Interview: Frank Skinner
By Aidan Smith
WHEN Frank Skinner played the Festival Fringe two years ago – his return to the stand-up stage after a decade away – he would relax post-performance in a hot tub on the roof of his rented New Town apartment.
Amusing himself at the existence of such a decadent facility in douce old Edinburgh, he would smoke a clay pipe and fancy himself as "a bit of a thinker, kind of like David Hume".
Maybe the Skinner who made his Fringe debut in 1988 was also a thinker; indeed he'll try to convince you of this. "I had two degrees before I became a comedian. I was always bragging about them but no one was interested." No, the Skinner people wanted to know about, and which he readily gave them, was the one who, despite much more modest Edinburgh trappings – "Seven aspiring comics in one flat, we drew lots for the two beds and I lost" – slept with a woman after only his third gig, the first of countless one-night stands.
Well, look at him now. Erudite contributions to Question Time, show-stealing turns on Have I Got News For You, a stint as a Panorama reporter, columns in a posh paper (OK, the week we meet the topic is air-guitars but before that it was Afghanistan). And then there's his book about returning to the night job which has been hailed as better than Jerry Seinfeld's definitive study of a comedian getting back in the saddle and the best-ever on being a stand-up.
Sipping orange juice in London's Covent Garden, Skinner claims this reinvention wasn't planned – "That would have been a dangerous thing to do: 'Right, now I'm going to show everyone my intelligent side'" – but he won't deny that reinvention was needed.
To some, he was the favourite funster of the Loaded-subcribing Lad, all sex, beer and football, and when that era ended he got left behind: suddenly comedy was ironic and post-modern and all he had were some mangy gags about shagging groupies. Among others, Scots mainly, he risked never being forgiven for having a hand in Three Lions, the clarion call for England's New Patriotism requiring the shaven-headed sons of St George to paint red crosses on their bums.
It's a long way from knocking about with David Baddiel to referencing David Hume but Skinner, now 52, reiterates that he's never planned anything, ever. "That comes from being a big drinker. If you're an alcoholic, you don't think ahead." He never planned to become a comedian. If he had, he wouldn't have left it until he was 30. "Quite a lot of big things happened at once. I broke up with a long-term girlfriend, gave up drinking, rediscovered my Catholic faith and became a stand-up. My friends were going through life-changes as well, but sensibly they confined theirs to acquiring gym memberships and pixie boots. I think I had my midlife crisis early."
Not that he's been angst-free ever since. The book, On The Road, and any interview up until a year ago gave full vent to his "Why-am-I-not-on-TV-anymore crisis?" Then there was his what-to-wear crisis. How should the past-it Lad dress when approaching actual middle age? He never looked comfortable in leather jacket and jeans and finally gave in to the suits, like today's brown number, his body was always yearning for. "I was probably a fiftysomething-man-in-waiting," he says.
Skinner always thought he was funny. Well, that's what the boys down the pub told him. "Then the year before my Fringe debut, the university where I was working were taking a play up to Edinburgh – something serious about the IRA – so I went along, played a prison warden, hung about the Pleasance, saw this bloke Baddiel getting all these laughs and thought: 'What a brilliant job.' Twelve months later all my savings – 400 quid – went on booking a venue and I was a comedian."
He's always loved Edinburgh and there's some terrific writing on the Festival in On The Road, not least regarding the oldest trick in the Fringe scamster's book: "How many men who should know better have sat through an hour of tedious songs and sketches in a draughty Presbyterian church hall, lured much too close to revue's ragged rocks by six inches of white thigh?"
But at first audiences didn't get Skinner. "I'd go 'I was talking to my girlfriend the other night…' and someone would shout: 'Your girlfriend? Own her, do you?' Other comics were very PC, doing jokes about Maggie Thatcher and Nicaragua. My act was mostly about sex, pretty hardcore, and because of that and the way I looked people assumed I'd been slogging away in clubs like the Wheeltappers & Shunters for years. When I won the Perrier Award in 1991 the Guardian said I was the new Bernard Manning."
He beat Eddie Izzard, Jack Dee and Lily Savage to the prize. Oh, and Avner the Eccentric as well. Although Skinner got his TV break early with Fantasy Football League, Savage has proved more enduring as a chat host, Dee in sitcoms and Izzard at just about everything else. But he now has a better understanding of his strengths and weaknesses. "I like turning up on telly as this old tomcat who does someone else's show then strolls away without having to get involved in endless discussions about the colour of the chairs, which was me when I was the control-freak presenter. But when I tried to write a novel it was disastrous. I don't have the gift of invention."
There is inventiveness in his comedy, of course, but what he probably means is that he doesn't make it up, his best stuff (On The Road) is a diary of actual events, recovering alcoholics and retired satyromaniacs tend to have a landfill of "truth" to use as material – and he likes being as confessional as possible.
Was it a different girl every night? "Almost," he says. Did that make him feel invincible, like Led Zeppelin's Robert Plant, a fellow Midlander, who once rushed on to a hotel balcony and roared: "I am a golden god!"? "No!" Not even during Baddiel And Skinner Unplanned where the hosts couldn't help but radiate smugness, even arrogance, at being able to make it up as they went along?
"Well, the bird of comedy may occasionally sit on my shoulder but by no means is it ensnared; it could leave at any time. Sometimes I think I'm the best in the world – I couldn't do this otherwise – but other times I'm perfectly happy to show off my soft white underbelly. People are sometimes surprised by the scope of my self-doubt. But I think it's a comedian's moral obligation to shine a light into those dark recesses.
"I don't regret all those women. How could I? I tried to be nice. I got what I wanted and they went away with a great story they're probably still telling. In fact, a woman was on Twitter just the other day recounting how we'd shagged in Nottingham in 1997."
Now happily living with girlfriend Cath, he says casual sex features less and less in his act as it becomes history, just like his boozing. "Maybe it won't disappear altogether, though. Cath is fascinated by the comedy groupie stuff."
Does he get nostalgic about his drinking years? "Well, I dream about drink, once a fortnight, bottles of beer or half-pints, only four or five, very restrained, nothing like the drinker I was. My subconscious hasn't grasped the fact you can do anything in dreams. Another recurring one is me at the supermarket…"
As our chat winds down, Skinner says he can't wait to get back to Edinburgh, even though he'll be sans hot tub this year. "I had four women in it at one time," he says. "The bloke who owned the flat was pretty devastated about that; his record was three. But he was probably re-enacting one of Hugh Hefner's pool parties. With me were Cath, her mum and her mum's friend – it was more like family bath night."
Well-placed to offer an entirely sober assessment of how Scotland has changed since his first Fringe, he says that post-Parliament there's less anti-English feeling than when a gag about how Robert Burns "just makes words up" would prompt the threat of a square go. "You lot seem happier in your own skin now." Just like Frank Skinner, in fact.
• Frank Skinner's Credit Crunch Cabaret, Assembly Rooms, Edinburgh, 14-30 August.