Talking career choices, brown bread and wild swimming with Frank Skinner as he prepares for his latest stand-up tour
“I kind of like being an elder statesman,” grins Frank Skinner, leaning back in his chair, relishing the chance to celebrate three decades in stand-up without getting the least bit nostalgic. “It’s like being an old vaudeville performer who doesn’t know when to quit. I still like doing it, but I especially like doing it without the desperation. I’m still desperate for it to go well, but I’m not thinking that I’ll go broke if it goes badly anymore…”
From first stepping on stage in the late 80s while he was still collecting unemployment cheques, to soundtracking Euro 96 and quickly becoming one of the most revered names in British stand-up, Skinner has a lot to look back on, even if he doesn’t particularly want to. Which is probably why his new show, 30 Years Of Dirt, is a bit of a misnomer.
“There’s not that much of the past in it actually,” he laughs. “It’s about the struggle of someone who grew up where people communicated by dirty jokes in the pub and school and the factory… who then finds himself in a more sophisticated comedy environment. It’s about trying to evolve, sometimes successfully and sometimes not.”
Taking his show on the road throughout spring 2024 after a two-week residency at London’s Gielgud Theatre (“I can use my Freedom Pass to get to work!”), Skinner is much more interested in keeping things fresh than he is in retreading his steps. “There’s a basic structure to the show but I can bookmark it any time I like and then go off wherever I like,” he says. “It all depends on who I talk to in the audience really. I love it.”
Before he does that, we got stuck in a lift to ask the big questions.
Who would you most like to be stuck in a lift with?
Any football pundit. I’ve realised recently that I’ve been watching football – consistently and in vast quantities – since the mid 60s, and yet I know nothing about the game itself. I feel like if I’d watched a surgeon for that long I’d be able to have a pretty good go at an operation. But when I watch Match Of The Day and they say, “look at the gap between these two central defenders…” or, “they’ve switched to a back three…”, I don’t know what that means. I don’t notice those things. I’ve probably seen 1000 goals scored against West Brom over the years, but unless there’s been a glaring personal error I could not explain what went wrong. I’ve just learned nothing. So if I was stuck in a lift, I’d like to use that time constructively and just see if a pundit could explain it. I’d probably need some chalk too.
Who would you least like to be stuck in a lift with?
Anyone who does wild swimming. People do wild swimming, I think, so they can tell other people that they do wild swimming. I doubt there’s ever been anyone who’s ever done wild swimming and kept it to themselves. It’s great that they do it, and I’m impressed by it, but I really don’t want to hear about it. It’s always, “it was really cold, but it was brilliant…”. Great.
What’s the weirdest interaction you’ve ever had with a famous person?
Do you remember Melanie Masson? She was a fabulous singer on The X Factor – a sort of Janis Joplin figure – and I once saw her outside of a West End theatre. It was on a Saturday afternoon, and she was walking into the theatre where The Commitments musical was playing. So I asked how she was doing, and she said she was just going to the show, so I asked if she was in it. “What do you mean?” she said. “Well, I assumed you were in it?” I said, “it’s kind of perfect for you”. Suddenly she looked really offended. I thought it was a perfectly nice thing to say to a singer. She said, “are you trying to be funny or something?”. And I said, “Oh, God, what have I said? I just thought this is the sort of thing you’d be in”… She was fuming. It was a horrible moment. And then it turned out that in the afternoon they were showing The Three Little Pigs. She was going to watch it with one of her kids. I mean, it’s the most horrible, most misunderstood, most innocent thing. I explained myself, but I wasn’t totally convinced that she accepted what I was saying. That was awkward.
What was the last gig or show that you went to?
I went to A Christmas Carol at The Old Vic. I know it was originally written by Dickens, but this adaptation was written by my brother in law [Jack Thorne]. He’s brilliant, and it’s a really fabulous event. The actors are all around you – the stage runs through the middle of the crowd. I loved it. And you get free satsumas and mince pies. But it turns out you can buy the script in the foyer, so I picked one up and saw that my brother in law had dedicated it to me. It’s lovely, but… you know, it’s a story about a bloke who comes from poverty and becomes a greedy and embittered misanthrope. He’s written that and thought, “Oh, I know I’ll dedicate this to…”.
What’s on your rider?
Well, I have very little faith in humanity, so anything I ask for on my rider I always assume they won’t be able to manage. So all I say is “a brown bread sandwich – you can choose the filling”, and “a packet of crisps – you can choose the flavour”. The last tour I went on was something like 54 dates, and I got given white bread about 10 times.
That’s brave though, asking for any sandwich filling.
I have little or no interest in food. I just had a lot of white bread when I was a kid so I don’t want to go back to that. But I’d be very happy with astronaut capsules instead of a meal. There’s no point in putting that on the rider though.
What did the 12-year-old you imagine you’d be doing now?
I suppose I thought I might be doing some cattle branding, because I always thought I’d be a cowboy. I was utterly obsessed with westerns. In those days there was literally about 20 western TV shows on every night. Now it’s cookery programmes, but it used to be cowboys instead of cooks. I used to sit on the sofa as a kid and I had the cushions folded on the arm, like a saddle. I would watch all the westerns on horseback, as it were. And I was utterly convinced that I was going to go to America and be a professional cowboy.
How old were you when that dream started to fade?
I think it was when I got to about 14. Then I basically wanted to be Elvis. Or as close as I could get to that – I wanted to be a pop singer. But you know, I’ve had four No.1s and a ranch holiday in Montana… so I haven’t done too badly.
What’s the worst advice you’ve ever been given?
There was a time when I was learning to drive. I was about to go on the motorway for the first time and a woman who was a friend of a friend said to me, “let me give you a little tip about motorway driving… The secret is to get into the middle lane as quickly as you can and just stay there. Just get to a nice 60 miles an hour and sit there. You don’t have to worry about overtaking or anything else. All the decision making is taken out of it”. I still see a lot of other people who must have taken that woman’s advice.
Which film have you rewatched the most times?
True Grit. The one with John Wayne, not the remake with Jeff Bridges. Oh, man, I’ve watched that film so many times. But also, if it’s on TV and there’s only 20 minutes left, I’ll still watch it. I know it so well. I can quote the whole film. It just seems to have everything. Whenever I take on anything difficult – and that can be a gig I’m anxious about, or an interview, or a TV show or anything – I think about that bit when he rides across the river from Ned Pepper’s gang. “Fill your hands you son of a bitch!” That’s got me through a few scary situations.
What’s the worst job you’ve ever had?
I’ve had a lot of bad jobs. I worked in a glass factory as a labourer. I had to keep the women supplied with the stuff they make microscope slides out of. The more boxes they filled, the more money they got, so it was high pressure. But part of my job was taking the scrap glass in a wheelbarrow to a hole in the floor, which was on the first floor of the building, and then tipping it all into a skip. It landed on the floor below in an enormous cloud of glass dust, and you just had to tip and then run. I was breathing it all in. I worked at another place where everybody had three fingers and couldn’t hear. It was the West Midlands in the 70s… It wasn’t good to be seen to be concerned about things like health and safety.
What’s the skill that no one else knows that you’re great at?
I don’t know if it still happens in pubs, but you know that game where you raise your elbows and stack a pile of coins on them to catch? I’m brilliant at that. Before the mobile phone, that was the sort of thing that kept people going in pubs. I always used to astonish people by piling a whole stack of change and catching it. It was the only dexterous thing I could do. I was rubbish at sport, but for some reason that was my natural gift. Some people are born to ski or play the piano, I was born to catch coins off my elbow.
Do you have any superstitions?
I salute magpies and say, “good morning, Mr Magpie”. I see them virtually every day because I live near Hampstead Heath, but I always do that. And I have no idea if they are actually male. That thing about it being okay to be single, that it’s not a stigma, has not reached the magpie community. Hence, you know, “one for sorrow” and all that. But it’s a genuine thing for me. I’d feel edgy if I didn’t do it. But I think I also like the idea of being connected to something a bit deeper in English folklore. One for sorrow. Two for joy. Three for a girl. Four for a boy. Five for silver. Six for gold. I’m going to carry on if you don’t stop me…
Frank Skinner brings the ’30 Years Of Dirt’ tour to Vicar Street, Dublin on 13 March 2024. See available tickets HERE.
Photo credit: Jo Hale / Getty