‘There’s never been a time when you could just say anything’: Frank Skinner on free speech, his bullying shame – and knob jokes

Poetry-loving, religious and with deep regrets about some of his comedy: either the standup comic has grown up, or he was never as laddish as his image suggested

It was while he was writing his latest Edinburgh show that Frank Skinner noticed a problem with his brain. He was hoping to perform a “cleaner, cleverer” kind of act, one that would let him look out at the crowd and – perhaps for the first time in his life – not see anybody squirming in their seat in discomfort.

“It was a struggle,” the 65-year-old says with a grin, “because I realised that I seem to think in knob jokes. And I have done since I was about 13. In the West Midlands, that was how people communicated!”

30 Years of Dirt is not, then, a compendium of Skinner’s best sex gags – of which there have been plenty over the years. Rather, it’s a comedic journey through his attempt to de-smutify his brain for the modern audience, a kind of personal challenge: can he even be funny without talking about penises? It’s only a loose, lighthearted theme, but it still feels refreshing in a world where many comics seem to think their sole purpose is to say the most offensive thing possible.

“I do wonder what all the fuss is about,” he says, dismissing the idea that modern comedians have their free speech stifled. “I don’t think there’s ever been a time when you could just say anything.” He recalls an early comedy show – this must have been in the late 80s – where the host apologised to the crowd after Skinner had performed some risque sexual material. “He said I’d never play at the venue again – and then he launched into a load of racist material and brought the house down. Everyone’s got their own standards and restraints. But I think it’s been good for me to keep questioning what I say. It’s made me think more.”

Skinner meets me in a coffee shop near his north London home. On the way here he says he was spotted by a fan, who stopped to ask how he was doing. As the fan left, Skinner heard him say to his mate: “He used to be in Doctor Who.”

“I’m guessing he means Capaldi?” Skinner ponders, looking at me for confirmation. Then his expression changes. “I hope it’s not William Hartnell!” The actor who played the First Doctor, after all, would be 114 by now.

Skinner has been funny for as long as he can remember. As a teenager he used to bring props to the pub, or to the factory where he worked, to make people laugh: clingfilm dipped in beer might look like dangling snot after a fake sneeze; a Vicks inhaler up one nostril might work for a gag about ivory hunters. “That was my outlet then, doing a sort of improvised standup in the pub. I didn’t know I was practising.”

Growing up in Smethwick, an industrial town west of Birmingham, he had never thought of comedy as a viable career. Known to his friends and family as Christopher Collins (he stole his stage name from a member of his dad’s dominoes team), he drank away most of his 20s, wondering what he was good at and where his life was heading. It was only as he turned 30 and started telling jokes on stage that he realised all those wasted years were full of authentically grim material that was perfect for comedy.

His early shows were disastrous. But within a couple of years he had won Edinburgh’s prestigious Perrier prize. Soon he was hosting his own long-running TV chatshow, and becoming a key figure in 90s “new lad” culture thanks to Fantasy Football League, the television show in which he and comedy partner David Baddiel sat around in a living-room set taking the piss out of footballers. How does Skinner look back on that era?

David Baddiel and Frank Skinner promoting their show Fantasy Football League in London in September 1997.
David Baddiel and Frank Skinner promoting their show Fantasy Football League in London in September 1997. Photograph: PA Images/Alamy

“I don’t sit and watch my own things, but occasionally I’ve seen bits, and most of it, I can honestly say, I’d still do,” he says. “But some stuff, no. On the chatshow, I did a weekly song as Bob Dylan and there were some complaints that [one of the songs] was homophobic. It went to Ofcom and they found it not to be homophobic. And I watched that back recently and I thought, no, no, that was homophobic – they got that wrong. But then other things we did get fined for I look at now and think it was unfair. So it’s endlessly debatable.”

He readily admits that he has made some terrible mistakes in more than 30 years as a comic. Take Skinner and Baddiel’s treatment of Jason Lee, the black Nottingham Forest player whose lack of form on the pitch led to merciless mocking on Fantasy Football League and the popularising of a terrace chant about his haircut (“He’s got a pineapple on his head”). One day, Baddiel even blacked up as Lee for a sketch, complete with a pineapple to represent his hair.

Skinner and his partner, Cath Mason, at the South Bank awards in London in 2016.
Skinner and his partner, Cath Mason, at the South Bank awards in London in 2016. Photograph: Danny Martindale/WireImage

“It was bad, yeah,” says Skinner. “I spoke to Dave about it recently, from a how-the-fuck-did-that-ever-happen point of view. I still don’t know how it happened. I know why we took the piss out of him, because I’d watched him on Match of the Day missing several goals, so a sketch about him being unable to put a piece of paper into a bin worked. But when Dave walked out from makeup [in blackface] that night, I still don’t know why one or both of us …. or someone there didn’t say what the fuck is happening?”

This racial aspect isn’t the entire story, either, he admits. “I can’t look back on it now without seeing it as bullying. There was a big response to it. People started to send in loads of pictures of pineapples, and so it ran and ran and ran. Looking back, it was a bullying campaign. And it’s awful. And yeah, I’m ashamed of it. And we’ve said that to each other without any Guardian journalist to impress. It wouldn’t be too much to say we’re both deeply ashamed.”

In his 2001 autobiography, Skinner acknowledges the incident but glosses over it, even defends it from accusations of racism. Since then, he seems to have done some serious soul searching. This year, he told an audience at the Hay festival about growing up in Smethwick: “I used racist language, I was sexist, I was homophobic.” That, he says today, was just how it was back in the 1970s.

“But when I talk about growing up in the West Midlands, there wasn’t an alternative voice for me to either respond to or ignore.” The Jason Lee incident, he accepts, was a different situation. “By then we’d come through the alternative comedy circuit, where ‘non-racist, non-sexist’ was the banner handle. So it’s not like we didn’t know. Because me and Dave knew.”

I’ve never heard either of them talk like this in public. “We’ve never done the big public apology,” says Skinner, who is still best mates with Baddiel. “Something doesn’t sit well with me. They look a bit like union card apologies: ‘I just need to keep working; I’ll apologise for anything, just let me keep working.’ I didn’t want to be part of that.”

He adds: “There is no excuse involved, though, because there is no excuse. Because I’m blaming us. But something I never hear mentioned in any of this is that we had a representative from the BBC in the audience every week. The BBC watched the show before it went out and OKed it. They were supposed to be a guiding hand, not letting us fuck up. But that’s a side issue. It was a vendetta. An unintentional vendetta but still a vendetta.”

Baddiel and Skinner kiss the tarmac at Rome’s Ciampinio airport ahead of England’s 0-0 World Cup qualifying draw against Italy in 1997.
Baddiel and Skinner kiss the tarmac at Rome’s Ciampinio airport ahead of England’s 0-0 World Cup qualifying draw against Italy in 1997. Photograph: PA Images/Alamy

In reality, Skinner was never anything quite so simple as a new lad. Parts of his background – he has a masters in English literature; he is a practising Roman catholic – never fitted that description and so, he says, the press ignored it. These days, perhaps because of his age, he is allowed more space to talk about his cerebral passions. Poetry is one – he has written a short book on the subject (How to Enjoy Poetry) that deep-dives into Stevie Smith’s nine-line work Pad, Pad, and he also presents an engaging and accessible podcast on the subject, Frank Skinner’s Poetry Podcast. Was this part of a career plan to position himself as a more enlightened male?

He laughs at the idea. “I probably should have those big career thoughts, shouldn’t I? It actually came about by accident, but it’s ended up being the biggest labour of love job I’ve done.”

Skinner once had a chat with Eddie Izzard about what they could share about their lives on stage. The conclusion was that it was fine for Izzard to discuss wearing women’s clothes, but as for Skinner’s own religious beliefs? God, no. Yet recently even that position has shifted a little. Last year he published A Comedian’s Prayer Book, which features him talking to the supreme being in his typically down-to-earth way (“I always liked that Jesus hung out with sinners. It made me feel potentially understood”). Does he feel more comfortable talking about God on stage now?

“I think it’s more acceptable,” he says, not entirely convincingly. “I do still feel a slight tension sometimes when I bring it up. I can feel it in the air.”

Still, he thinks it’s important that people get out there and talk about religion in the way they talk about other aspects of life. “One of the things religion has suffered from is being spoken of in grave terms constantly. I take it seriously, obviously, but I don’t take it seriously, if you know what I mean.”

Another thing that always fitted awkwardly with Skinner’s new lad tag: he’s been a teetoaller since the 90s. As a teenager, he had swiftly become a problem drinker, and during his 20s he would regularly wake up to a glass of sherry (or, later on, when things got really bad, a glass of Pernod). He says his life wasn’t miserable, it’s just that he had nothing in it for which to stay sober. His health was in a sorry state. Then his comedy career started and he knew he couldn’t risk messing it up. Still, the temptation to drink must have been everywhere, and Skinner has admitted that he has never found anything to recreate the buzz of getting drunk.

Skinner at Amnesty International’s Secret Policeman’s Ball in 2008 in London.
‘When I had a child, I was twice removed from my ego’ … Skinner at the Amnesty International Secret Policeman’s Ball, London, 2008. Photograph: PA Images/Alamy

“I used to dream about it probably three nights a week,” he says today. “But funnily enough, since I’ve had a kid, those dreams have faded away.”

Skinner spent his heyday sleeping around, often turning the encounters into gags in his act. But he has been with his current partner, Cath Mason, for about two decades now and they have a 10-year-old son, Buzz. I ask about the relationship, and he rather poetically describes falling in love as an out-of-body experience. “David Foster Wallace once said … OK, he’s not the bloke you’d necessarily go to for happiness [the writer killed himself in 2008], but he talked about rising above a given situation, until you realise you’re not the main character there, but just an extra in a bigger scene. So with Cath, I met someone who I started to care about to the level where I felt them slightly foregrounded in my consciousness, and me slightly behind them. And if you’ve been through the celebrity process, it’s so unusual to not be the star of every scene in the film of your life. And of course then, when I had a child, I was twice removed from my ego.”

Skinner became a father at 55, by which point he had assumed the opportunity had passed. Not just because of age but because he and Cath argued like mad. “I thought: we can’t bring a kid into this. Because apparently you’re not supposed to argue in front of them. Although my argument, speaking of arguments, is that it’s quite good for a kid to see you screaming at each other and then afterwards saying: ‘We’ve talked this through and we’re hugging again.’”

Skinner adored his own parents, who died a year apart from each other just before he had found proper fame. But his father was a drinker, a gambler and a fighter. It was rare that he became the target of his father’s rage, but it did happen occasionally.

‘You can feel like an aeolian harp’ … Frank Skinner.
‘It’s been good for me to keep questioning what I say’ … Skinner. Photograph: Jill Mead/The Guardian

“Hitting kids … that’s another of those things that have changed,” he says. “The idea of hitting my own child is as ridiculous to me as the idea of me flying home from here unaided. But I didn’t think that when I was on the other end of it. It seemed normal. I don’t remember anyone ever airing the view that we shouldn’t hit our kids until … I think the 1980s? It didn’t reach the West Midlands, that bit.”

“I love my dad,” he continues. “But there would be a moment around 10.40pm where there was a tension about what mood he would bring back from the pub. I wouldn’t want my kid to be remembering that.”

Evolution is what Skinner is all about – people can change and they can grow. When he made his comments about racism and homophobia at Hay, he says, there was a slight backlash from some on the left. “Some people were apparently saying: ‘Well, you never really grow out of that.’ But to pretend that I am still the person I was then would be ludicrous.”

And his jokes have evolved with him. The week before we speak, Skinner has been road-testing some of his new material. Debuting new stuff can be tricky, even more so when you’ve banned knob jokes. But a night or two ago he says he hit one of those magic moments where it all came together. “I couldn’t get the material out quick enough,” he says, before reaching for one last poetic metaphor. “When that happens, you can feel like an aeolian harp. It’s as if the comedy universe is playing you.”

• Frank Skinner’s 30 Years of Dirt is at the Assembly Roxy, Edinburgh, from 4 to 28 August. For more information and tickets go to frankskinnerlive.com


Tim Jonze

The GuardianTramp

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