“It’s hard to say this without sounding like a dick,” begins the actor Stephen Mangan taking a sip of his black coffee, steeling himself. “But if you’re sensitive – OK, already I sound like a dick, but go with me – and you have trouble revealing that day to day, acting is a great way to deal with it. And if you find people interesting but don’t always know how to deal with them, writing is a great way to explore them from a sniper’s range.”
Mangan, 52, and I are sitting outside a cafe, and the endearing wide-eyed goofiness for which he’s known on screen and stage is replaced, in person, by much gentler self-deprecation. We are just around the corner from his house in Primrose Hill, north London, where he lives with his wife, the actor Louise Delamere, and their three young sons. He has lived in the area for more than 30 years and seems to know pretty much everyone – the waiter, passing pedestrians – but despite being surrounded by all that is familiar, there is a palpable nervousness. As an actor, he has given hundreds of interviews, promoting, among many other things, the peerless sitcom Green Wing, the megahit Episodes, co-starring Tamsin Greig and Matt LeBlanc, and – my personal favourite – Hang Ups, the short-lived sitcom he wrote and starred in about a therapist who talks to everyone over Skype (“I did think [during lockdown] that we were really ahead of the game with that one,” he says). But this is one of his first interviews as an author, because Mangan has written a book for primary-age children called Escape the Rooms, illustrated by his sister, Anita Mangan.
“Did you really like it? Did you? Oh that’s so great. I’m so hungry for feedback it’s pathetic. With comedy, you can have an idea and then try it out to see if it works. But with book writing … I read the audiobook last week and immediately wanted to rewrite the whole thing,” he says.
Happily, he cannot. I admit, before reading Mangan’s book I was feeling a little jaded about all the actors and comedians knocking out children’s books, which Mangan understands: “It’s like when models and athletes go: ‘I want to be an actor!’ And you think: ‘It’s not that easy, honey.’ So whenever I thought about writing, I thought: ‘What right do you have?’”
Escape the Rooms tells the story of a boy called Jack, whose mother has recently died. He reluctantly goes to a fairground with his dad, but when he does a bungee jump he finds himself, instead of bouncing up, falling through the ground “with a small, muffled plop. Like dropping a bowling ball into a vat of jelly. The ground folded up around him and swallowed him up.” There, alongside a frequently angry girl called Cally, the adventure begins, as the two of them make their way through various mysterious rooms, involving even more mysterious creatures, to get back to Earth. It is richly imagined and deeply heartfelt, and Anita Mangan’s cartoonish and poignant illustrations capture the tone perfectly. (She included portraits of herself, Stephen and their younger sister Lisa in one of the drawings and Mangan is amazed that I spotted it, apparently unaware he has one of the most distinctive faces around.)
The episodic structure of the book, with the children moving from room to room, was born out of necessity: “I never had a clear six months to crack my knuckles and go, ‘Right! I’m writing my magnum opus now.’ So I wrote it in hour-long bursts in dressing rooms and on trains,” he says.
I tell him that it reminded me a little of The Wizard of Oz, with the children on a quest through different lands to get home. “Right, and I realised later that my opening scene is basically Alice in Wonderland. It’s annoying that people have thought of these things before,” he says with a self-mocking smile.
While the book’s structure bears echoes of classic children’s novels, thematically it does something very different. The death of at least one parent is as common a trope in children’s literature as fairy godmothers. “It makes sense, because you have to give the kids agency, and it’s part of the fantasy,” Mangan says. But in Escape the Rooms, the death of Jack’s mother doesn’t free him: it traps him in emotional stasis, and the rooms, it quickly becomes clear, represent moving through the grieving process.
Grief is very much the theme of the book, but that was not Mangan’s intention. He loves reading to his sons – “Roald Dahl, AA Milne, pretty Route 1 stuff. And Varjak Paw, that’s a cracking book” – even if they don’t always appreciate it.
“As an actor, you think your kids will look back on their childhood and go: ‘One of the best things was Dad was so great at reading books.’ But all they say is: ‘Stop doing the voices, Dad.’ ‘Just read, Dad,’” he laughs. So he envisaged writing something that was, well, fun: “I just wanted to write something that I would want to read at that age – at this age now, to be honest – with as much adventure and ridiculous characters as I could cram in. But Mariella Frostrup told me that all first novels are autobiographical so …” He shrugs.
Mangan’s mother, Mary, died from colon cancer shortly after he graduated from university. She was 45. “We were having dinner together, she stood up, doubled over and six months later she was dead,” he says. Fourteen years later, his father died from a brain tumour.
“I’ve got to stop myself from banging on so much about my parents,” he says, although it was me who brought them up. “But I found it so confusing going through bereavement. I’d feel completely devastated one moment then almost elated the next, and I looked into childhood grief and that’s how kids grieve, too. You want someone to say: ‘Look, there isn’t a way you’re supposed to be doing this.’”
The death of Mangan’s parents, and in particular his mother, are, I suspect, the most seminal moments in his life. When talking, he repeatedly refers back to them: he decided to become an actor right after his mother died. Now he wonders whether he should have had his children younger, given that his parents died so young. His grandmother once told him that you’re one age your whole life. So what age is he? “I’d love to say 27, but probably nine,” he says. And every nine-year-old needs their parents.
With bitter irony, Mangan’s book about grieving is coming out while he’s going through some more grieving of his own. He was close friends with actors Helen McCrory and especially Paul Ritter, both of whom died from cancer in April. Did he know how ill they were?
“I knew how ill Paul was. We were at university together and a gang of us would Zoom every Friday lunchtime. He had a brain tumour, like my dad, so I could see what was happening. It was very familiar. He came to my mum’s funeral with me, I went to his mum’s with him. His boys are the same age I was when my mum died, so I know what they’re going through. It’s heartbreaking. And Helen, I saw her in January, and I knew she was ill but I let her – you leave it up to them, how much they want to talk about it. And she didn’t want to talk about it,” he says. “But maybe that’s why I’m working harder than ever now because this is where we are now.”
Mangan grew up in the suburbs of north London, the eldest child. His parents came from County Mayo and met in an Irish pub in Camden, just down the road from where we are having our coffee. Unlike his sisters, Mangan got a scholarship to an independent secondary school and decided to go to boarding school, thinking it would be like something out of Enid Blyton. It wasn’t. “I was miserable as sin there, because I was homesick, but I didn’t admit it to my parents because I felt like I’d failed by making the wrong choice.”
He went on to Cambridge where he studied law – another wrong choice. “I thought I should study something practical, but there was no sense of vocation and then when Mum got sick I thought: ‘You know what?’” he says in a life’s-too-short tone. He decided to be an actor, inspired by friends from university: Ritter especially, but also Jez Butterworth, Rachel Weisz and Tom Hollander. He auditioned for Rada 10 days after his mother died, “so I couldn’t have cared less, and that’s a great way to audition”.
I tell him that a line of his from Hang Ups has haunted me for years. Richard (Mangan) is arguing with his sister (Jessica Hynes), who is a precious writer and is using her work as an excuse not to help him look after their mother. “Anyway, I had a breakthrough today!” she chirrups. “Oh good, did you find your pencil?” he snaps back at her. Does he now understand how hard it is, actually, to be a writer? “It’s a form of masochism, isn’t it?” he says. “Acting is such a team sport but with books you’re just stuck in a room on your own. But … I really love it. Maybe I’m shrinking from the world and this is the first sign.” He already has an idea for his next children’s book, he says. Has he started writing it? “Any day now. Yup, any day … ” he trails off self-mockingly. Ahh, indefinite procrastination. Oh dear, Stephen Mangan. You’re definitely an author now.
• Escape the Rooms by Stephen Mangan is published by Scholastic (£6.99). To support the Guardian, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.