Frank Skin­ner

How the co­me­dian mis­fit fi­nally fig­ured out where he fits in – plus, Eric Clap­ton’s help in stay­ing off al­co­hol

The Irish Mail on Sunday - TV Week - - FRONT PAGE -

I n the back room of an old-fash­ioned tea shop in Hamp­stead, Frank Skin­ner is in the midst of a mod­est anal­y­sis of his suc­cess. ‘I hon­estly be­lieve I am the fun­ni­est per­son on the planet,’ he says. ‘If I didn’t I wouldn’t be here.’

Skin­ner may have ab­so­lute faith in his abil­i­ties as a comic, but in a 26-year ca­reer that’s earned him an £8 mil­lion for­tune, he also knows his life may just as eas­ily have been a car crash had he not pushed him­self into a se­ries of fun­da­men­tal rein­ven­tions. He went from school drop-out to col­lege lec­turer, fac­tory worker to world-con­quer­ing comic, hap­less drunk to de­vout and tee­to­tal Catholic.

To­day, our con­ver­sa­tion en­com­passes ev­ery­thing from stand-up com­edy, where he’s re­turned with a suc­cess­ful new show, his first in seven years, Man In A Suit, which comes to Dublin in De­cem­ber (‘It’s ro­man­tic, heroic. I see my­self as a strug­gling artist; when I leave a gig I walk out on to the street with a col­lar up­turned and a smoul­der­ing look into the dis­tance’) to his ‘loss’ of sev­eral mil­lion pounds four years ago (‘I wanted to stick all my money in the Post Of­fice, but I trusted the “ex­perts” who pushed me into in­vest­ments; I should’ve trusted my­self’) to one- night stands (‘ I’m not Bill Wyman, but I had my fair share’).

Now 57, he’s spent two decades at the top of the com­edy tree, on the back of stand-up tours, TV ap­pear­ances and his popular and suc­cess­ful ra­dio and tele­vi­sion shows, in­clud­ing Room 101, The Frank Skin­ner Show and Fan­tasy Foot­ball League, which he hosted with his friend and writ­ing part­ner, David Baddiel. (There is lit­tle he doesn’t know about foot­ball. Of Eng­land man­ager Roy Hodg­son he says: ‘He reads John Updike and Philip Roth and quotes from Chi­nese phi­los­o­phy when he’s com­ment­ing on matches. That is what I want from an Eng­land man­ager.’)

He has re­tained the noth­ing-to-lose at­ti­tude of the work­ing- class mis­fit who ‘gate- crashed’ his way into fame. Aged 18, his fu­ture looked bleak. He’d been ex­pelled from school for sell­ing forged din­ner tick­ets and had started work in a fac­tory mak­ing air­craft parts. But he went back into ed­u­ca­tion, fell in love with lit­er­a­ture and, after two years on the dole, be­came a lec­turer at Hale­sowen Col­lege, south of Birm­ing­ham. By this time he was al­ready a heavy drinker. ‘I spent a long time with no money but it never both­ered me. I liked be­ing on the dole. I’d drink and read po­etry. The day would start with a mas­sive glass of sherry, bloody strong stuff.’

Ask him about his drunken ex­ploits and he shrugs: ‘End­ing up asleep on a car in the mid­dle of nowhere, wet­ting beds, wak­ing up cov­ered in cuts and bruises and never re­mem­ber­ing what hap­pened the night be­fore.’ He quit drink­ing when he got ill with flu in 1986, was un­able to drink for a week and then re­alised he could stop. ‘It wasn’t even re­ally a con­scious decision, it just hap­pened,’ he says. He ad­mits he still fan­ta­sises about drink­ing. ‘Even now, when I pass guys sit­ting on waste­land in the mid­dle of the af­ter­noon with a bot­tle in their hands I do look at them and know ex­actly that feel­ing they have. I do still get the ap­peal. It’s just that I don’t do it any more.’ Eric Clap­ton stopped him re­turn­ing to the bot­tle in 1999. ‘I was on Caro­line Ah­erne’s chat­show and I was talk­ing to her about how I was think­ing of hav­ing a drink again. A bit later, she of­fered to let me drink in a con­trolled en­vi­ron­ment where she would be there and make sure ev­ery­thing was safe.

‘And then I got this call from Eric Clap­ton. It was com­pletely surreal. I didn’t know him at all, but he’d been watch­ing me talk­ing on tele­vi­sion and it wor­ried him. He is a real pa­tron saint of re­formed al­co­holics and asked me to meet up. He’s a lovely fel­low. We hung around for a few months and even more in­cred­i­bly he in­vited me to his ‘Dry Mil­len­nium’ new year’s party.

‘I ac­tu­ally saw in the Mil­len­nium stand­ing with my arms around Eric, me singing, him play­ing the gui­tar. Who needs drink?’

It was dur­ing a trip to Ed­in­burgh in 1986 that he saw his first stand-up show, and com­edy be­came his new ad­dic­tion. ‘I watched it and thought, “I could do this.” All my life, peo­ple told me I was funny. I was al­ways the lit­tle guy with the smart crack, the heck­ler want­ing to be heard. I never thought I couldn’t do it. I just thought: “Why not?”

‘When I did my first gig at a char­ity night in Birm­ing­ham, in 1987, the au­di­ence was roar­ing and I thought the next day I’d be whizzed down to London and put on the telly. I never quite re­alised it would take years.’

When he ‘ar­rived’ in 1991 on the back of his Per­rier Award win (he beat Jack Dee and Ed­die Iz­zard), Skin­ner was taken by his man­age­ment to the leg­endary Christo­pher’s restau­rant in London. ‘It was my

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