Frank Skinner is a breakfast show host, television presenter and co-creator of a modern footballing anthem. But as he prepares for his first live tour in seven years, he tells Sarah Freeman why his first love will always be stand-up. Frank Skinner admits he has a rather romantic notion of himself.
Frank Skinner admits he has a rather romantic notion of himself. Whenever he sits down to write new material he likes to think he cuts the same kind of figure as a Jack Kerouac or an Ernest Hemingway. It’s the reason he doesn’t use a computer. Instead he prefers to pour his thoughts out onto paper using a Biro and while there is no Hemingway-esque half drunk bottle of scotch – Skinner gave up drinking in his late 20s – or overflowing ashtray on his desk, he has found substitutes for the two stock-in-trades of any angst-ridden writer.
“I gave up smoking a few years ago. It was hard, at the end of a gig I liked coming out of a club, lighting a cigarette and turning my collar up against the wind, but I stopped because it’s, well, smoking. However, I’ve now taken up e-cigarettes. When I write I sit there drinking non-alcoholic wine and having a pretend cigarette. Does that sound a little tragic?”
Perhaps, but not quite as much as his next admission.
“My best discovery recently had been Tom Hanks’s typewriter app. Have you got it?,” he says with the genuine enthusiasm of a recent convert. “It means when I do go on the iPad it now actually sounds like a proper typewriter. I just love it. I’ve actually got six manual typewriters and I have tried to use them for scripts, but you know what it’s quite hard work. Typing is the forgotten workout of the 21st century.”
While for much of the 1990s he was at the heart of lad culture, presenting Fantasy Football League with David Baddiel, with whom he also wrote Three Lions, the song which became the anthem for Euro ‘96, there have always been two sides to Skinner. He’s still a regular at his beloved West Brom, but there are few others on the terraces at the Hawthorns with a Masters in English Literature from Warwick University and none who can say they were a one-time president of the Samuel Johnson Society.
As listeners to the Saturday morning show he presents alongside Emily Dean and fellow stand-up Alun Cochrane on Absolute Radio will know, Skinner is also a Doctor Who obsessive. After unashamedly begging for a part in the series, earlier this year he spent eight days on the Cardiff set playing Perkins, chief engineer on a space-age Orient Express whose passengers turn out to include an ancient Egyptian mummy. When we speak it’s the day before the episode is due to air.
“The producers did approach me, but I think they felt they had no choice. I’d gone on and on about it for so long, I think it became easier for them to give me a part than not. I’m obsessed with Doctor Who. I have been since I saw my first episode with William Hartnell. What boy doesn’t like aliens and explosions? But I think it’s also the character of the Doctor. Most heroes tend to be the ones with the muscles, wearing a dirty vest and I always quite liked the fact that the Doctor was this mysterious, largely non-violent man who used his brain. I liked the fact he was he a bit of a spod.
“Once you appear in an episode, that’s it, you are forever a part of Doctor Who, so I am incredibly chuffed. I kid you not I have already watched the two trailers for my episode at least 40 times.”
If there’s one thing Skinner enjoys more than Doctor Who, it’s performing live, and he’s about to start a 23-date UK tour, his first for seven years.
“If I could write enough material I would do stand-up five nights a week, but I can’t, so I have to do other things. Presenting is great, but it’s not the same. To me there is something heroic about stand-up. You’re out there on your own and there’s not many people who can do it well. Reality TV stars don’t come out of the Big Brother house and become comics, they become presenters and there’s a reason for that.”
Skinner took Man in a Suit to this summer’s Edinburgh Festival where it was well received by the critics. Not that he read the reviews. He never does. He says he is too frightened and even four star reviews make him feel like he has fallen short. Skinner is a perfectionist, but he’s also always had an unwavering belief in his ability to make people laugh.
Having grown up dreaming of being a football – his dad had played semi-professional for Spennymoor United – after leaving university he was on the dole for three years. Eventually he found work as a lecturer, but says he knew his future lay elsewhere.
“I honestly never doubted that I would be anything but a success. I was the funniest person I knew, so I imagined it would be easy and I measured my meteoric rise in weeks not months.
“Some people say that’s arrogance, but I prefer to call it self-belief. To be able to walk out on a stage and try to make a group of complete strangers laugh you need a lot of that.”
Skinner’s prediction wasn’t quite right, but it wasn’t far off. He performed his very first set in 1987 and while he died a few times on stage, within the year he had made his TV debut. By the summer of 1991 he was beating Eddie Izzard and Jack Dee to the Perrier Award and the following decade he and Baddiel became TV favourites.
While they haven’t worked together for a number of years, Skinner admits he was worried that those who booked tickets for Man in a Suit might leave disappointed when they didn’t find a football shirt-wearing Frank on stage.
“I do have the sense that half the crowd would be happy with me talking for half an hour about football followed by half an hour of complete filth.
“Not that what I’m doing now is gentle family entertainment. It started off quite clean, but the longer the material is out there, the dirtier I find it becomes.”
He tells an anecdote from his time in Edinburgh. Waiting to cross a road, on the other side he saw a man wearing a T-shirt featuring a topless woman and a Union Jack flag. As we passed each other in the middle of the road, he turned to me and said, ‘Good show last night, Frank’. That’s when I realised, there’s no point denying it, these are my people.
“There is a terrible snobbishness in comedy today where a lot of people don’t like to admit they just tell gags, they want it to be more intellectual than that.”
However, the five years he has spent with Absolute Radio have seen Skinner build a brand-new audience, one which has warmed to a breakfast show which contains occasional references to the English poet AE Housman, the Reformation and Skinner’s own Catholicism. While he stopped going to church as a teenager, he returned around the same time he stopped drinking.
“The radio show is a bit like stand-up in that no one has ever told me what I can or can’t say. I was quite surprised because that’s not how it works in television, but the Absolute management have always trusted me, they know I’m not there to push any obscene boundaries. The only difference is when you’re performing in front of a live audience they can shut you down pretty quickly. I can’t see the listeners, so I always imagine they are killing themselves with laughter.”
Skinner’s material has always been largely autobiographical. On the radio he shares details of rows with his long-term partner Cath and talks openly about the joy of becoming a father two years ago at the age of 55. Barely a show passes without some mention of Buzz – named after the astronaut Buzz Aldrin – but he doesn’t figure in Skinner’s stand-up.
“I’m not sure why that is, maybe it’s because I associate stand-up with being alone, whereas the radio seems more of a family environment. We’ve arranged the tour so that I can get back and see Buzz regularly. It’s entirely selfish. I have no idea whether he misses me, but I pine for him. There is something wonderful about returning to a sleepy house and seeing toys scattered across the floor. Having a child gives you something very solid. Before when I was buying things I didn’t really need I used to wonder whether people with children felt the same way or whether all the gaps in their lives were full.”
While Skinner says he has asked Cath to marry him numerous times she has always refused, fearing it might jinx the relationship which in the early years did have its rockier moments.
“People ask do I regret not having had more children, but all I can say is that I am happy with the one I’ve got. Buzz was the product of a specific moment and had we had children earlier we might not have got him, plus early on in our relationship it would have been morally reprehensible for us to brought children into the world.”
If more evidence were needed of just how Skinner’s life is more settled than it’s ever been, take his post-show routine.
“When you’re a Doctor Who fan and your partner isn’t, there is a finite amount of time you can get away with watching old episodes. When I’m on tour I can watch as many as I want. These days I’m happy hanging out in a hotel room eating fast food and watching DVDs. It’s my equivalent of a man shed.”
• Frank Skinner – Man in a Suit, St George’s Hall, Bradford, November 13; York Grand Opera House, November 19; Doncaster Dome, November 21, Sheffield City Hall, November 25; Hull City Hall, December 19.