the age of three onwards.

Have you ever injured yourself doing a bit like that?

I must have done. We did quite a lot in Green Wing, just really stupid, surreal, weird stuff.

Green Wing. Image shows from L to R: Guy Secretan (Stephen Mangan), Sue White (Michelle Gomez), Martin Dear (Karl Theobald), Caroline Todd (Tamsin Greig), Mac Macartney (Julian Rhind-Tutt), Boyce (Oliver Chris), Joanna Clore (Pippa Haywood), Alan Statham (Mark Heap). Copyright: Talkback Productions

I haven't seen Green Wing for ages, compared to other shows from that era. It's not been banned for some reason...?

Not that I'm aware of! Maybe doctors have finally had enough of us portraying them like that.

Looking at your career now, lots of presenting and writing, you'd think you'd come from stand-up first. You didn't ever do it, did you?

No, but people often say 'actor and comedian.' I never class myself as a comedian, I've never done stand-up. I mean, I went to RADA for goodness sake; I spent five years doing classical theatre playing Shakespeare and Moliere and Shaw and all that stuff, all over the place.

And then I sort of fell in with Armando doing The Armando Iannucci Shows. I did Adrian Mole, a little bit of Chris Morris; TV comedy sort of by accident became the thing that I did for quite a long time, and obviously Episodes. Because I've been a face on panel shows as well, maybe that's where the comedian thing comes from.

But I think it's an insult to comedians to call me one. It's definitely been quite an eclectic mix of stuff, and I'm writing more now, so I don't know how to describe myself really. As long as the work comes in, I don't really care

It's good to keep options open - if you were mainly doing theatre, the last two years would have been horrendous.

Really horrendous. I was lucky, I got a show in just before lockdown, at the end of 2019, The Man in the White Suit, and I've just finished at the Old Vic doing A Christmas Carol. So I managed to straddle either side of it.

I can't really do plays more than once every two years anyway, because they're just so brutal on family life. You're out six nights a week. So the timing has worked out very well.

The Fart that Changed the World - Stephen Mangan

Your next children's book sounds splendidly silly, or is there a dark underlying theme like the last one...?

The Fart that Changed the World! Ha! As always with these things, that was sort of a joke suggestion. But yeah, I wanted to write a butterfly effect kind of idea, one incident leads to another leads to another, you just can't tell how one action will ultimately end up affecting everyone.

So I had fun with the idea of someone farting on the first page of the book, and it literally having incredibly profound effects. It also felt like quite a kid-friendly idea; that you may feel powerless, you may feel that what you do has no effect whatsoever, because the world is run by grownups. But actually, you just never know, for good or bad.

A good action... I suppose the most obvious example at the moment is Greta Thunberg, deciding to miss school one day and look what's happened in that story. That's the basic idea, it's a sort of farce really, about how things get out of hand, one event leads to another and suddenly things are in a right state.

Your first children's book, Escape the Rooms, was partly about grief, and so were the interviews around it; was this one actively trying to do the opposite?

Basically, the first book's hero was called Jack and my youngest son's Jack, so I've got to write two other books, because otherwise this is the sort of thing you're never forgiven for, 'Oh, you wrote him a book.' So this book's hero is Frank, which is the name of our middle son - he's not a farter. I mean, I'm sure he is, but...

Not epidemically so.

Actually the story of this book came during the final of Landscape Artist of the Year. We were up in Cumbria, beautiful country house that had an incredible topiary garden. It was a lovely summer's day and the sun was hitting these really fantastical shapes, these hedges.

There's something quite neurotic about topiary; perfect, so groomed, it's sort of the Craig David's beard of garden design isn't it?

So that set a storyline off in my head. And then I added a bit of Frank's character. So it's no conscious plan, it's just the way it goes. But yeah, there's not so much death and bereavement in this book.

I'm Alan Partridge

It's 20 years since your epic episode of I'm Alan Partridge. Have the 'Dan!' heckles subsided now?

It's not as feverish as it was when the show came out. I mean, I would find myself in Our Price, just having the guy behind the till yelling 'Dan!' at me for ten minutes.

In a shop! Surely 'Are you wearing Lynx...?'

The shouting thing, I've had it at Spurs, half the crowd shouting it at me. I've had it walking into a student's union...

Half the crowd at Spurs?

I did a talk on the pitch at halftime, we were playing Everton - 36,000 people shouting 'Dan!' at you, I mean, it's a joy. My wife and I were chatting about this, we found something she'd done with Steve Coogan - she was in Coogan's Run - and then showed our eldest that Dan episode. So he now looks at me, and probably thinks I'm a bit of a weirdo.

Dan is quite an intriguing character.

But yeah, it's still out there. If I meet anyone called Dan, they normally can't help but tell me how that catchphrase has blighted their life. I mean, there are many worse things that can be shouted at you.

I tell you what's weird: to be part of a really iconic TV moment, that I wasn't really anything to do with, in a way, because my character is just in the distance.

It's true, you're off behind the trees, like a yeti in some old Canadian amateur footage.

Exactly! The shot of me lolloping through, I think we filmed entirely separately, so Steve wasn't even there. I love the fact that the scene wasn't written like that, and you can see Felicity and Amelia behind him corpsing.

I only noticed that when I watched it back yesterday - they're both losing it...

They had to turn away because they're laughing, they couldn't handle it, as he wasn't supposed to do that. It's all Coogan's genius.

It's one of the rare catchphrases where, if you're ever in a car park, some random bloke can recreate it perfectly.

I had to recreate it for a mate's wedding! I had to go down to a car park and walk across as she shouted Dan, because her best friend was called Dan and he was getting married, and this was going to be shown at the wedding. We're now doing Dan tribute movies.

You know your career has gone well when - after something so iconic like that - you're now recognized for other things.

These things are such a fleeting part: you rehearse for a week, you improvise with Steve, and Peter Baynham and Armando would be standing on the edge shouting up suggestions, and you'd be coming up with lines, then you film on the Friday night and that's it. That's your entire involvement. And it's sort of... it's attached itself to me, and very much part of who I am, 20 years later, just those few days. It's very peculiar, but very nice.

It's odd to think that random blokes shouting at you in car parks are more realistic than the original filming...

Yeah, I wasn't there!

This is the backstage stuff we love at the British Comedy Guide.

That's the gold is it? Excellent.

So what else are you doing today - writing?

I'm still knee-deep in the book. I was doing Scrooge at the Old Vic, that slightly put a spanner in the timetable. So I'm still beavering away.

It's already advertised on the bookshop sites, which must be good motivation?

There's a front cover and everything. So I really ought to write it.

Speaking of writing, the show you created a few years back, Hang Ups, was amazingly prescient.

It was ahead of its time, because we shot it, filmed it, and wrote it before the world was consigned to living on Zoom. As you'll know, the way we shot it, all the camera angles are from a device of some sorts - phones, security cameras, front doorbell cameras - and we basically shot the entire thing in one house.

Hang Ups. Image shows from L to R: Karen Muller (Katherine Parkinson), Dr. Richard Pitt (Stephen Mangan)

When you don't move the camera around - you only see one angle because I'm on a Zoom call with Richie E Grant, or Charles Dance, or whoever it is - you only have to see the wall behind them. So we can literally just bring in a fake wall, decorate it, stick them in front of it. The bedroom upstairs was about 29 different locations.

It's like those football interview backdrops, that you only realise are temporary props when they fall on someone...

It's just a big bit of cardboard, yeah. The set designer just put on loads of different wallpaper and lighting, and also because it was so quick to film, we could get that dream cast in. Richard E Grant shot his entire series in a morning. Charles Dance was there for three hours one afternoon, did the whole series. We'd get David Tennant for an hour and a half...

The cast is so incredible, it feel like it deserves a whole new life at some point.

I hope so, it was hugely well received. The reviews were probably the best I've had for anything I've done in my career. And it was fun, but sometimes, channels, the people making the decisions change, blah blah blah, it's an old story in telly. It went out in August and wasn't such a devastatingly successful ratings hit that they couldn't drop it. It's just one of those things, you know, timing.

I'm so proud of that show. Partly because I've been acting for whatever it is, 20, 25 years, you work with a lot of people and you have a personal opinion about who really is good, who really has something, and you just want to get them in a show and let them do their stuff - Jessica Hynes, Alex Lowe, Katherine Parkinson, Celia Imrie - from that point of view, it was a joy.

It was disappointing not to do more, but you never know. It's certainly an idea that would work in any restrictions.

Welcome back to Slapstick, For 5 Days Only! Jan 26-30 2022

Thankfully live shows are back for the moment though, and this festival launch does look pretty epic, at the cathedral.

It's going to be great. We've got a few shorts, a Laurel & Hardy, a Harold Lloyd, and then The Cameraman - Buster Keaton. That's a classic great night out as far as I'm concerned.


Stephen Mangan hosts The Silent Comedy Gala at Bristol Cathedral on Friday 28th January. For full details of the Slapstick Festival, visit their homepage: slapstick.org.uk


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