Frank Skinner: Frank and fearless

Frank Skinner's new sitcom is full of gags, as you'd expect from the king of earthy humour. But he has a darker edge too, he tells Gerard Gilbert
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The Independent Online

We're 15 minutes into our interview and it becomes clear that Frank Skinner thinks I'm from The Sun. He's telling me he has a friend who reckons Skinner should date another celebrity for a change, and he's wondering which one. Who did I think Sun readers would choose for Frank Skinner?

We're 15 minutes into our interview and it becomes clear that Frank Skinner thinks I'm from The Sun. He's telling me he has a friend who reckons Skinner should date another celebrity for a change, and he's wondering which one. Who did I think Sun readers would choose for Frank Skinner?

"Jordan?" I venture. They would make, in Sun-speak, a great pair.

When Skinner realises I'm not from the nation's favourite tabloid, he seems genuinely annoyed with the PR. Would he have been any different if he'd known I was from The Independent? "Well, I would have used longer words for a start," he says.

Words like duality, perhaps? On the one hand, there is Frank Skinner, the godfather of lad-mag humour, and the man largely responsible for turning football into seemingly the only topic of male conversation, while introducing gags about anal sex to prime-time ITV. While, on the other, is Frank Skinner the devout Catholic and teetotaller, who read Isaiah for Lent and has an MA on Samuel Johnson. And then again, there is the Frank Skinner who can make a joke about mentally handicapped people, while being simultaneously offended by the blasphemy in Jerry Springer: The Opera. It's a duality that is also evident in his description of his new ITV sitcom, Shane.

"My rationale was - if Samuel Beckett wrote a Carry On film," he says when describing his latest creation, a "working-class sitcom" that, to the untrained scholar , bears many similarities to Steptoe and Son, Till Death Us Do Part and Rising Damp.

Shane, however, is clearly a novice sitcom writer's work, especially in characterisation. Skinner plays the London taxi driver, but much of the writing is simply a structure on which Skinner can hang his jokes. And what he does do well is jokes - punchlines, or "aphorisms' as he calls them now he knows I'm not from The Sun.

"I write jokes," he says. "I try to do character stuff, but I'm still learning that. My natural instinct is to write - bang - jokes."

This is why he decided to film Shane the old-fashioned way, recording it in front of a studio audience. "There is a feeling now that if you make a studio-audience, multi-camera sitcom, you're kind of taking a backward step, and that the future is The Office or The Royle Family. But if you're going to write stuff like mine, then you might as well put it in front of an audience."

The self-penned theme tune to Shane is called: "There must be something better than this" - a gift to the critics, we both agree. "You have to accept that you are putting your genitals on the chopping-block when you make a sitcom, because the sweetest, most mild-mannered reviewers seem to get out their double-handed swords for sitcom reviews," he says. "The fact is that I didn't want to write a cult classic. I wanted to write something that lots of people would watch."

There never has been anything remotely "cult' or "alternative' about Skinner. He's just kept on telling the same sort of jokes he told at the glass factory where he worked in the West Midlands, where he grew up. Or down the pub. Even when he decided, aged 30, to stop drinking and turn professional, he eschewed the sort of political humour popular in the late Thatcher years. "Mine were the same jokes I did in the factory. One comic described me as symptomatic of the new right."

"The new laddism" would have been more apposite. Skinner is currently shut away with his Fantasy Football writing partner and former flat-mate, David Baddiel (they live only 500 yards from each other in north London), preparing a new series for Euro 2004.

Not that Skinner, a life-long West Bromwich Albion fan, is sure that he approves of football's new-found universal appeal. "I was a bit horrified when I read that it was Fantasy Football, Fever Pitch and Gazza crying that brought the middle classes into football," he says. "I do yearn for the days when I first started going, because it felt like we had this secret fantastic world, what the football writer Hugh McIlvanney called 'working-class theatre'.

"I did once say - which was a mistake - that one good thing about football hooliganism was that it kept middle-class people and women away from matches. I got roundly condemned for saying that, but it was meant in a provocative way."

It would be easy to conclude that Skinner has a chip on his shoulder. He tells me, when we wonder why British drunks are more violent than other countries' drunks: "I put everything down to the class system."

But he says: "No. I think I'm quite broad-minded. Now that I've met posh people, I think you meet some you like and some you don't. Dave [Baddiel] is kind of Oxbridge, and people say to me that it must piss me off that he had all that privilege. But I think it's great."

Another accusation is that Skinner has a dodgy attitude to the opposite sex. A former girlfriend, Caroline Feraday, told a tabloid that Skinner was scared of intelligent women, and he once infamously described women over the age of 30 as "rough as old arseholes".

"At the time I had been out with about three women in their twenties, which I thought was a showbiz tradition, and someone asked me why. And I said, 'Once you get women over the age of 30, all the good ones are taken, basically. And what's left tend to be as rough as old arseholes.' Which I thought was a reasonable point. I see you're not convinced..."

A recent interview suggested that Skinner had given up on girlfriends - that he's "fed up with watching people cry". Is this true? "Well, I'm profoundly single at the moment." Which is where his mate's idea of him dating a celebrity comes in. "It's like teachers go out with teachers," Skinner says. "But I don't know how celebrities get together. I suppose it's through drink and drugs - that lowers your barriers."

As for having children; at 47, he thinks he's left it too late. "Mind you, I watched a documentary about Charlie Chaplin, and they had shots of him with his kids when he was about 80, and he just used all his old routines on them, knocking his bowler hat off and stuff. But then he had the advantage of being a visual performer. I couldn't do 25 minutes on anal sex for my 10-year-old."

Like many of the best gags in Shane, Skinner is resolutely non-PC. He does, however, call himself a "moral comedian".

"I'm prepared to stand by what I say. Like when I interviewed Matthew Kelly on my chat show, and he asked if I felt bad about all those jokes about him being a paedophile now he'd been proven innocent. But he admitted, I think, that he did Michael Jackson jokes in private, but would never do one on telly. That's my point. If I do a joke with my mates, I'll probably do it on telly as well. In a way, it's less hypocritical."

And not for Skinner the rhetoric and dogma of Alcoholics Anonymous. He's been sober since 24 September 1986 (to be exact), at which stage he was drinking Pernod for breakfast. But he jokes that "if my career fails, there's always alcoholism to fall back on".

In the meantime, the only alcohol that passes his lips is the communion wine. At Easter, after reading Isaiah, Skinner watched Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, which he thinks is not as violent as the critics have said. "Less so than Kill Bill, for example."

He says: "I found Isaiah quite hard work. It's prophecy, but there's lots of references to historical stuff - the invasion of the Assyrians, lots of names - but it has got the word 'piss' in it, which surprised me. It's quite dramatic when it comes. The only laugh in the Bible is when God says to Isaac that his wife is going to get pregnant - and she's about 80 - so Isaac says to the wife, 'I spoke to God today and you're going to have a baby', and she laughs.

"I think about that when people say to me that my sitcom is a bit dark: that the one laugh in the Bible is in fact quite a twisted laugh. That woman is partly laughing at fate, and partly at the hopelessness of being an old woman who wants a child. It's quite a dark laugh. You see, I wouldn't have said that to the bloke from The Sun."

'Shane' is broadcast on ITV1 on Wednesdays at 10pm