Three decades into his comedy career, Frank Skinner is still the best in the business. Says who? Frank Skinner, for one.
‘I love my own jokes,’ the 62-year-old tells Weekend. ‘I know that’s probably not a good thing to say. But we live in the age of hip-hop boasting and all that stuff. I think, deep down, every comic has to believe they’re good. You’ve got to be a bit cocky, or you’d never go on.’
Skinner's new tour – his first for five years – is called Showbiz. But don’t go expecting A-list gossip about Taylor Swift. ‘It’s about me, like all my stand-up,’ he explains. ‘It’s basically me talking about my life over the last couple of years. Obviously that has involved some showbiz. But, because I’m not really a very showbiz person, I kind of like the picture of me on the poster looking craggy and wasted, with “Showbiz” in pink next to me.
‘There’s this new wave in comedy – which I’m not against – that’s about having a big theme, and telling a story,' he adds. 'But I’m a sort of jokes junkie. I like the gaps between the laughs to be as small as I can make them, really.’
By his own admission, Skinner's act has changed over the years, dialing down the bloke-ish birds and football banter that made him a poster boy for the 90s ‘new lad’ phenomenon.
‘There’s still a bit of that,’ he says. ‘But not so much in terms of me talking about my sexual exploits. Can you say “sexual exploits” in Waitrose magazine?’ he asks, with a chuckle. ‘I talk about my life generally – and that isn’t happening. It does crop up, but it crops up with me looking at it from afar. When my shows were rude, shall we say, my life was rude. Now it’s… less rude.’
On top of that, he must also navigate through the new hair-trigger landscape of professional offence-taking, where every comedian is just one near-the-knuckle gag away from being ‘cancelled’. Though Skinner has been here before, having launched his career at the height of the 80s right-on, li’l-bit-o-politics alternative comedy scene.
‘When I first started on the London circuit, if you said something about Nicaragua or Margaret Thatcher, you got cheers and applause,’ he recalls. ‘And I wasn’t interested in applause. I thought laughs would be better. There were some clubs where they didn’t like me because of that; I think people thought I lacked substance. But timing is everything in this job, as you know, and I arrived just as people were starting to think: well this is nice, but I wouldn’t mind a few jokes…’
Even during the era of Loaded and Fantasy Football League, though, there was another side to Frank Skinner: the one who, having started his working life in an aircraft parts factory after being expelled from school, later returned to education, studying for a degree and then a Master's in English that ignited a lifelong love affair with literature and poetry; the one who appreciated Baudelaire as much as Beckenbauer, and who would later become president of the Samuel Johnson Society.
It’s a sparsely populated area of the Venn diagram, suggests Weekend: people who tell filthy jokes but are also scholars of Anglo-Saxon history, and whose Saturday breakfast radio show has an “AE Houseman alarm”, should the conversation turn too often towards the author of A Shropshire Lad.
‘It is, but that’s me,’ says Skinner. ‘I used to think that bit of me was unhelpful on stage. I think maybe it still is. The other night on stage I compared something spontaneously to when Odysseus asked his crew to strap him to the mast, so he could hear the Sirens. Even those who got it didn’t find it especially enriching, but I liked it. Most of it’s for the audience, but I can have some bits that are for me.’
One thing that has survived largely unchanged since the 90s is his close friendship with David Baddiel, who lives 10 doors away in the same North London street. Last year, along with The Lightning Seeds’ Ian Broudie, they became the only artists in history to top the charts four times with the same song, after their Euro 96 anthem Three Lions was once again adopted as the soundtrack to England’s World Cup campaign. ‘The great thing about that is that it was the fans who made it a hit,’ he says. ‘We didn’t re-release it. It just happened on its own. And then you’ve got Prince William on the telly saying, “It’s coming home,” and stuff like that. It was brilliant.’
Ahead of a nationwide tour in the autumn, Skinner is taking Showbiz to the Edinburgh Fringe, where he began his comedy career in 1987. Famously, he booked the venue without having done any stand-up, or written any jokes (‘It was more stupidity than confidence’), but four years later he went home with comedy’s biggest prize, The Perrier Award. ‘And my son was also conceived in Edinburgh. So it’s got the lot.’
Back in the 80s, Christopher Collins – he took the name Frank Skinner from a member of his dad’s dominoes team – was working as an English lecturer, having previously spent three-and-a-half years on the dole, drinking himself into oblivion (he’s been sober since 1986). Born in West Bromwich – his dad, a semi-professional footballer, met him mum while in town to play West Bromwich Albion in the 1937 FA Cup, so he literally owes his life to the club – and raised in neighbouring Oldbury, he’s described his upbringing as ‘working class division one’, outside privy, pigeon loft and all. Not that it earns him any brownie points now that he’s made his fortune.
‘People talk about social mobility in this country, but once you get a few bob and move out of that council house, you become as hated as all the other rich people,’ he muses. ‘The only people who get genuine warm-hearted congratulations are Lottery winners – and they’ve done nothing for it.’
Initially, he says, he struggled to adjust to having money. ‘I’d go to the same places – I’d still go to KFC, but I’d have the five-piece bucket instead of the tree-piece. It’s the first time in my life I really put on weight, and I realised why people eat in those restaurants where there’s just a tiny little bit of food in the middle of the plate. It’s because they want to spend their money, but they don’t want to become obese.’
Every Saturday morning, Skinner and his pals Emily Dean and Alun Cochrane spend three glorious hours shooting the breeze about nothing in particular on their Sony Award-winning Absolute Radio show. Among the running gags and dead English poet klaxons are repeated allusions from Skinner's colleagues about what a nightmare he can be from a man management point of view. Would he describe himself as difficult to work with?
‘Well, I used to be a lot worse,’ he says.‘I had a long period in my life doing jobs I had no interest in. It wasn’t until after I was 30 that I got a job I really liked. I hadn’t even met people who had jobs they liked. And now I know loads of people who love their jobs, but you have to pay the price for that; you have to give it 100%. So when I see people who are a bit sloppy about it…
‘I used to have mates working on the bins who were bright, intelligent blokes, but they were born in the wrong part of the country to the wrong type of family. And I don’t begrudge the people who get their foot in the door. But I think once it’s in the door, you’ve got to get it on the pedal.’
In his acclaimed 2001 autobiography, Skinner wrote how he still ‘thinks like a loser’. Two decades, and numerous trophy-winning tours, radio and TV shows later, surely he can’t still feel that way?
‘I do, yeah,’ he says. ‘I don’t think you ever get that out of your system. When I walk into a posh restaurant, which is not something I often do, I’m still a bit wary of the staff, and stuff like that. Whereas I have friends who went to public school, and they have that real, shining confidence wherever they go. I’m better than I was, but I don’t think it ever goes away.’
One area where he has found contentment is on the home front. After years of being the jack-the-lad running around town, he finally settled down with comedy agent Cath Mason, the mother of his seven-year-old son Buzz. Not that it’s always that settled. ‘Very early on in our relationship, we realised we come from completely different households,’ he says. ‘My mum and dad argued every day – our house was basically one loud shot. Whereas in her home, there was never a raised voice. So when we had our first argument, she was absolutely shocked. It took us a while to sort that out. But I always say she could make the Pope shout.’
Another constant is his faith which, unusually in his line of work, he’s always worn on his sleeve – though he prefers to identify as a Catholic, rather than a Christian. ‘I associate Catholic with big, muscly Irish blokes in Celtic shirts, whereas I tend to think of Christians as people in safari suits with fish badges,’ he says. ‘We’re all God’s children, don’t get me wrong. But I like a bit of muscular Christianity.’
Not having a day job, as such, he’s been enjoying hanging out with Buzz, and the busy blur of school runs and celebration assemblies. ‘And now, when I get in from a gig at midnight, and I walk into the kitchen and see there’s Lego Ninjago figures around the place, it sort of gives it all a bit of a basis and a reason for doing it, which I didn’t get when I was walking into a bachelor pad.’
Does he worry about being an older father? ‘A bit,’ he says. ‘Obviously I’d like to stay alive long enough to get him into university. After that, they don’t really want their parents around anyway. So, again, timing is everything.’
An edited version of this article was published in Waitrose Weekend, 25 July, 2019
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