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Celeb interview: Stephen Mangan

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A self-confessed show off from a young age, Stephen Mangan knew he was destined for a career in the ‘biz when he decided to become an altar boy.

“I thought, if you’re going to be made to go to church, then you may as well be on the stage – that was literally my thinking,” says the 41-year-old, laughing.

“That just shines a little light on my personality. Why sit in the congregation when you could be the guy with the incense? I had a costume, robes, I rang the bell. To me, it was a better way of passing the tedium of being in church.”

He’s since established himself as one of the country’s most versatile actors, successfully alternating between drama and comedy on screen and stage, and next up he’s voicing one of childhood’s most familiar figures in Postman Pat: The Movie.

“It’s nice, because most of the stuff I’ve done is unwatchable by anyone under the age of 18,” says the actor, who lives in north London with his actress wife Louise Delamere and two sons, Harry, six and three-year-old Frank.

“I’ve watched a lot of Postman Pat with my children. He’s got to be the sweetest character, there’s not a bad side to him, but over 90 minutes, you want Postman Pat to go on some sort of emotional journey,” he quips.

And so in the big screen version of the animated classic, the affable postie ends up being seduced by the glamour of showbiz after entering a talent show.

“Like Susan Boyle, jaws drop to the floor when he starts singing a love song to his wife at the audition in front of Simon Cowbell.”

While Mangan voices the titular character, Boyzone’s Ronan Keating steps in for the singing. “I understand it helps to get another star name in there,” Mangan reasons.

Actually, he reveals, the producers did ask him if he wanted to do it.

“I can sing but I’m not sure I have a jaw-droppingly amazing voice,” he says. “If people think it’s my voice, all the better. I’m not going to be putting them straight.”

Making an animated film is a solitary process, and “unlike every other thing you do”.

“Usually you meet the other actors and together you build something, whereas with this, I went into a basement in Soho, recorded my half of all the conversations on my own and then two years later, there’s a film.”

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It’s a world away from the ensemble comedy Episodes, which is back on screens for a third series. Mangan stars as Sean, whose marriage to Beverley, played by Tamsin Greig, has fallen apart since the pair moved to LA to script the US version of their TV show and she slept with lead actor Matt LeBlanc (the Friends star plays a heightened version of himself).

“I think there’s a lot of optimism initially, but these things never just melt away, and well-adjusted couples aren’t that interesting on television,” says Mangan, on whether the couple can overcome Beverley’s indiscretion.

He describes playing the on-screen husband of Greig, who he’s known for years, as “a joy”.

“We make each other laugh and we wind each other up, so it’s great. And she’s a fantastic actress, brilliant at comedy and can make you cry. What more do you want in an acting partner?”

He gets on brilliantly with LeBlanc too, and Mangan admits there are moments he wonders how he wound up in this position.

None of it would have been possible, he muses, if his parents hadn’t moved from County Mayo to London in the Sixties before he was born. “I’d probably be very happily living as a farmer on the west coast of Ireland.”

That wasn’t to be though. Instead, when he wasn’t lapping up the limelight in church, the young Mangan was taking part in school productions like Beauty And The Beast at the age of eight. “Playing Beauty naturally, I had an auburn wig and a green dress,” he jokes.

Other roles followed, “and it became something I loved and was known for”.

But it wasn’t until he was 22 and had graduated from Cambridge University that he decided to focus on an acting career and enrolled at RADA. He focused on theatre projects, notably at the Royal Shakespeare Company and London’s Old Vic, before his breakthrough TV performance in 2001 as Adrian Mole in Adrian Mole: The Cappuccino Years.

Three years later, Mangan was cast in the acclaimed hospital comedy Green Wing, alongside Greig. “I think it was the most expensive comedy Channel 4 had ever made, because we filmed it for a couple of weeks then we’d stop and write and rehearse and throw some ideas around. But there’s not always the money to do it that way.”

Finances are the reason much of Episodes is filmed in London, with only a few weeks spent in sunny LA. “It’s twice as expensive over there, and twice as many people on set and they all need to be paid,” says Mangan.

Written by David Crane (one of the creators of Friends) and Jeffrey Klarik, Episodes satirises the sometimes ridiculous nature of the TV industry.

“As soon as you start making a programme about the making of a television programme, you realise how crazy some of the stuff is,” says Mangan, who recalls his own early experiences of LA “craziness”.

“I went over there a few years ago and this man was so fulsome in his praise of me, which was quite astonishing seeing I hadn’t done that much in the UK, even. He was saying, ‘You’re going to be a massive star Simon’. ‘It’s Stephen’. I mean, that could go straight into Episodes.”

If a fourth series is commissioned, they’ll start shooting in August. “I like that it’s two or three months of the year and then I get to go and do things like Postman Pat and Jeeves And Wooster,” he says, referring to his recent six month run in the West End playing Bertie Wooster opposite Matthew Macfadyen. “I have an itchy brain and like to do a high turnover of stuff, so it suits me down to the ground.”

While he has “a couple of things in the pipeline”, Mangan isn’t ticking off a list of dream roles. “I just read the next script, see if I like it,” he says. “If I like it, I’ll do it.”

Postman Pat: The Movie is now screening in cinemas nationwide

Episodes continues on BBC Two on Wednesday nights