Skinner's power play
Saturday 29 November 1997
Frank Skinner does not go on stage to expound the finer points of the European Monetary Union. He is the first to acknowledge that his stage act is dominated by two, rather less intellectual, subjects. "My audiences expect football and sex - with some good reason," he laughs. "If you start wanting to be seen as subtle and clever, you're on the slippery slope to writing a novel. Mentioning no names," he adds hastily.
We're sitting in a St Albans hotel surrounded by reminders one of his twin loves, footy. Shirts signed by David Platt, Graeme Le Saux and Diego Maradona bedeck the walls, and perspiring Arsenal players wander around the lobby after training in the grounds.
Skinner treats me to a sparkling, private one-man show. He is the sort of performer who always seems to be "on" - even sipping tea at 11am, confronted by the none-too-pleasant sight of Tony Adams plodding around in a training- bib.
He - Skinner, that is, rather than Adams - is nearing the end of a mammoth four-month national tour which has covered 11,300 miles, the equivalent of motoring from London to Auckland. The tour culminates in what is purported to be the largest ever solo comedy performance in Britain - in front of 6,000 people at Battersea Power Station. It will mark the 10th anniversary of Skinner's first-ever gig - when he died a death by a thousand silences in front of the Birmingham Anglers Association. "Some people have described me as an overnight success, but it has taken me 10 years to get a gig at a disused power station," he jokes. There should at least be plenty of people eager to hear about football and sex there.
The raw stats of the gig are impressive. The set weighs 700 tons and will take three weeks, 35 trucks and two 65-ft cranes to construct. The main thing is, though, that it will give Skinner the chance to do what he does best - rap with the audience. Once inspired by the punters, he becomes the uncrowned president of the Ramblers Association. "If I tried to do a gig without talking to the audience, I'd get bored," he muses. "I used to be a college tutor, and I always thought seminars were better than lectures. I've taken that into my stand-up. We spend a quarter of an hour beforehand getting the lighting right, so I can see the first eight rows. If they're carpet-studying, you move on, but some people deliberately sit in the front row so they can be chosen. I once went to a Julian Clary gig, and when he said he needed a volunteer from the audience, I remember thinking, `I hope he picks me'. That desire is in people, and as a performer, you spot it."
Not all Skinner's fans are worthy of attention, though, if their heckles are anything to go by. "I usually get `West Brom are shite' as soon as I walk on," sighs the die-hard Baggie. "Once the team happened to be top of the table, so I replied `demonstrably untrue'. The audience didn't like that; they thought, `We came here for knob gags, not vocabulary'. Another time, a man shouted out, `I know you're bringing back Fantasy Football on ITV. Will it still be satirical?', which is one of the great heckles of the late 20th century."
In his act, Skinner always tries to be topical. "When I go on stage, I have to be talking about what people in the pub are talking about," he reckons. "If there's a big subject in the news, you have to do it. I do chunks on Princess Diana, Louise Woodward and Gary Glitter - three of the news stories of the century. If I hadn't done Gary Glitter last night [the story had just broken], I would have let down a large section of the audience who had probably come specially to hear that bit."
As you might have gathered, Skinner is to taste what Diego Maradona is to quantum physics. All the same, the comedian was surprised by the complaints about his BBC1 chat show earlier this year, which lead to some cuts. Protests were made, for instance, after jokes about the deaf and about monkeys. "If you have 10 million viewers and get 22 complaints about a joke, that's seen as a major thing," he says with some bafflement. "The basic logic was to change the show to suit a very, very tiny minority who'd almost certainly never watch again. That's odd."
He clearly does not have much time for the sort of people who ring in to complain. "Some people play cards or make rugs, and some people watch television with the phone by their side, ready to call the duty officer. It's a hobby."
Similarly, he gets exasperated by the PC police. "The main problem with political correctness is that it's essentially not very honest," he explains. "Very few people instinctively think politically correctly. The good thing about laughter is that in the end you laugh at what's funny. If you go 'Oo-er' afterwards, then that's not natural. The real you still likes it. Your id likes it, but your ego doesn't - not an excuse I'll be using on stage."
For now, he is more concerned with the prospect of playing to 6,000 in a completely new, purpose-built venue. "It does feel like a special occasion," he observes. "People want to come to the Cup Final - although I see it more as the Division Two play-offs. People like modesty in The Independent, don't they?"
After the Battersea Power Station gig, he will have a well-earned break, though he can't quite envisage what that will be like after so long on the road. "Afterwards, I leave towels on the bathroom floor at home and still expect a chambermaid to tidy them up. When the tour ends, it's like coming out of prison. I'll be that man in the Seventies suit with the small bundle under his arm."
Frank Skinner plays Battersea Power Station (0171-344 4444) on Monday 8 Dec. His videos - `The Frank Skinner TV Show Unseen' and `More Unseen Fantasy Football' - are both on release
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