Frank Skinner is a self confessed paranoiac when it comes to his career. But there’s really no need, finds Andy Welch.
Frank Skinner wants to play a game. Before our interview, he asked for a selection of questions to be sent over so he could muse on the answers.
It’s not an uncommon request, and, after reading his recent book On The Road, complete with honest accounts of his professional paranoia, it makes total sense.
The only thing is, there’s been a slight mix up and the questions he’s been thinking about aren’t the ones I’m going to ask.
“Why don’t I just read out the answers I’ve prepared, and you can guess the questions?” he says enthusiastically.
“It’ll be like interview Jeopardy.”
He chuckles to himself in his unmistakable way, and we crack on with the interview I had planned.
About an hour later, it’s difficult to comprehend why he wanted a heads up about what was in store; he’s affable, honest and, as you might expect from such a gifted comic, naturally hilarious. Frank might just be the perfect interviewee, no subject is out-of-bounds, no answer glib or cliched.
Last week Frank appeared as a guest team captain on BBC Two’s long-running comedy music quiz Never Mind The Buzzcocks.
Nothing out of the ordinary, you might think, but during his career the 51-year-old hasn’t had the best of relationships with panel shows.
“I said no to all of them for years, then I did the Big Fat Anniversary Quiz on Channel 4, which I hated,” he says, adding that he hardly got one laugh on the show while the other guests, including Peep Show’s David Mitchell and The IT Crowd’s Richard Ayoade, “went down a storm“.
“Then I did a special Question Of Sport for Sport Aid, which I also hated. I realised my problem is that when I’m on a panel quiz, I’m so competitive that I don’t do any jokes and I’m just desperate to win.”
Frank also took part in a panel quiz for Sport Relief. This time, he was happy with his performance, but unfortunately channel bosses decided not to air the programme thanks to presence of Jade Goody.
“It got pulled after the whole ’racist’ thing,” he says.
“I’m a bit of a jinx like that; there was that with Jade Goody, and then the other week I was supposed to be on Jonathan Ross’ chat show, and he obviously did what he did so we didn’t film the show. I’m the kiss of death.”
Once upon a time, Frank had his own hugely successful chat show. Did the Beeb not think of asking him to stand in while Ross serves out his suspension?
“I couldn’t have done that. Another chat show in that time slot would be disrespectful to Jonathan’s memory,” he says, laughing.
“It’d be like getting a new Queen Mother after the Queen Mum died.”
Frank’s increase in recent TV activity is down to the release of his new DVD and aforementioned tour diary On The Road, which mark his return to the field in which he made his name.
After beating Jack Dee and Eddie Izzard to the prestigious Perrier Award at the 1991 Edinburgh Festival, Frank, born Christopher Graham Collins, carved out a reputation as one of the country’s sharpest stand-ups, selling out cavernous arenas around the country with his idiosyncratic brand of comedy.
As he mentions in the book, he was dubbed “A comedian for the Loaded generation“ by a Channel 4 countdown of the best comedians ever. Frank came 26th in the list and while he deeply resents the tag, considering his penchant for blue humour, swearing and unbridled love of football, it’s hard to argue with its validity. To many, he embodied 90s ’laddism’.
While he was at the top of the stand-up game, Frank hung up his microphone to concentrate on his TV career.
It began with Fantasy Football League, which was brought to us by the West Bromich Albion fan and best friend David Baddiel - once flatmates, now neighbours - and was essential viewing for football fans all over UK.
Then came Frank’s own chat show, as well as Baddiel And Skinner Unplanned and a sitcom, Shane. The TV work then dried up.
“I wasn’t bothered, really,” he says about his disappearance from our screens a couple of years ago.
“I mean I was from an ego point of view, but I’ve been doing other things, and I don’t really separate work out like that, whether it’s stand-up or writing a book or whatever, it’s all work,” he continues.
“In the last few weeks, I’ve done Have I Got News For You, Graham Norton’s show, a show in Northern Ireland, and The One Show, so I’m starting to get the urge again, it’s whet my appetite. I need to come up with some ideas.”
Television might have to wait, though. In 2006, Frank decided to come out of retirement from stand-up to do a tour of the UK. To prepare for this, to get match-fit after a decade on the sidelines, he did some warm-up gigs in small comedy clubs, and then a residency at the 2007 Edinburgh Festival.
His book, On The Road, was written from his journals of the time (“I write a journal every night before bed“) and charts every up and down from his decision to return to live comedy, to his triumphant shows at Birmingham’s National Indoor Arena - the results of which can be seen on his new DVD.
On The Road is at once hilarious, candid, and reads more like it was written as much for Frank’s own amusement as anyone else’s.
He says the experience was cathartic, and much easier and more enjoyable than writing his 2001 autobiography. The result is an excited Frank Skinner, who promises to go on tour again either late on in 2009 or early 2010.
“I’m definitely doing another tour. I’ve got my mojo back, and I definitely lost it for a year or two there.
“The tour has certainly helped me. Doing stand-up again really was going back home. I know that sounds sentimental, but it’s true and it really did remind me about how brilliant it can be.
“Writing the book was really good for my head.”
But what about the paranoia?
The book reveals how Frank works himself into knots fretting over every word of his routine, and has never read a review of one of his shows. He doesn’t even let people around him give their opinion on his performance.
“I’m pretty laid back generally, it’s just when it comes to work I’m like that,” he explains.
“I wouldn’t have written about it two years ago, I thought it was something to be ashamed of. Once I admitted it the first time in the book, it was OK, but it was embarrassing I suppose.
“At the same time, it just feels incredibly honest, and there’s something very exhilarating about opening up like that.
“It’s good to have a bit of anguish, and in every other area of my life, I’d say I’m a very happy bloke. There is just this occasional mad paranoia underneath.”
Frank was born in Oldbury, West Midlands, to John and Doris Collins. He’s the youngest of four siblings.
He says he missed the late 80s and early 90s because he was an alcoholic, but gave up drinking after a nasty bout of flu left him bedridden.
Frank is a devout Catholic, and talks openly about his faith in On The Road. While touring the country, he spent time visiting various churches and cathedrals.
He says he might have another go at writing a sitcom, despite the fact Shane was panned by critics and a second series was made but never shown.
“It seems a waste to go through all that, and not put what you’ve learned from the experience to use,” he says.
In 2007, Frank took part in a BBC series called Play It Again, in which he had to learn how to play the ukulele. He kept up playing the instrument, and now incorporates it into the encore of his stage show.