ARTS / Show People: Nothing to declare but his geniality: Frank Skinner

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The Independent Culture
FRANK SKINNER BA Hons, MA, WBA fan, Warwickshire CCC member, Sun reader and comedian, makes the short walk from Soho to his rented office in Mayfair, where he will spend all day writing material for a 57-date national tour. No one bats an eyelid as he passes, pink-faced after a day in the sun at Lord's. In T-shirt, trainers and backpack (containing the stand-up's standbys: script, cigarettes and a change of underwear), he could be any old out-of-towner.

He talks about his landlord, and Fantasy Football co-presenter, David Baddiel. He charges pounds 60 a week plus bills. 'A very fair landlord. That's probably the best review he's ever had.' They live upstairs from Tim Hilton, the IoS art critic, who reports that they have an uncanny knack of dropping in when he is cooking. 'The other day I did sardines and Skinner ate them all. It's like having a couple of teenagers in the house.'

Unusually for a Hampstead resident, Skinner 'can't be doing with books'. It is only thanks to a random selection procedure in a bookshop that he is reading an A S Byatt. 'For the first few weeks I'd never heard of him. Then I met Nick Hornby at a party and he told me A S Byatt was a woman.'

The conversation veers back to football. In a rare innovation in TV sports coverage, Skinner and Baddiel have been doing half-time comedy slots for the BBC, with terrific results. We discuss the two Baggios in the Italian team. Skinner prefers Dino, the workhorse, to Roberto, the genius.

Among comedians, Frank Skinner is a Dino. You'd never catch him wearing a ponytail or calling himself an artist. In his next big match, a comedy game-show called Gagtag, he's on the same side as Frank Carson, Jim Bowen and Ted Rodgers, 'and that feels about right'. The Seiko gold watch he's wearing is a gift from his co-host, the renascent Bob Monkhouse - a bond between old guard and new. If Baddiel and Rob Newman were the new rock'n'roll, Skinner says he is 'the new vaudeville'. A typical Skinnerism is either corny or dirty. 'I'm the least rock'n'roll of the comics.'

Skinner is not one of your onstage comedians/ offstage tragedians: he seems close to chronic happiness. When he breaks into a cheesy grin, two white patches appear on the bridge of his nose. At the moment they're there most of the time: before Gagtag and the tour and the next series of Fantasy Football League and Do the Right Thing, the BBC's moral-dilemma show in which he is Terry Wogan's flippant sidekick, Skinner stars in Blue Heaven, a sitcom he wrote for himself.

'I'm a man in my thirties still living with my parents and I'm in a band with a mate which is absolutely terrible. I'm trying to get out and get a girl and get successful.' His mum is played by the princess of superior Seventies sitcom, Paula Wilcox, 'which is fantastic. Nobody should have a mum that fanciable.' This is as much a preoccupation as football. The cafe we're in is also being used as the interview room for a stream of Amazonian models. 'I think comedy is essentially an unsexy job,' says Skinner, distracted and wistful.

Now 36, he grew up in Smethwick in the Black Country. His inheritance was an accent that, an Oxford survey found, was the one of which all participants said, 'sounds a bit stupid'. He was expelled from school at 16 for black marketeering in dinner tickets, but not before winning over the bullies with humour. At seven he was advised to become a comedian; later, a teacher told him he 'played too much to the gallery'.

He worked in a factory that made 'big lumps of metal', and went to night school to gain enough O and A levels to do teacher training. Failing to qualify, he stayed on at Birmingham Polytechnic to do an English degree, and switched to Warwick for his MA. 'By this time it was to see how long I could stay out of work.'

Comedy was just an extension of that. 'I don't regard it as a grown-up job, so it's not really proper work.' Inspired by a visit to Edinburgh in 1987, he booked a venue there in 1988. The reviews were encouraging and after gaining stand-up experience in Birmingham and the Channel 4 series Packet of Three, he moved to London.

Even in the incipient phase of world domination, he remains touchingly starstruck. Offered the chance to meet Elvis Costello after one of his recent Albert Hall shows, 'I said 'Norralf'. I didn't bother saying 'I've got all your albums,' although I have, and he said: 'I thought you was really funny on World Cup Grandstand the other night.' I thought, 'God, Elvis Costello watching me]' '

It is this side of him that should keep audiences from gagging on his ubiquity. He is 'the most uncompetitive person in the world'. Nor does he appear inclined to take the comic inheritance seriously. 'I'm very lucky in that I don't get nervous at all. It's the only job where it's an advantage to be a bit dozy. On Gagtag I see people jumping about before and I just stroll on and do it.'

In Mayfair he writes in longhand and 'can't get the gags down quick enough'. 'When you go in there's a list of the people who have offices. Something like Nyman Instruction; Bradford Girder Inc; Frank Skinner. Like I've become a small business.'

'Gagtag': BBC1, Tues, 8-8.30pm. Skinner at Edinburgh: the Pleasance (031-556 6550), 10-20 Aug.

(Photographs omitted)