Profile, Frank Skinner: A bloke for all seasons

Something dark lurks behind the loutish charm of the lad who is now at the centre of a multi-million TV bidding war
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The Independent Online
He came to our screens through Fantasy Football, a television programme which grabbed the imagination of football-crazy England at the time of the European and World Cups. This way, we could win, even if the national team could not. Frank Skinner and his friend and partner David Baddiel became living-room favourites - their laddishness reinforcing the egotism of the men, their loutish charm attracting the women, and their rather lost and forlorn look appealing to the mums.

They've now gone their different ways: Skinner to a fully fledged personality chat show which has made him, right now, flavour of the month for the TV moguls. Fantasy Football has been translated into Fantasy Television. In this, instead of pretending to be a football manager, you pretend to be a TV channel. And instead of buying players, you buy actors and presenters. Some BBC executives must wish they were playing this game instead of living it. In recent months they've lost Des Lynam to ITV and Barry Norman to Sky, and Ross Kemp is moving to ITV when he leaves Albert Square. And who did the BBC pay a million for? Vanessa Feltz. Now Skinner - having repositioned himself as a major, if rather dubious, cultural icon - is on the transfer market.

The last series of The Frank Skinner Show attracted a regular nine million viewers, making it the BBC's highest rated light entertainment programme of the last quarter. The corporation is keen to sign him up for another series. So are ITV and Channel 4. A bidding war was declared last week, and the stakes have risen to pounds 1 million. Compared to the Feltz deal, this would seem like money well spent, but Skinner - the male winner of 1998's Rear of the Year award - is not a copper-bottomed investment.

Neither his early cabaret series, Packet Of Three, nor his sitcom, My Blue Heaven, were gold-starred successes. Even his chat show has been hit and miss. When Skinner flirts with Sporty Spice or Drew Barrymore's mother, his cheekiness and wit are irresistible. But if you saw him trying to wrench responses out of Britain's most tattooed woman or failing to think of any decent questions for Michael Palin, you'll know he's not a consistent player. And his stock-in-trade laddishness is losing its appeal, certainly in the magazine market.

He also has a streak of nastiness, as seen in his treatment of Tara Palmer- Tomkinson. When she appeared on his show clearly not at her best, he ridiculed her relentlessly - days later she took herself off to an American drug rehabilitation clinic. Then there was his merciless harassment of Alan Hansen, the generally respected TV football pundit. Anthea Turner did not escape either. When she appeared Skinner became obsessed with a sequence from an old programme in which she was knocked over by a pyrotechnic device. He showed the clip more than once - and with obvious glee.

It was the reductio ad absurdum of a trend which began on Fantasy Football when Karen Brady, boss of Birmingham City Football Club, was given a hard time over an old relationship with David Sullivan, a publisher of soft pornography. There is a darker side behind the breezy chat, which men seem more ready to forgive than women, who often see a misogynist behind the wolfish grin. Frank Skinner is without doubt one of those people, a bit like John Peel, whom you either like regardless or cannot stand at any price.

Still, as the England squad know, you don't have to be consistent to be a national hero, and that's what Skinner has been for many ever since he wrote and performed "Three Lions", England's Euro '96 anthem, with David Baddiel and the Lightning Seeds. The record topped the chart and sold a million copies. Two years later, it was revised for the World Cup and went to number one again. But if the song had been performed by Baddiel and the Lightning Seeds, one suspects, it wouldn't have done half as well. It's Skinner, not his colleague, who is the man of the people. He is one of us chaps, only funnier. Despite the inner voices counselling otherwise, he seems to sustain the image of the Good Bloke. Every TV channel wants him because every viewer wants to have a pint with him.

The paradox is that Skinner hasn't had a pint himself for 12 years. Nor, he says, does he ever touch drugs. A further dent to his blokeish image is that he is a practising Roman Catholic. According to a neighbour, he is "utterly devout - the Tablet [the leading Catholic periodical] comes through the door every week." Another friend adds that "while David has got this reputation of being an intellectual and so on, Frank conceals the fact that he is an intellectual, too." Skinner has an MA in English literature from Warwick University; and, most sacrilegiously of all, football is not the only sport Skinner loves. As well as having a season ticket to West Bromwich Albion, he has one to Warwickshire County Cricket Club.

"Frank is always going back to his roots," says Nica Burns, director of the Perrier award. "At this year's Edinburgh fringe, he signed up to perform in the Pleasance Cabaret Bar, with tickets at pounds 5. Frank has absolutely no need to perform in a 150-seater room at such a low price, but he likes to keep in touch with his audience. What he talks about are the ordinary things in life. He's a populist through and through." Skinner's more ambitious side could be seen when he cancelled his run at the Pleasance to star in Art at Wyndham's Theatre in the West End.

It is this dichotomy - all these dichotomies - that make him unique. No one else can be embraced by a young, PC audience while telling blue jokes that would make Roy "Chubby" Brown blush. No one else can balance so deftly between alternative and traditional comedy, between populism and Art. At 42, he appeals to audiences decades younger and older than he is. On TV he is the grannies' favourite, but in his stand-up shows he proselytises for anal sex, sometimes including a 20-minute section on how to persuade your girlfriend into that dark art.

Last year Skinner told the Independent: "My audiences expect football and sex - with good reason. If you start wanting to be seen as subtle and clever, you're on the slippery slope to writing a novel - mentioning no names." David Baddiel might be the novelist of the partnership, but that doesn't stop Skinner being the subtle and clever one.

Skinner is not his real name. The original Frank Skinner used to play in a dominos team in Smethwick, near Birmingham, with a factory worker called John Collins who had a son called Chris. When Chris set out to make it in showbiz he decided that his own name wasn't as suitable as his dad's mate's.

John Collins had encouraged his son to go for a television career since he was a young boy, but there were long delays on the way. As a teenager, Chris spent less time on school work than on singing in punk bands. In his twenties, he drifted between factory jobs and unemployment. He has said that he started drinking at 14, and was an alcoholic by 21. One of his teenage bands was named Olde English, after the cider. On Skinner's 30th birthday, he says, "a friend's girlfriend asked me what it was like to be 30 and on the scrapheap." He went back to Catholicism, which he'd abandoned at 17, changed his name and took up comedy.

The comedian Steve Best opened for Skinner on his 1997 tour. "Frank is very professional, very ambitious, and his mind is very much on the job in hand," he says. "He's not a big party person, but he loves the showbizzy side in that he's great with his public. He'd perform for 1,500 people a night, and he'd always have time to meet fans afterwards."

In 1991, Skinner poured his life savings - a few hundred pounds - into putting on a show at the Edinburgh fringe. He won the Perrier award. It was at the fringe the following year that he became friends with David Baddiel. Shortly afterwards, Skinner came to stay in Baddiel's spare room in Hampstead, north London, for a couple of nights. He didn't move out for five years. Baddiel once said that their only disagreements came when one of them wanted the living room to himself to watch porn videos and the other one refused to leave.

The friendship was the basis of Fantasy Football: the studio was designed to resemble their bachelor pad and the tone of the programme was set by their easy chat. It was only when Baddiel wanted his girlfriend to move in that Skinner moved out. Aged 40, he finally bought a house of his own, 100 yards up the road.

Skinner does not seem to have much time for the trappings of fame. His apparent surprise and delight about being in television is one reason why so many warm to him. But he makes no secret of enjoying the company of admirers, even if they are drawn to him only by his fame. In his serious and sometimes morose moments, he feels guilty about the years he has wasted. He also continues to be haunted by the death of his parents, which occurred just before he became famous.

He says that his deepest regret is that they aren't around to benefit from the money he has earned. He is upset, too, about being a divorced Catholic. Lisa, 14 years his junior, separated from Skinner in 1990 after a 10-month marriage. Finally, of course, there is alcohol, which he dreams about every day. The paradoxes and dichotomies abound. He is one of a kind and yet he is Everybloke, a man for all seasons - and, it seems, all channels.