Telly's agent of laughter
Actor Stephen Mangan talks to Kate Whiting about his new role in Free Agents -- a dirty comedy about two agents and their sex-crazed boss
In a modern office building, Stephen Mangan, Anthony Head and Sharon Horgan are hard at work on a new Channel 4 comedy. Anthony is lying sprawled on a sofa, moaning to Sharon's character about a filthy incident involving him and a bowl of Hollandaise sauce, while Stephen skulks in the background.
A director yells 'cut' and the actors do the scene all over again -- and again -- until it's near perfect, and the Hollandaise sauce joke is ingrained in my head.
This is Free Agents -- a slick new show from the team behind Spaced, about a dysfunctional couple of talent agents and their sex-mad boss.
The show started life as a pilot for Channel 4's 25th anniversary comedy showcase in 2007 and like all good comedies, was promptly commissioned for a full six-part series.
Alex (Stephen) is going through a messy divorce, but has fallen in love -- and into bed -- with Helen (Sharon), who's still grieving after the death of her fiance.
"All the basics you need for a cracking comedy," jokes Stephen (36) when we meet in his dressing room during his lunch break.
"It's nice not to play the most obnoxious person in a show for a change, you know Anthony's playing the character I would normally play," says Stephen, referring to his larger-than-life Green Wing character Guy Secretan.
"I like the dynamic between me and Sharon, the sort of 'will they, won't they', and the fact that they're two very damaged people who are working in this insane world of 'agenting', and they're handling their problems quite differently.
"He's a very sensitive character, who's always crying and he just really wants a bit of contact with someone else to help him through it. Whereas she's much more tough and she's pushing him away all the time, but he's not easily deterred."
The first episode opens with the two of them in bed together, having a rather awkward post-coital conversation. It looks as though Helen might actually let Alex stay the night, until he starts crying about the children he never gets to see.
"That's actually what I do when I have sex. I have sex and then I cry, so that scene wasn't difficult for me," says Stephen, trying hard to keep a straight face.
"But it's not comedy crying," he says.
"There is a certain element of drama to this as well, and actually, that's quite interesting for me because I'm not playing a funny part in that way."
Most of the show was shot in and around London's Soho on 35mm film, giving it a kind of Sex And The City-style look and feel.
"Am I Sarah Jessica Parker in that scenario?" says Stephen, poking fun at my analogy.
"That probably means Anthony Head is Kim Cattrall. . .
"This show breaks new ground -- I don't know a show like it," he continues.
"It has adult themes done with poignancy and comedy, and I suppose US shows like Sex And The City do that very well, they deal with heart-break and very adult themes, but with a bit of style and comedy, so I hope we pull that off."
After working on Free Agents all day, Stephen was also starring in The Norman Conquests at a London theatre in the evenings, quite a feat for any actor, let alone one who has a one-year-old son, Harry, with actress wife Louise Delamere.
"Heroically, my wife has taken over all night-time duties with my little son, so I stick in earplugs and go to sleep," Stephen says.
"But because Alex has nowhere to stay, he is sleeping in the office, the car, or a flat that's being redecorated, he's not getting a lot of sleep.
"That's great for me because I'm not getting a lot of sleep, so if I come in looking really haggard and drawn, it just looks like I'm really living the part."
Free Agents was written by Chris Neil and it is based on his experiences as a showbiz agent for the likes of Robert Carlyle, Matt Lucas and David Walliams.
Although there aren't any celebrity cameos in the first series, Stephen says the potential is there, but it's more about the three main characters.
"In one episode a rival agent dies and we're sent to the funeral by Anthony's character in order to try and nick his clients, so you do meet some actors.
"The way Chris has written it, the agents have all got fairly grim personal lives, nobody ever wants to go home."
Then there's the incredibly fruity and graphic language that comes from the mouth of Alex's boss Stephen (Anthony).
"He's hilarious, because he's so appallingly, grimly obscene, but Anthony plays him in such a charming way that you kind of forgive him for all the absolutely disgusting stuff that comes out.
"But this is not one that I'll be letting any of my aunts, uncles, nephews or nieces watch, I may have to lock it in a vault until my son is older."
Stephen was born in north London and studied law at university before taking six months out to care for his mother, who was dying of cancer.
He says the experience, though devastating, helped him to realise he should pursue his childhood passion -- acting.
"She was only 45, I thought 'God, I've got just over 20 years'. Her mum was 47 [when she died], my mum was 45, so I'm hoping that's not a premonition of things to come for me, but it certainly focuses your mind about how short life can be. Since then Stephen has become a well-known face in Britain. He went to the US last year to film a comedy pilot.
"I was playing a detective in the LAPD, and worked with Jason Alexander from Seinfeld. But the show didn't get picked up and I did find the experience a little depressing," he says.
"I'm not sure if it's the norm out there, but there were executives sitting round the monitor, fiddling about with the comedy -- it was like trying to design an elephant by a committee, inevitably it just became a massive mush."
Stephen will be back in the US in spring, when The Norman Conquests transfers to Broadway for four months.
"I'm beside myself with excitement," he admits.
And as for his wife and baby?
"It all depends on what Louise is doing with work, but Harry's only small, so I'll be able to stick him in my suitcase and bring him with us," he jokes.
Free Agents starts on Channel 4 on Friday February 13