'WHENEVER there's a vain, selfish, overblown character in the script, I'm probably on the list somewhere to play him," says Stephen Mangan. This 35-year-old actor has a point. After years spent in theatre and on the edges of our TV screens, Mangan hit big with a series of grotesques.
Alongside Dr Guy Secretan, the narcissistic Swiss anaesthetist he so brilliantly portrayed in the surreal hospital comedy Green Wing, there were similarly oafish characters in the films Confetti and Festival. And now Mangan is back as Keith, a truly horrible recovering alcoholic, in the jet-black BBC comedy series Never Better.
"I seem to be the go-to guy for monsters," Mangan says. The irony is that he couldn't be a nicer person in real life. Meeting him socially before our interview, I found him to be charming, softly spoken and self-deprecating. In his words, "there's something liberating about playing characters who could say absolutely anything, however offensive, if you've been brought up, like me, to be as polite as you can be".
He even has kind things to say about Keith, his new character, although Keith is a hopeless father, husband and human being. "The thing I like about him is that he is trying to be the good guy, even if he fails. He is trying to get back the years he lost to alcohol, to reconnect with his wife, and with his two kids, who he hardly knows."
In its determination to make you wince as well as laugh about subjects as diverse as addiction, abuse and bullying, Never Better recalls the likes of Curb Your Enthusiasm or Lead Balloon. "It's that more realistic style of comedy," Mangan says, "where people aren't nice and lovely and cute. I like the comedy of embarrassment and these are the kind of characters I find funny. We can all be altruistic and we can all be selfish: that's the battle within us that I find interesting."
Mangan is slightly bemused that, having begun his career in classical theatre, he is now chiefly known for comedy. Born in Enfield, the eldest of three children and the only boy, to parents who both came from the West of Ireland, he got his first taste of greasepaint aged eight, when he was cast as Beauty in Beauty and the Beast.
"That was it for me, and I was always in school plays after that," he says. "But I might as well have dreamed of being an astronaut as an actor – I had no idea how to go about getting into it and my parents certainly didn't encourage me."
He frowns; that came out wrong. "It wasn't that they didn't want me to be an actor, it was that they didn't want me to be a failed actor. Both of them left school in Ireland at 14, but they were both really bright people, so their children getting a good education and a proper job was very important to them."
Thus Stephen went – at his own request – to Haileybury (an independent school just north of London) as a boarder, and then on to Cambridge to read law, even though he was utterly bored by it (he also appeared in 23 plays and got the lowest degree of his year). Then, just after he graduated, his mother was diagnosed with bowel cancer. Mangan immediately moved back home to look after her. "There wasn't any sense of it being a sacrifice," he says. "It just made sense. My sisters were both away at college, my dad was running his building firm, and mum needed me. Also, to be honest, I was sort of happy to have something to do, and to put off the decision about what I was going to do with my life."
It was hard to witness not only his mother's decline, but also his father's grief. "We had been a very strong family unit, and it is hard to see your parents helpless. But it's part of growing up. When the table loses a leg, the other legs end up bearing more weight."
It was his mother's death when he was 22 that prompted Mangan to go for an acting career. "Mum was 45 when she died, and I thought, well, if I've only got another 20 years, perhaps I should go for it." An insurance policy of his mother's paid for his fees at Rada. At first he was obsessed with playing "all the great classical parts and spent years doing Laertes, Ferdinand, Orlando, all over the country", and making money on the side through foreign ads. Although he played Adrian Mole on TV in 2001, it was Green Wing that really changed his life.
The unique series, created by Victoria Pile, was partly improvised, extremely strongly cast and imaginatively shot. Perversely, the caddish, idiotic Secretan made Mangan a bit of a sex symbol. "Which I find really alarming," he says, "because, inevitably, some day I'm going to have an operation, and I don't want someone who thinks Guy is the pinnacle of human achievement standing over me with a big needle." Ten years after facing his mother's death, Mangan learned that his father had a brain tumour. He was filming Green Wing at the time and ended up haring between hospitals; after one consultation with his father, a doctor winked at Mangan as he left the room. Like his mother, his father lasted only six months between diagnosis and death.
Fortunately for him, it was around this time that he met Liverpudlian Doc Martin star Louise Delamere. "People say you know when you meet the person you want to spend the rest of your life with, and I absolutely did," he says.
They married with a big London wedding early last year, although both had to rush off to work on their respective series immediately after the ceremony. Their son, Harry, was born in October and Mangan is the emblematic new dad. It has, he says, helped him "recreate the family unit I knew and always yearned for". Despite the sleepless nights, he admits to a state of "spaced-out bliss".
"I was sort of prepared for the joy and the great feeling of love, but not for how vulnerable kids make you feel. They are so dependent on you, which is fantastic and heartbreaking. I would love to have shared this with Mum and Dad. But I feel it's given me a bit more understanding of how they must have felt."
Mangan and Delamere spent Christmas with his sisters at the holiday home in Wiltshire they bought after their father died, and this year he plans to run the London marathon for a bowel-cancer charity in memory of his mother. There's the possibility of another TV series and a play in the West End. But for now, he's taken time off to be with his son.
"I spend all my days making faces at him because, without wishing to sound naff or treacly, when my son smiles at me it's better than applause," he says. "He's the only person I don't want to get a bad review from."
• Never Better starts on BBC2 on 10 January.
ANTI-HEROES OF BRITISH COMEDY
Edmund Blackadder, The Black Adder (Rowan Atkinson)
FOLLOWS the misfortunes of a generic character, throughout four series set different periods significant in British history. The cowardly, cynical and sycophantic Edmund Blackadder first appears in 1485, at the time of the Battle of Bosworth Field, where he accidentally kills the king, whereupon he becomes Prince Edmund. Is concerned only with raising his own status and bullying his simple sidekick, Baldrick, a humble former dungheap employee.
• MEMORABLE QUOTE: "They do say that verbal insults hurt more than physical pain. They are, of course, wrong, as you will soon discover when I stick this toasting fork into your head."
Malcolm Tucker, The Thick of It (Peter Capaldi)
IN Armando Iannucci's superb 21st-century equivalent to the wildly popular 1980s sitcom Yes Minister, Tucker is the weasel-like and frighteningly aggressive Prime Minister's Press co-ordinator and chief enforcer, of whom all at No 10 are petrified. None dare move so much as a departmental paperclip without his say-so. Tucker is desperate to preserve his position of power, for which reason he must ensure, preferably by foul means, that the PM's job is secure. Similarities between the character of Tucker and Tony Blair's ex-spin doctor Alastair Campbell have been mentioned, but we couldn't possibly comment on that.
• MEMORABLE QUOTE: "Come the f*** in or f*** the f*** off."
Victor Meldrew, One Foot in the Grave (Richard Wilson)
THE term 'curmudgeon' might have been invented for this character, one of the least cuddly OAPs ever to be seen in a sitcom (along with the grubby, selfish and bathetic Albert Steptoe in Steptoe and Son). Meldrew's worst qualities are his short temper and lack of tolerance for the rest of humanity. Bitterly absorbed in what he sees as his ongoing ill treatment at the hands of others, Meldrew's rants seldom elicit sympathy – least of all from his wife, Margaret – and only serve to win him more enemies. He is the nemesis of his next-door neighbour, Patrick (played by Angus Deayton) who visibly loathes the moaning old man.
• MEMORABLE QUOTE: "I don't believe it"
Rab C Nesbitt, Naked Video, Rab C Nesbitt (Gregor Fisher)
THE alcoholic Glaswegian who prided himself on his lifelong unemployment first appeared in Naked Video in 1986 and, by 1990, he had his own TV series. The Govan deadbeat – a feckless husband and a neglectful father of two sons – often addresses the audience directly, blaming the rest of the world for his lot in life. Rab loves nothing more than an argument, accompanied by plenty of shouting and for that reason alone is given a wide berth by the general public.
• MEMORABLE QUOTE: "What a business, all because I take a wee drink, eh… Tell yae wan thing – see all this shoutin? It does not half give yae a helluva thirst."