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‘You see,’ says Frank Skinner as he releases the bowling ball with extreme precision. ‘Not flamboyant at all.’ The ball smashes into the pins. ‘But,’ he adds with a suggestion of relish, ‘I’m pretty accurate.’ Skinner likes winning. As well as beating the booze – and the odds of a 29-year-old alcoholic from West Bromwich becoming one of our favourite stars – the now 56-year-old comic is responsible for some of our biggest TV hits over the last two decades, from ‘Fantasy Football’ to ‘Room 101’, via a chat show that attracted over ten million viewers.
Now he’s expanding his range with a new Sky Arts show alongside veteran critic Joan Bakewell and simultaneously going back to the medium that made his reputation: live stand-up. After wiping the floor with me at Holborn’s All Star Lanes, Skinner sucks on a peanut butter and bacon milkshake and guides me through the game of life.
You seem very happy, Frank. Why aren’t more comics as upbeat as you?
‘It’s cooler to be bipolar. If you are genuinely bipolar it’s vile and horrible, but happiness is associated with stupidity. Women used to say to me: “You’re a broken-hearted clown. Behind it all you’re sad, aren’t you?” And I’d say, “No.” Once a couples counsellor asked if I’d ever been suicidal. I thought he was winding me up. I’ve never been to those dark places. I don’t know why – high serotonin levels, my religion?’
Is it true you spend a lot of time meditating?
‘Not as much as I would like to. If you can stop thinking, it’s like rebooting your brain. I can do about four or five minutes, though obviously you’re not checking because you’re not thinking.’
Do you have inappropriate thoughts?
Well, a naked woman?
‘That’s on page one of the “Inappropriate Thoughts in Meditation” handbook. You’re supposed to let them pass, like clouds across a blue sky.’
Have you always been this calmly meditative?
‘Looking back, I could be twattish if I was working with someone I thought wasn’t doing enough. I’m sure they hated me for that. Some people go into telly in order to get into Soho House. But I think successful people like me got lucky. We ended up in the place where most people want to be and we should work as hard as we can to say thank you.’
Many successful people have used it as an excuse to be appalling…
‘I did sleep with women after gigs. But I tried to do it in as civilised and kindly a way as I could. I meet people who say, “My friend had sex with you in Cardiff.” It’s become a little anecdote for them, so it never felt exploitative or dark, it felt like a bit of slap and tickle, as they used to say.’
Do you think the British don’t trust men who have lots of sex?
‘I saw a Russell Brand gig where he said, “I’m into threesomes at the moment,” and started picking [people] out like a slave market. What worried me when I was doing the groupie thing was I didn’t want to become that lowest of all creatures – the “ladies’ man”. I don’t think I did: I never got slick.’
Does every famous comedian get as much sex as Russell Brand?
‘Before I was famous I found it incredibly hard to get any sort of action, not just sexual but love and affection. It got much easier after. It’s hard to ignore that coincidence. I grew up being ignored and celebrity was the cure. But not the motivation. I’ve heard people say, “I wanted to be famous to get back at the kids who treated me like shit at school and all the women that rejected me.” That’s quite a big plan! I don’t quite believe it.’
Do you think of yourself as a Londoner now, not a West Midlander?
‘I love London. I couldn’t imagine living anywhere else, but I’m still a West Midlander. I just don’t go on about it. Though I saw a thing about the West Midlands accent “as used by such celebrities as Adrian Chiles and Cat Deeley”. I thought if I can’t get on that list then things really are bleak.’
You’re a dad now – will you bring your son up here?
‘I can’t think of a better place to grow up. My ideal is a state school where he won’t get killed or get into crack cocaine. There’s plenty of those in London – about four, I think. I want him to grow up a Catholic because there’s a certain Catholic imagination that’s good for you. Even if he stops believing it will be good for him to have it. Also, it’s good to at least have a think about God before you reject the idea, if you are going to reject it. I suspect he would reject it because most people do – but maybe he wouldn’t. I still think it’s a valuable thing to have gone through rather than that not to have experienced it at all. A lot if people who say they are atheists have never really given that much thought. A lot of people are just, “I’m not that interested.”’
You don’t worry about abuse scandals involving Catholic priests?
‘I judge that individual by individual. I know this sounds crap but I’ve known some really brilliant priests, just being in their company was so interesting and inspiring. I never really met any creepy horrible ones. But I know they exist. The thing is there’s lots of on-going scandals about the education system, with teachers. The family, I think, is the biggest of the paedophile things – when it’s the person they know. I think the church severely cocked up in the way they handled it, but it’s in all the great institutions. I was interfered with when I was 11, but not by a priest, by another a kid at a school that was C of E, so they’re all at it.’
How did you deal with that?
‘I kept it to myself. Actually I didn’t really know what had happened, and I kind of figured if I said anything to my dad he would probably kill the kid because he lived on our street. And it’s an embarrassing thing to discuss: “He started rubbing his…” I don’t even know what words I would have used to describe it to my parents. When I was 15 I was in a pub with a bunch of other 15 year olds – we’d probably had two halves each – and one of them said “Remember that guy in the sixth year that got me back to his house …” And four of us at the table out of the seven had had the same experience. So that was quite liberating.
'I’d like to think that kids now could probably talk about it more easily. I did a Children in Need special for “Room 101” recently and at one point I did some dad dancing and this seven-year-old said, “Stop now or I’ll phone Childline.” I thought that was a good joke for a seven year old but it also showed that if things are bad they know they can do something about it.’
Do you worry about being old when your one-year-old son Buzz is 15 himself?
‘There is a period in your life when you need your parents and a period in your life where you only think you need your parents. Something clicks, there’s a little switch that goes and your parents, who had been the wind beneath your wings, through no fault of their own can start to oppress a bit, can start to stop you doing stuff. Start to make you think: What would Mum and Dad say? Maybe that’s a good time to die! So I try to think of the pluses. The fact that me and his mother don’t drink is an enormous gift. I don’t want him to grow up wondering what mood his dad will be in when he comes home from the pub.’
Surely he’ll rebel by being a drinker?
‘Yes, when I give him a million quid when he’s 18 it could go a bit wrong.’
Would you ever start drinking again?
‘It’s there to fall back on. If tragedy strikes, I can start drinking again. When Nicolas Cage drank himself to death in “Leaving Las Vegas”, I thought: That’d be all right. Though in the Lake District.’
Did you ever do a show pissed?
‘I stopped drinking before I became a comic; one was a replacement for the other. I used to think I needed a drink to do anything. Once I was joining the library and I thought: I better have a couple of drinks. I can’t walk into a fucking library cold. So I went and had three pints first. Just a sharpener.’
Is working with Joan Bakewell the final nail in your laddish coffin?
‘Perhaps. I seem to spend a lot of time sort of thinking, Is this going to make me look like the old laddish comic that I used to be accused of being?. And maybe that’s become a bit of a hang-up. Ultimately you have to think, That’s not how I feel, and stop trying to prove it all the time. She’s a proper old-fashioned feminist, so maybe. But she’s great. On a recording, she asked at 6.20pm, “How much longer do you think we will be shooting for?” I said, “Twenty minutes.” She said, “Oh good. I don’t like to start drinking any later than seven o’clock.” Very impressive.’
How did the art crowd take to you?
‘When I first met the judges -- and maybe this is my own working class paranoia – I thought they were slightly dismissive of me. We were having a dinner out and ended up having quite a big argument. I think it was my way of showing off – pulling all the stops out to show that I'm not some idiot who has ended up doing an arts programme. But again, that’s probably a bit of paranoia on my part.’
Does that paranoia ever leave you?
‘It’s difficult. Occasionally I get asked about my “reinvention.” But I never sat with my manager and said it’s about time we re-invented me. I know, I’ll record “Kiss” by Prince like Tom Jones did. I just think the sort of material I do generally, the sort of jokes I do on the radio show or stand-up, reflect whatever I'm interested in or thinking about at the time. When I first started out I felt that I had to edit that. I thought, If I mention anything like going to an art gallery in my stand-up act I’ll get booed. I used to mention [art and culture] in the early interviews I did with the quality papers but it was never put in. It didn’t quite fit with this West Midlands slightly polished version of Bernard Manning image they had.’
They compared you to Bernard Manning?
‘The Guardian said I was the closet thing to Bernard Manning to win the Perrier Award. Only someone who had never seen Bernard Manning would say that. I suppose they meant working class and Northern/Midland. But at that stage I was just pleased that I was getting mentioned in the paper.’
At the time did you feel you were escaping from the life you were supposed to live?
‘Growing up when I did and where I did, that other place where people could be famous or even creative or on telly, felt like a different world. I was talking to Emily, who I do the Absolute Radio show with, and she said “Well, everyone’s got one contact in the media. Even your dad would have been friends with a journalist.” Of course he fucking wasn’t! What are you talking about?’
Did the sense of privilege in London make you angry at first?
‘I used to do a speech: “I’ve got mates at home who work on the bins who are bright, articulate people. If they'd been born in south-east England with the right connections they be bloody senior executives now. You’re lucky, you should make the fucking most of it.’”
Are you comfortable with the amount of posh people in comedy at the moment?
‘I don’t have a problem with it. I think that’s a good thing about comedy, there have always been funny posh people. I used to love Lord Charles [an aristocratic ventriloquist act] when I was kid. That’s the way I like my posh people, up front. I like the fact that Jack Whitehall will talk about being posh, or David Mitchell.’
Finally, are you planning to do another version of ‘Three Lions’ for next year’s World Cup?
‘I didn’t want to do it last time. I said, “I want my name taken off this.” We have to stop milking it, and I wonder if we have slightly spoilt it for people.’