Frankie Boyle: interview
In a no-holds-barred interview, the embattled comedian and 'Mock the Week' star sets the record straight about what breed of dog Rebecca Adlington resembles, those pesky heart attack rumours, how the BBC is helping to destroy TV and why he wants to feel prouder of what he does.
We're here to talk about the comedian's new autobiography, 'My Shit Life So Far'. But, as if to prove his point, this week the pessimistic Scot has made the headlines for other reasons. Forget Sachsgate. Right now it's Adlingtongate. The furore has been sparked by comments he made about double-Olympic-gold-winning swimmer Rebecca Adlington on 'Mock the Week', where he observed that she looked 'like someone who's looking at themselves in the back of a spoon', and that, on account of her boyfriend being 'really attractive', she must be 'very dirty'. There has also been controversy over comments he made about the Queen (in another 'Mock the Week', first broadcast in 2007 but which only attracted significant complaints when it was repeated in 2008 during the Sachsgate row), where he cracked a joke about Her Maj being so old her 'pussy is haunted'. So, is he feeling the slightest bit sorry about any of this? Not exactly…
The BBC Trust's Editorial Standards Committee found remarks you'd made about Rebecca Adlington in August 2008 to be 'offensive and not clearly editorially justified'.
'It was all bollocks. Especially when you consider we're fighting two wars, there's fucking swine flu and the global economy is going down the toilet. There's all this stuff that people expect you to talk about, and what do the production team send us? A picture of Rebecca Adlington. And then they tell us to write jokes about her. Our top story was the British Olympic team returning home. We'd talked about them for five weeks yet still had to joke about them getting off a plane. What are you going to write about, apart from the fact that she looks like a beagle? What else is there? Their tracksuits? The shutter speed the photographers were using?'
The commissioning editor of the series said she had raised concerns about including your comments but had 'been unable to obtain the edits she would have preferred'. What does that mean?
'I don't know. I've got no complaints about the editing of the show. I always got frustrated when stuff was left out, but loads of things also went through that I was sure would never make it to air. The real problem is that they ask us to cover that light, frothy stuff and you're expected to find something in it. There's nothing intrinsically funny about 'Things you wouldn't say during a driving test' or a Norwich by-election - so you'd better hope that someone looks weird or there's some bizarre angle. Oddly this lack of meaning tends to make the comedy more extreme. If we were allowed to do stuff about equipment shortages in Afghanistan or the swine flu vaccination programme there would be more intrinsic interest for the audience and we wouldn't need to hook them in so much. We could be gentler, more whimsical and much more sophisticated with it. But in the end they get what they ask for.'
But did you agree with the committee that the comments were 'humiliating', and 'exacerbated by the fact that she had not sought celebrity status or courted media attention'?
'Who gives a fuck? Can you imagine anyone reading that and actually giving a fuck? We had 75 people complain out of some 5 million viewers. It's disheartening. Who are these people? What authority do they have to judge comedy? There are bridges people shouldn't be allowed to cross, but it now feels like we're back in the 1970s in terms of compliance. British people have a really sophisticated sense of humour, because we're exposed to much more than Europeans and Americans, not least in our literary heritage. We have decoding software which allows us to process complex issues: “Did they mean that in a bad way? Answer: Oh no, they didn't.” The average British person would hear me doing my joke about Rebecca Adlington and realise there's no malice in it. It was an off-the-cuff ad lib.'
Were you surprised that one joke has received so much attention?
'Aye, it's probably the least offensive thing I've ever said on the programme. As George Monbiot says about the media, war makes better copy than peace. Indignation is a bit like that for columnists and papers. It's much easier to write indignant, horrible things about people, and if there's nothing to be indignant about you just manufacture it.'
Another comment that caused a certain amount of 'indignation' was the one you made about the Queen's pussy being haunted. In your autobiography you go further, saying: 'Who gives a fuck about the royals? They're innately ridiculous and, according to David Icke, big white superlizards with shovel-shaped heads.'
'If the Queen doesn't want comedians like me to do gags about her - which a lot of people laugh at, I should add - and wants to be some beloved Scandinavian-type monarch, she should pay her fucking taxes, simple as that. [Editor's note: Actually, Frankie is wrong. Since 1993 the Queen has paid tax.] Do something good. But nobody in charge of television wants to hear real political comment. The number one priority in TV comedy today is “Don't frighten the horses”, and it's probably numbers two and three as well. Talent is probably number four and politics and having a point of view is fucking nowhere. Unfortunately that's also true for a lot of comedians. If you look at the scheduling these days, it's all just celebrities meeting meerkats. It's almost purposely dull. I love the BBC and I think it's a really important thing. But if it doesn't start producing more engaging content, a lot of people won't fucking watch it any more; they'll just migrate to the internet.'
Is that why you decided to leave 'Mock the Week'?
'For the past couple of years I've really felt I've just been going through the motions. There are only so many things you wouldn't say to a driving instructor. Somebody else can have a go at that shit. Though it was a good experience in a lot of ways. All the guys on there were fucking great.'
Also in your book you say that: 'TV's just a shiny bauble used to distract morons while they're having their pockets picked.' Did you feel you were contributing to that?
'Fucking constantly - all the fucking time. You're torn by it. It's like that Karl Marx thing: “We make history but not in the conditions of our own choosing.” So you make the best of what you're offered. I've been working for the past few years to get myself into a position where I can do what I want, so now I've got to give it a try. At the moment I'm writing stuff about Iraq and Iran and about the world's paranoia. But getting out of the celebrity side of show business is one of my top priorities.'
There were worries that you nearly 'left' comedy for good just before one of your last recordings of 'Mock the Week', after you collapsed. The rumours were that you'd had a heart attack…
'Nah, I was just fucked. I'd been doing this burst for about four years: gigging, working six days a week, and it just caught up with me. I didn't collapse. There happened to be an ambulance crew at the studios because they were doing some kind of stunt on “Blue Peter”. I went up to them and went: “I feel really fucking rough, man. I've got chest pains.” So they took me to the hospital just to be on the safe side. But by the time I got the all-clear Wikipedia had already announced my death. That's pretty cool, though, isn't it? It's a lot better than having rumours about you wagging your dick at someone, or biting a tramp. Besides, we were meant to be doing the Lib Dem conference on the show that week, so I don't really feel the world missed any good gags.'
You've left 'Mock the Week', you've announced that next year's tour will be your last… So what's next?
'I just want to do something that I feel makes a difference. I'm working on a pilot for a sketch show and a sitcom, and, who knows, I might write a novel or a movie. I'm just not sure at the moment, but I know I want to feel more proud of what I do.'
And finally, our editor wanted to know if you'd like to apologise through the pages of Time Out to Rebecca Adlington?
'Fuck you, Mark Frith!'
Frankie Boyle's 'My Shit Life So Far' is out now, published by Harper Collins at £18.99.