Classic Interview: Stephen Mangan & Sharon Horgan in Free Agents

Free Agents

Sharon Horgan and Stephen Mangan are pretty much established as two of our favourite comic actors. Horgan is riding high in C4's Catastrophe, Mangan is busy on various projects, including making Birthday for Sky Arts, a spin-off of Pregnant, the play he appeared in in which he plays a pregnant man. This interview dates from 2007 when they were shooting a pilot for a C4 sitcom set in the world of showbiz called Bitter and Twisted, but then changed to Free Agents. It ran for one series and deserved more. But then if the talented twosome had been doing endless runs of this maybe we would have never had Catastrophe or the sight of Mangan about to give birth…

 

 

 

Stephen Mangan is on his fourth glass of champagne and it is barely lunchtime. The tousle-haired Green Wing star does not have a drink problem, of course. The fizz is a non-alcoholic prop. He has been filming a restaurant scene for Bitter and Twisted, a one-off sitcom to be aired this autumn. At last there is a cry of “Cut!” and the busy actor can relax. “Humour is at the centre of our culture,” Mangan suggests when asked why he enjoys making comedies so much.

Bitter and Twisted is part of Comedy Showcase, a refreshingly forward-looking celebration of 25 years of Channel 4 comedy. Over six Fridays there will be a sketch-show pilot for the Star Stories frontman Kevin Bishop and five sitcoms: Other People, starring Martin Freeman as a disgruntled magician; a Victorian house-share spoof, Ladies & Gentlemen, with Reece Sheersmith; an Irish comedy, The Eejits; a romance, Plus One, featuring the former EastEnder Nigel Harman; and Bitter and Twisted, set in the world of showbiz agents.

It is an ambitious, admirable project, as Andrew Newman, Channel 4’s head of comedy and entertainment — and closet Brittas Empire fan — understandably agrees. “If you get a sitcom right, it’s a fabulous thing to behold.” Bitter and Twisted certainly seems promising. Mangan and Sharon Horgan, his co-star, look good as the hesitant lovers with dark pasts — she is mourning her dead fianc?, he is recently divorced. The milieu is one that the writer, Chris Niel, certainly knows about — he was an agent for Matt Lucas before changing careers.

No one sets out to make a bad sitcom any more than they would set out to open a bad restaurant. But like dodgy diners, there are lots of forgotten flops. Who remembers that series set in a workplace staffed by losers, misfits and a podgy middle-aged boss? No, not the one written by Ricky Gervais, but Nice Day at the Office in 1994, starring Timothy Spall. For every Fawlty Towers there is a Sam’s Game (starring Davina McCall), for every Blackadder a Heil Honey, I’m Home, following the crazy antics of Adolf Hitler and Eva Braun. Well, maybe it looked good on paper.

So is there a science to sitcoms or is it the same as the movie business, where, as the screenwriter William Goldman once revealed, “nobody knows anything”? Henry Normal, Steve Coogan’s creative partner, recently said that writing comedy is somewhere between mathematics and music. Newman agrees — up to a point. “You couldn’t get a computer to write a sitcom, but there is a structure to them. Yet the great sitcoms come out of a hard-to-put-your-finger-on mix of writing, production, direction and stars.”

Interview continues here.

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