Stephen Mangan was born in Enfield, London, in 1968. After graduating from Rada in 1994, he became a renowned stage actor before appearing in BBC One’s Adrian Mole: The Cappuccino Years in 2001. Known for his withering comic expressions and wide-eyed charm , he has gone on to star in shows such as Green Wing, I’m Alan Partridge, Episodes and The Split. El’s sister Anita is an artist and illustrator whose clients include Leon and Ella’s Kitchen. Stephen and Anita’s bestselling debut children’s book, Escape the Rooms, was inspired by the loss of their parents to cancer at a young age. Their second, The Fart That Changed the Worldis out on 26 May.
This was taken in Ponders End, in the garden of the house we were born in. I’m very dapper, so it must have been a special occasion but it could have been any one of 150 events that year. We have a huge Irish family. I’ve got 52 first cousins.
Dad was a builder and Mum a barmaid. They grew up in Ireland, married when they were very young, moved to London and bought this little house. My uncle Paddy lived around the corner with his children from him, too, so we always had a gang around us. We were a funny bunch – I don’t know if we would work on telly as a six-part series, but we laughed a lot.
I’m the big brother of the family, but I probably didn’t always act that way. I was very upset when our youngest sibling, Lisa, was born. Apparently, I was doing headstands all the time, saying: “Look at me! Look at me!” And in that moment, an actor was born!
As for Anita, there were only 14 months between us, so I can’t remember life without her. We were very close, even in our teens. I wore the odd cardigan, so it looked a little bit folky, but it was mainly half-rocker, half-Duranny. Very confused, essentially. Anita was full Duranny. We’d go to church every Sunday as our parents were very Catholic and we would try hard to behave. Dad would get embarrassed if we mucked around.
As I was a boy, there was more expectation for me to achieve. And as the oldest, there was a lot of emphasis on “you should know better”. When I was 13, I won a scholarship to boarding school. I read a lot of Enid Blyton and believed leaving home would be full of adventures, so I jumped at the chance. Of course, when I got there I realized it was just a school that you went to sleep in. I hated it and felt completely home sick. Suddenly it was almost like Anita and the rest of my family were a group of four that I’d visit every few weeks. It wasn’t quite, “Who are you? Oh Stephen, yes I do remember now, come in” but it was the end of a special bit of my life. Childhood, I suppose.
When Mum was first diagnosed with colon cancer, Anita was living in Spain and I was in my last year of a law degree at university. I took the best part of a year off to care for her, driving her to radiotherapy sessions. Anita’s coping mechanism was to stay optimistic and think, “Everything is going to be OK” whereas I was probably less so. When she died, and when Dad died 14 years later [of a brain tumour], I was so grateful that we were always very open in expressing how we felt. We would go out for meals and it would end up with us sitting around a table in a hysteria of tears.
My parents would be delighted and surprised that we are now working together – although I’m not sure how delighted they’d be that the second book is called The Fart That Changed the World. When we first started talking about collaborating on something, I thought it could be a long poem that I could knock out in a week. Anita’s idea was: why don’t you write a 50,000-word book and I’ll do some doodles instead? She won. And I’ve started to turn down acting roles because I love writing so much.
Most of all I love trying to write ridiculous things for Anita to draw. That’s what this whole thing is, really. Me trying to make my sister laugh.
The camera didn’t come out often, so this must have been before a wedding or christening. I remember being pretty cross that I was in a really short skirt. I never wanted to wear anything above the knee. So I got really grumpy. Which you can see.
Stephen was good at everything at school. I was a bit more of a staring-out-of-the-window sort of person. Despite our differences, we would always play together: doing Muppet songs, performing little plays for our babysitters. We were left to our own devices and would disappear in the woods for whole days – making dens and dragging out all our parents’ possessions from the house and back indoors before they noticed. For our summer holidays we’d have incredibly long journeys to Ireland – nearly two days of travelling. The three of us would sit in the back of the car, with no seatbelts, listening to cassette tapes of fairytales. I’d often have to split him and Lisa up as they’d squabble. Once Lisa and I thought it would be a good idea to sit in the footwells for the journey, so Stephen had the whole back seat to recline on. I’m sure I loved that arrangement.
Every night we’d have dinner together. My parents ate very quickly – it’s a big family thing. If you left anything, their two forks would loom over your plate and it would be a battle to get the food. Mum would laugh at all Dad’s jokes, even if she’d heard them before. And Stephen was the kid with his nose in a book – whatever he could get his hands on, even Mum’s Reader’s Digest. When Mum brought out the stinky cheese, it would mean it was time for the kids to leave as we hated the smell. They’d sit together for 30 minutes most nights, just chatting.
Our parents’ deaths were awful, but the key to healing is being together, and the grief has brought Stephen and I closer. There’s no stiff upper lip in our family. We just let it all out. It’s hard at the time but useful, too. I felt so comfortable that Stephen stepped into the big brother role and dealt with so much of the logistics. In the worst possible scenario, it was lovely to be around him.
Stephen’s been acting since he was about seven. At school he did Beauty and the Beast, in which he played Beauty in an auburn wig. I remember people coming up to us and saying, “He’s so good, he’s so talented!” and I’d think, “No he’s not. He’s Stephen.” The more performances I’d see him in, the more I got excited about him doing it professionally. Being a bit of a catastrophiser, I’d also think: please don’t fall off the stage. When he was first on TV, we gathered together and popped open some champagne. Now I am used to seeing him on screen. In fact, it’s getting kind of boring.
I was probably a bit moody as a child, and while I am less so now, Stephen is able to snap me out of it. I feel so lucky that it’s my job to laugh out loud at whatever he’s written.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism