Stephen Mangan admits that his new show should come with a health warning: if you’re expecting, switch over to another channel immediately. Even for viewers whose only experience of childbirth is Call the Midwife, it makes for excruciating viewing in places.
The one-off Sky Arts drama takes place in a hospital room where a heavily pregnant Mangan pants, cusses and bickers through labour while his wife looks helplessly on. If this conjures up memories of Junior, the 1994 film in which Arnold Schwarznegger nursed a bump, they’re soon banished: Birthday is a comedy, often hilarious – but it doesn’t shy away from the “dark side” of childbirth.
“It’s really brutally honest and frank about a lot of things, which I think is its great strength,” says Mangan. “My character describes his wife’s birth as like watching a shark attack because of the blood. Some people will find that really offensive but it’s really important stuff to talk about but no one really ever does.”
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Although we live in a world where ultrasound scans are posted on Facebook, he believes childbirth is still taboo. “Absolutely. Without question. It’s this searingly vivid moment in anyone’s life, whether you’re the person in the bed or standing by it – and yet I can’t think of another film or play or TV show about it. Yes, there is One Born Every Minute but you don’t really get into their relationship.”
We’re never told exactly how or why Mangan is the one in the bed; it’s obviously supposed to be as unremarkable as giving birth is for women – except of course it’s not unremarkable at all. But why put a man centre-stage in one of the few dramas where women enjoy the limelight? “It just makes you look at it afresh. Not to take for granted that this is what happens but go: actually, this is extraordinary.”
Birthday started life as a play at the Royal Court theatre three years ago, starring the same cast as tonight’s TV drama with the exception of Anna Maxwell Martin who plays Mangan’s long-suffering wife. (Sherlock’s Louise Brealey scurries in and out in another white coat – this time a harassed doctor who seems to take pleasure in neglecting to put her patient at ease.)
Apart from the heavily pregnant theatre-goers who walked out every night – undoubtedly a little freaked out –the play was acclaimed by critics, mothers and midwives alike. Mangan’s four-year-old wasn’t allowed to see it. “He came home and said: Daddy, are you pregnant? His best friend had seen his dad reading a review of the play with a picture of me pregnant. He was very confused. I had to explain to him that I sort of was pregnant and sort of wasn’t.”
Mangan – whose two sons are now seven and four – drew on his own brushes with childbirth, in particular the “pretty difficult” arrival of his eldest. “It’s a very tough role to see someone you love going through such agonising pain. And it was such a surprise at the end when a baby emerged. I know that sounds really ridiculous but I was so focused on what my wife Louise was going through that when our son came out it really took me by surprise that there was suddenly another person in the room. And then he was whisked off and put in an incubator and wasn’t very well for a while.”
Like most new parents, they left the hospital exhausted and shellshocked. “And then you come home, put the baby on the bed, look at each other and go: now what do we do? And you’re terrified you’re going to do something wrong and break it!”
Because of his real and simulated experiences of labour, he didn’t join the nation in applauding when the Duchess of Cambridge recently posed for photographers mere hours after the birth of Princess Charlotte, immaculately primped and preened. “She probably had a small army of makeup artists and stylists but that’s actually really damaging because everyone needs to give women a break. I’d have been much more impressed if she’d come hobbling out with her hair all over the place, food stains all down her front, dressed in an old dressing gown and slippers. I would have gone: good on you.”
Birthday is the first drama made by Mangan’s production company Slam Films, which he set up with his actress wife Louise Delamere and friend Andrew Lincoln (nowadays best known as the star of US zombie saga Walking Dead). It’s also the first time he’s worked with his wife – “and I’m sitting in a bed giving birth!”
“She found it quite disturbing. I’m very proud of the pictures of me pregnant but I think it’s an odd thing for a wife to have to see her husband go through. I did find myself rubbing my silicon belly in the way that pregnant women do. I wouldn’t let myself bump into walls or let anyone else knock it.”
Although Birthday is written and directed by men, Mangan wants Slam Films to provide a platform for women and new writers. “I’m in a play at the National Theatre at the moment and it’s the first play I’ve ever done directed by a woman. It’s crazy. And when I hosted the craft Baftas earlier, only one of the eight nominations for best comedy and drama writers was a woman. There’s this huge underused pool of talent.”
And if there were parity in the maternity ward and men really could get pregnant, would he? He only hesitates for a split-second. “Yes. Why wouldn’t you want to experience that? I mean, the most interesting thing I’ve ever made in my life is a four-legged stool, so to make a baby… Wow.”
Birthday will air on Sky Arts on Tuesday 9th June at 9pm