Frank Skinner: 'Swearing can still be beautiful'

He's known for his racy humour, working-class background and love of football, but there's so much more to the comedian
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The Independent Culture

Frank Skinner would very much like the Archbishop of Canterbury to come round for tea. A devout Roman Catholic, Skinner would relish the prospect of engaging in theological discussion with the Primate of All England, but more than that, his riverside London pad offers a stunning vista of Lambeth Palace. "I'd be one of those guys who calls round to offer you an aerial photograph of your home," observes the comedian.

How Dr Rowan Williams would relate to a man who makes a living largely from telling what he refers to as "knob jokes" is hard to imagine. Skinner devotes part of his current stand-up act to a "very moral" skit on the subject of "granny porn". "The women are having a lovely time, a bit of company. When they're having sex they go, 'Ooh dear, ooh luv-erly.' They don't have our pious attitude to sex and I talk about them incredibly affectionately, which I think is quite a stereotype-challenging thing."

In a restaurant outside London's Royal Festival Hall, Skinner is tucking into devilled kidneys on toast, which he will follow with a portion of mutton pie. Round his neck is a chain bearing the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe, whose shrine he visited in Mexico. "There's a level of devotion there that spooked me out for a couple of days. I thought: 'Is this a mad superstition?' but then I thought it was just another manifestation of worship," he says. "I did a week in Lourdes with a mate of mine. We walked around like a couple of gay curates."

Always surprising, Skinner has recently caused a commotion by speaking out on the overuse of swearing in British life. His comments in a newspaper article were simplified into an attack on swearing per se, and he has subsequently been asked to make two documentaries and write a book on the subject, an unlikely moral crusader. Emerging recently from mass at St George's Cathedral, Southwark, where he enjoys the singing and drumming of the largely African congregation, the priest said to him: "I'm glad to hear you've changed the habit of a lifetime."

But Skinner's point, made in the wake of the "Manuelgate" furore at Radio 2, was not that swearing is wrong, but that it has its place. "I am a great champion of swearing," he says, complaining that foul-mouthed reality television has reduced the comedic value of blue language. "I don't want Gordon Ramsay to spoil it for comedians. That would be terrible. Used properly, swearing really can be a beautiful thing."

At 51, Frank Skinner hasn't suddenly cleaned up his act, but he is about much more than knob jokes. The following day, he is due on the political programme This Week to discuss his views on tax. In his opinion, "if you earn a lot of money you should pay a lot of tax". He makes this point for This Week by crossing Lambeth Bridge and doing a piece to camera in front of Auguste Rodin's sculpture The Burghers of Calais, adjacent to the Houses of Parliament. "I can make the point that Calais was under siege [in 1346] and the great and the good had to be sacrificed in order that the ordinary citizens could live. That's a good analogy with the idea of rich people having to pay 45 per cent tax." Skinner's erudition was met with surprise. "I thought to myself, 'If I didn't have a Birmingham accent, would they have been quite so shocked?'"

It is the curse of the West Midlander to be regarded by the rest of Britain as a dumbo. Recently interviewed by Mariella Frostrup for the Sky Arts programme The Book Show, he was asked to select a fictional character that best represented him. "Other people had chosen James Bond, Elizabeth Bennet from Pride and Prejudice, Philip Marlowe. I picked Goldmund from Hermann Hesse's Narcissus and Goldmund, who is essentially a free spirit who goes around shagging women, doing fabulous carvings and worshipping the earth mother figure," he says, before lowering his voice to mimic Frostrup's response: "I think that's probably the shock choice of the series."

It shouldn't have been a surprise, because Skinner, after reading English at Birmingham Polytechnic, completed a Masters in English literature at the University of Warwick, before becoming an English lecturer at a Midlands college. He grew up with the name Christopher Collins, living in a council house in Oldbury, in the Black Country. His father was a school caretaker ("You couldn't move in our house for toilet roll").

Now that he has a place "near the Houses of Parliament", he finds himself within walking distance of "an intellectual Fisher-Price activity centre – you can go and see Francis Bacon one day, Rothko the next, Byzantium, go and see a fabulous film at the BFI. It's brilliant. I've been in town and thought, I'll nip into the National Gallery and look at Bruegel's Adoration of the Kings."

He doesn't want to sound pretentious by making arty references, though. "People are a bit surprised if I say anything bright but I've probably brought that on. You want to play up your funniest bits [for the audience], you don't want to talk about theology. I don't need to be taken desperately seriously."

When Skinner came to fame two decades ago, he offered something different from the politically correct routines that then characterised the alternative-comedy circuit. "I landed at just the right time, when people going to those clubs were starting to move beyond a student, semi-intellectual humour and actually wanted a bit of a laugh," he says. "Somebody said I was symptomatic of the New Right. There was a feeling that I led the sell-out – but everybody joined me in the end. I think I can see the vapour trail of it now when I go to a club and see new comics handing out business cards."

He reached the pinnacle of his fame with former flatmate David Baddiel, making the television show Fantasy Football League and writing the "Three Lions" anthem for the Euro '96 championships. But then he was criticised for turning football middle class. "I suddenly found myself being blamed for the embourgeoisement of football, which I thought was a bit strong. Brought up in a council house watching West Brom. It's not exactly glory-hunting."

Skinner is still fanatical about the Albion. An eternal football optimist, he watches games alongside his friend Adrian Chiles, the BBC presenter. "We are the yin and yang of West Bromwich Albion. We've got seats on the halfway line, I'm just one side and he's the other, it's like the Greenwich Meridian. When they come out to warm up he says: 'Oh, they don't look right today.' At 3-0 down, I've heard myself say: 'A lot can happen in four minutes.'"

Fantasy Football League helped Skinner to a six-year chat-show contract at ITV, which ended in 2005. A relative wrote to him recently to ask if he'd retired. "They basked in a bit of 'celebrity by association' and I thought, I'm dragging them down and might have to do Strictly Come Dancing to give them a bit of oomph in their local community. My brother told me he went for a job and the interview was going badly so he suddenly said, 'I'm Frank Skinner's brother, by the way,' as a last throw of the dice, and the guy said 'I love Fantasy Football, when can you start?'"

After revitalising his career with an acclaimed 69-date stand-up tour last year, he's produced a book telling the story of how he returned to live performance after a decade. No doubt to the relief of his relatives, he is back on television, doing the panel shows he once used to avoid. "In the last month I've done two Have I Got News for Yous, a Never Mind the Buzzcocks and a Question of Sport; I think it's safe to say I've changed my mind. I've really enjoyed doing them, as well."

As he prepares to leave, he says he feels warmer about the world and his place in it. Previously married, he now lives with his long-term girlfriend, Cathy, who works in comedy commissioning at Channel 4. He has no children and used to feel awkward around them. Now, "I've become more of a Ronald McDonald figure when I go round people's houses, rolling around the floor and joking with the kids."

It is freezing outside and Skinner has three television programmes to prepare for. He never made it to Sunset Boulevard, but Birmingham City Council is mulling over the idea of putting his name in cement in its showbiz Walk of Stars. And he already has a paving stone named after him in his native borough of Sandwell. He's happy with that. "I really like the idea of someone in Oldbury saying, 'I will meet you at Frank Skinner at half past seven.'"

'Frank Skinner on the Road' (Century) and a brand new live DVD, 'Frank Skinner Stand-up' (Universal Pictures), are available in shops now (