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