As West Midlands stand-up comic, actor, writer, DJ and TV presenter Frank Skinner set off on a major 35-date UK tour following a successful theatre run in London, writewyattuk managed an audience with him – and got to tackle everything from England’s World Cup chances and West Brom’s highs and lows to music, alcoholism, fatherhood and retirement.
I confessed that I had contemplated doing it ‘unplanned’ in homage to his past unscripted ventures with comedy partner David Baddiel, but hadn’t had the confidence to go through with it.
His response was typically candid, that personable yet sharp edge there from the very start, unsullied by the years.
“You should have lied to me. How could I have possibly known?”
So does he put much work into his live show, or is that pretty much unscripted?
“There are always elements, because I always talk to the crowd. But you never know. For example, a woman spoke to me the other night and sounded like she had an American accent.
“I said, ‘are you from America?’ and she replied, ‘no, Iraq’. That was probably the wrongest guess anyone has ever made.
“The audience was laughing for about a minute, because of the awkwardness of the thing.
“Obviously, that kind of thing is unpredictable. We also had a succession of people in from ‘90s indie bands. I had in someone from Then Jericho, then someone the following night from Go West.”
Did he not have any Then Jericho gags up his sleeve then?
“No, strangely enough. And the problem is, you’ll say something that gets a huge laugh sometimes and think ‘I’ll never be able to use that gag again.
“But there’s something nicely decadent about one-off jokes.”
I can’t imagine the 57-year-old getting nervous though.
“Well, when you first start putting together a show, and you’re trying out lots of new stuff, it would be very odd not to be nervous.
“You’re trying out something you’re aware of, as it’s been in the notebook for a while, but then have share it for the first time at one of those early gigs.
“In the old days doing the clubs, I’d do 10-minute sets, but this time I did an hour of new material. If none of it had worked, that would have been a difficult moment.
“No matter how long you’ve been doing comedy, you never know what people are going to laugh at – until they’ve laughed at it.”
Now he’s on to the nationwide section of the tour, including two nights at Preston Guild Hall, where I was set to see him. Did he have any particular memories of past Preston visits?
“Well yes, I always remember Preston being a good gig. I think I did five minutes about Tom Finney last time, which of course I won’t be doing this time.
“Sir Tom was a bloke my Dad used to talk about with a far-away look in his eye, so when that was all on the news, I felt genuinely sad. Partly because it made me feel about my Dad, but partly it was like old football had died a bit as well.”
I mentioned to Frank how – supposedly – thousands of supporters would walk ‘off Deepdale’ on matchdays if they were officially told that Sir Tom wasn’t playing.
“Really? I don’t think there’s any player who could inspire that today … and certainly not at £70 a ticket.”
Frank is of course well known for his love of football, his stint alongside David Baddiel on Fantasy Football League even leading to a No.1 recorded with Ian Broudie, of Lightning Seeds fame, during Euro ’96.
He’s a big West Bromwich Albion fan, not least as it’s the club that brought his parents together.
Frank’s dad was a semi-pro footballer with County Durham’s Spennymoor United when they played a pre-war FA Cup match at West Brom. After the game, he met a local girl out on the town, and soon went about re-settling in the West Midlands.
Frank was born Christopher Graham Collins, with his parents using his middle name while his mates – to this day – call him Chris.
The name Frank Skinner was ‘borrowed’ from one of his dad’s old dominoes team members. So have the original Frank’s family ever approached you about that?
“Interestingly, they sent me a photo of his grave, which I had on my cork-board in my kitchen. In the end, my girlfriend asked me to take it down.
“That was my one contact. But I must get that sorted out and made into a t-shirt.”
Before he became a comedian, Frank was an English lecturer. I put it to him that if he’d stuck with that career, he might have taken early retirement by now.
“I think my plan now is to go on now for ever and ever. I think comedians can be old and people think it’s all right, in a way that they don’t when musicians are old.
“No one does zimmer frame jokes the way they do with The Rolling Stones. The idea is that with age comes wisdom, and maybe that makes you funnier. But with music, you just think, ‘oh, stop it now’.
“If I was still an English lecturer I might have been thinking early retirement. But I’m thinking late retirement now.”
While he’s been on the road as a comedian for 27 years now, Frank has also been ‘on the wagon’ for quarter of a century too, as a recovering alcoholic. Does he think he could still fall back into those old ways after a couple of swift ones?
“Definitely. I’ve always got that to fall back on! For years, I would always keep drink in the house, just in case I suddenly woke up at three in the morning and thought, ‘do you know what …’
“But now in this era of the 24-hour supermarket, there’s no need for that. I know I could get somewhere quick.
“I’ve been drinking non-alcoholic wine, lately, which I think is a bit of a dangerous road, if you start to like the feel of a glass in your hand. But I can’t really remember what real wine tastes like now.
“What’s nice about it, is that it doesn’t taste like sweet, fizzy pop – which I’ve drunk a lot of over the last 25 years. That’s one of the problems of being on the wagon – most soft drinks are designed for seven-year-olds. I like something a bit more bitter.”
“He’ll always have a place in my heart, and I have a 22-month-old son who can say ‘Elvis’. Only because we’ve got a set of mugs with him on, mind. He always points at them and says ‘Elvis’.
Could it just be his way of saying ‘drink’?
I was listening to Frank’s appearance on BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs, and like John Peel he raved a little about Mark E Smith and his music. Is he still slightly obsessed with The Fall?
“On my radio show I play a lot of what I’d call ‘popular music’, and it’s just nice to hear something that sounds different, and not just the old formula being banged out.”
We’re soon back on to football, and I ask him about his thoughts on this season at the Hawthorns.
“I think at the moment Pepe Mel’s just looking to keep his job. Particularly after what happened at Fulham.
“One thing they never do in football is substitute a substitute. But I think that’s what they’re starting to do with managers now.”
In his autobiography, Frank talked about one of his first special moments in football, witnessing a mighty Tony ‘Bomber’ Brown finish for West Brom in the late ’70s. Has anything come close to that in the last couple of years?
“These have been fantastic times. This season bears no relation to the last couple. Roy Hodgson – whatever you might think of him as an England manager – was fantastic for us.
“That continued, and it’s been an absolute blast these last two or three seasons. It’s just that something’s gone a bit wrong at the moment.”
I’m guessing he’s still a season-ticket holder. Does Frank get to many matches these days?
“When I go to a match, I leave at midday and get back at eight at night. So I’ve seen a lot less.”
Has Buzz Cody – Frank’s son – had his first match yet?
“Not yet. He hasn’t had his industrial ear-plugs fitted yet, so I haven’t been able to take him.”
I used this as an excuse to mention how I’d taken my eldest daughter to a match in a carry-cot in the early days, albeit with plenty of room on the terraces to put her carefully down.
His response was something of an audible gasp, but only when I let on that my team was Conference outfit Woking.
This was – for those who don’t know their football history – because of a certain fateful day in early 1991 when my boys won 4-2 at the Hawthorns in the FA Cup third round, Tim Buzaglo scoring a hat-trick against beleaguered Brian Talbot’s Albion side.
The best way I can describe his reaction to me re-opening that wound was an ‘oh gawwww’, quite refined by his own past sweary standards. He wasn’t finished though.
“And we all know what their golden moment was, of course.”
Was he there that day?
“I wasn’t, I’m very glad to say! Albion fans still talk about it though. Can you believe that?”
I told him that a few Baggies fans followed us for years to come, if we were in the Midlands or nearby, seeing that defeat as something of a redefining moment in the club’s proud history.
“It was. Definitely. It was a historical turning point.
But he’d still rather forget about it?
“Yes. Of course!”
Staying on the subject of football, what does he think of England’s chances of success in Brazil at this summer’s World Cup?
I tell him I like us being an underdog though. There’s not much worse than being expected to succeed.
“I also think one plus is that the worse we play in World Cups is when we play not very good teams, and at least we’re in a strong group.
“At least we get to play some proper teams this time … so maybe we’ll play some proper football.”
Will he be doing a Fantasy Football League revival show with David (Baddiel) to mark the occasion?
Frank’s CV also include lead parts in two sitcoms – Blue Heaven, from 1994, about an aspiring singer who dreams of breaking free from the Birmingham bar scene, and Shane, from 2004, about a middle-aged taxi driver and his long-suffering family.
Rumour has it he wrote second series for both, with Shane only held up by contractual problems.
“I never wrote a second series of Blue Heaven. But I like that as a rumour – the great lost sitcom!
So could he be inspired to go back to Blue Heaven?
“I never really thought about that, but the guy who played my best friend (Conleth Hill) became an incredibly close friend. In fact, he’s one of Buzz’s godfathers.
“He’s now in Game of Thrones, so he’s done well for himself. Maybe we could revisit that. If we do, I’ll give you a credit.”
The BBC’s Room 101 has kept Frank on our screens for a while. I was trying to recall if he ever appeared on the original Nick Hancock version.
“I did – for the radio and TV versions. On the TV one I got in ‘tubes in meat’. You know when you eat meat and there’s those horrible rubbery things – like main arteries.
“They managed to find me a nice example, which I attempted to play, like a beef harmonica.”
I’ve watched that episode again since, and I can confirm that it’s a classic, making you realise just how great the series was back then.
“I’m someone who really likes history, but don’t know much about it. So I thought I could either google it, or do a radio show!
“It’s really a show in which I learn about history by asking a lot of odd questions, alongside a proper historian and a couple of guests each week.”
This is of course from a man who in his autobiography said Radio 4 was something he equated with death. So is this the end for him?
“That is true. I also mentioned that if I ever said I was passionate about radio you’d know my career was through. So read into that what you will.”
Frank was involved in the recent Dr Who 50th anniversary celebrations too. Does he still hold out hope of getting that gig – maybe following on from Peter Capaldi?
“Well, I said I would quite happily play a lunar rock, and I haven’t even had that phone call. I did however do one of the audio adventures for the ‘eighth Doctor’.
“That’s part of the Dr Who cannon, so I am officially part of that world.”
In 2008, Frank dropped swearing from his set. Is that still the case?
“No. It was a temporary experiment!”
Has he a new responsibility on that front, brought on by Buzz’s arrival?
“I suppose I have a new responsibility to him, but I don’t feel that affects my set. I don’t talk about my fatherhood. Having said that, I might by the time I get to Preston.
“I’ve always been very wary of comedians talking about nappies and all that stuff. I’ve avoided that. But who knows, I’m still constantly tweaking.”
So what’s being a dad like, after all these years? Has it changed his routine?
“I think it’s fair to day it has. It’s hard work, but much funnier than I thought it would be. The other day he did an impression of me doing an impression of Louis Armstrong. I’ve never felt so proud.”
A beautiful moment.
“Exactly. I’m absolutely convinced he’s going to be a stand-up comedian. I can’t even consider anything else.”
“It’s made life easier. I like being able to meet an attractive woman now and not have to think, ‘right, how am I going to make this work?’
“It’s much more relaxing, and I like being spoken for. It’s great going round and chasing … you know, various sexual activities, but it’s quite hard work.
“And I don’t think I have the knees for it now.”
Frank’s a practising Roman Catholic too (and I guess there’s a link there somewhere).
“I am. My regular parish is St Mary’s in Hampstead. Actually, I was just talking to (TV presenter and fellow Baggies fan) Adrian Chiles yesterday and last Lent he went to church every day, so we were talking about the possibility of doing that. But whether I’ll get around to it, I’m not sure.”
So – actor, stand-up, TV and radio presenter, writer – what’s Frank’s greatest accolade out of all that lot?
“When I first started, I saw my name in a listings magazine in London, Time Out, and it said, ‘Frank Skinner, comedian’. I was very, very proud of that. That’s still my best-ever accolade.”
Finally, with Frank now just three years off 60, what does he reckon he’ll be doing by then?
“I’ll probably be talking to you about my next tour.“
* Frank’s Man in a Suit tour is heading all over the UK at present, leading up to dates at the Brighton Centre on June 1 and a two-night finale at Manchester Apollo on June 5/6. For details, try here.
* For a live review of Frank at Preston Guild Hall, head here.
* This is a revised and expanded version of a recent Malcolm Wyatt feature for the Lancashire Evening Post. For the original article, try here.