the interview FRANK SKINNER, COMEDIAN TALKS TO BEN THOMPSON
FIRST HE BORROWED HIS STAGE NAME FROM A MAN IN A PUB. THEN HE MOVED IN WITH DAVID BADDIEL. NOW HE'S GOT HIS OWN TV SHOW. BUT WHAT WILL BBC 1 MAKE OF `THE BILLY GRAHAM OF ANAL SEX'?; 4 The twinkle of mischief can have a dark edge when the constraints of broadcasting are lifted 4
Sunday 27 August 1995
There is a pause for the time it takes Frank Skinner to think of something funny and pertinent to say, which is not very long. "This country's come a long way since the Jeremy Thorpe trial," he muses. "I remember my parents being perfectly happy with the idea of a bloke in court charged with hiring a hitman to kill a former male model, but the idea of two men having a sexual relationship they found absolutely outrageous." It is this very buttoned-upness, still widely, if erroneously, believed to be the essence of our national character, that Frank Skinner's comedy seeks to undo.
The bare facts of Frank's 38 years are already in the public domain. Blue-collar Black Country born and bred, he was expelled from school at 16 for trying to establish a black market in recycled dinner tickets. He escaped factory work via night school to do a degree - then an MA - in English literature. He then taught at a further education college, but not before seeing the Sex Pistols play live (because he was the only one shouting for more, Johnny Rotten shook his hand and said thank you) and singing with an early incarnation of the Birmingham punk-rock demi-legends The Prefects.
Some years later, the Skinner showbiz odyssey began in earnest. After a trip to the Edinburgh Festival in 1986 he realised he didn't want to wake up old not having had a go himself, and began to tell jokes in public. Another performer - "a dog act" - was already registered at Equity under Frank's real name (Chris Collins), so after a career-threatening flirtation with Wes Bromwich, he borrowed Frank Skinner from a man in his pub dominoes team. And now he lives a bizarre fantasy bachelor existence as David Baddiel's lodger, getting paid lots of money to talk about football on TV.
As befits a man who believes that full disclosure is the surest form of discretion, Frank Skinner is at his most forthcoming in front of an audience. Here are three of the things he says into a clump of whirring tape-recorders at his champagne and bacon sandwich press launch in the London Palladium bar. On the drink problem he shrugged off in his late twenties: "Alcoholic is a big word, but I'd have a hard time defending myself against it in court". On his short-lived marriage to a student at one of the colleges he taught at: "I should have known it wouldn't work out when I discovered the wedding was on the same day as Jerry Lewis's birthday". On forsaking his working-class roots for the Hampstead high life: "I'd rather be looked down on than beaten up".
Skinner's ability to make a joke out of more or less anything doesn't mean he has no feelings. He used to be upset by interviewers' reluctance to mention his education - "They obviously thought `Well, that clouds the issue a bit'." The very British delusion that self-improvement and integrity are somehow incompatible also colours criticism of Fantasy Football's broadening of the catchment area of the people's game. "It's the same when you see new people coming to grounds, there's always the miserable bloke who says, `Where were you against Shrewsbury?' I think, `No, let 'em come'."
Skinner's willingness to flout the linguistic and gender-political proprieties of the alternative era may have been a big factor in his crossover success, but his adherence to its cult of the writer/ performer is as strict as anyone's. The topical nature of his new show - pilot looking good, but first edition still to be completed - might seem to call for assistance, but Frank will have none of it. "For me personally," he says firmly, "being a comedian is having funny ideas and saying them: it's not just saying them. I need the complete process."
This is how he describes the contrasting demands of live and television audiences - "it's the difference between being funny with your mates in the pub and being funny at your gran's house." The funny thing is that some people are at their best at their gran's house. The twinkle of mischief which came across so well even on Wogan, Gag Tag and Do the Right Thing - BBC1's otherwise fairly lamentable attempts to introduce Frank Skinner to a small-screen public - can have a dark edge to it when the constraints of broadcasting are lifted.
There is no malice whatsoever in the affable dexterity with which Skinner fillets a crowd of its tastiest victims. "I like to think I can spot pretty early someone who doesn't enjoy it," he says benignly. "I don't want anyone to go away squirming." But those who say there is no cruelty in his comedy just haven't been paying attention. Skinner himself seems aware of this, quietly dropping the David Rappaport suicide material from his live set for example - "I read in the paper that part of the problem was that he felt he was being typecast, which although it is partly tragic is surely partly comic as well" - because it made people uneasy.
He still seems to draw a very dark line between male and female. "Do I?" Frank asks, soft brown eyes glinting harder for a moment, "I'm not disputing it. That's a genuine question." There is a strong sense, especially in the anal sex material (of which there is a profusion in Skinner's live show) of men and women being animals that are implacably opposed. It comes across as if the appealing thing about that particular act is that it is designed not to give women pleasure. "But lots of women have told me that they do get pleasure from it!" he insists. "Perhaps we could open the piece with some quotes? I'd hate to think that it sounds like some terrible misogynist putting women in their place by not letting them orgasm."
"The joy for me in the anal sex material," he continues, pausing to savour the absurdity of this sentence-opening, "is that I'm not a comic with a message, but I do think that its a bit tragic that there are so many sexual no-go areas - even in conversation. I do like to think that if people don't try anal sex on the strength of that material, they will at least talk about it." He pauses before concluding with a cackling flourish, "I am the Billy Graham of anal sex."
Frank Skinner is one of those people who seem to get further away the closer you get to them. His most personal work on television - the Channel 4 sitcom Blue Heaven, which he describes as "a love-letter to the Black Country in a lot of ways", and was a moving reflection of his feelings for his parents, who both died within a few months of each other five years ago - did not get a second series. But bluff and cheeky on a BBC1 sofa, he will no doubt be in his element. I know that he is a big Catholic, and I wanted to ask him how he feels about going to confession, but it would have seemed rude.
8 `The Frank Skinner Show' begins next Sunday, BBC1 10pm
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