Only one thing makes Frank Skinner nervous. ‘Water. Water scares me. I don’t get nervous on stage. Just in swimming pools. I didn’t learn to swim until 2013. Avoiding water is easier if you live in Birmingham.’
The stand-up comedian’s image is plastered across the centre of Edinburgh on six-foot placards to advertise the dates of his national tour. ‘SOLD OUT’ is blazoned across the top.
This seems a weird strategy — promoting a product that’s no longer available — and I ask him about it when we meet at a quietly expensive hotel near Bristo Square. ‘I’ve sold out the Edinburgh run but there are tickets available for the tour... The quick-sellers are hard to predict.’
He tells me he loves performing stand-up. ‘It’s my natural thing. It makes me feel good about myself.’ He calls it ‘a noble profession’, and even ‘heroic’. Why? ‘I quite like being on TV panel shows. But on telly if it goes badly, someone’ll make it go well in the final edit. That doesn’t happen on stage. A fan could come away from a show and say, “I saw that Frank Skinner. He was no good.”’
All the material he uses is brand new, although the 62-year-old doesn’t feel obliged to exclude vintage jokes. One of his best gags is at least a couple of years old. ‘I got a tattoo for my 60th birthday. Just my name and address.’ Paradoxically, he points out, the convention about new material doesn’t apply to pop bands, despite the oft-cited similarity between comedy and rock-and-roll. ‘If the Stones came up with a whole new set the audience would boo them off.’
He writes regularly and sometimes finds inspiration from gags that crop up in conversation. ‘When the laugh comes out, and if it’s bigger than normal, I take a note of it but I try not to write things down when people are around.’ He also sets aside time to write on his own. Unless he does this habitually he loses his fluency. ‘Have you ever neglected a tube of moisturiser? You find this hard pellet in the end and you have to squeeze it out. You’ve got to get the hard pellet out.’
He did very little until he was 30 and led ‘an ordinary life in the West Midlands’. ‘Were you the guy in the pub who was funny?’ ‘Yeah I was. And at school and at the factory.’ In his twenties he worked for a metal-stamping firm in Birmingham. ‘Five-ton hammers bashing bits of steel. Everyone was deaf with about three fingers. The health and safety officer was part-time. I remember this huge pile of hard hats stacked in one corner, still with their plastic covers on.’ He had a job in another factory producing glass for scientific laboratories. ‘I had to dump loads of old microscope slides so I filled a wheelbarrow with them and emptied it into a skip one floor below. It sent up this enormous cloud of flying glass-dust. I just ran. That was health and safety in those days.’
After turning to comedy, he rose with astonishing speed. In just four months he graduated from his first ever stand-up gig to his debut on TV. He established himself on the London circuit and played multiple shows every night. Over a weekend he might appear at ten different clubs and make £750. During the week, he’d make the same amount again. Back then, in the early 1990s, a bedsit in London would cost about £50 a week to rent so he was pretty well-off. ‘But the circuit was a lot smaller in those days.’ He once sat down with some comedy pals and worked out how many stand-ups were making a living exclusively from gigging. ‘We reckoned there were about 35 of us. Nowadays it’s more like 400.’ He glows with pleasure as he recalls the 1990s. ‘It was an incredible time personally. I loved it [fame]. I’d been invisible for 30 years.’
Success allowed him to indulge his fascination with Elvis memorabilia. He bought a shirt worn by Elvis on stage and a hair from the tail of Elvis’s horse. On a visit to Tupelo, Elvis’s home town, he managed to acquire a splinter of wood from a venue where Elvis performed in the 1950s. Skinner talks about Elvis’s eccentric generosity. ‘He’d spot a stranger staring through the window of a car dealership and he’d go over and buy the guy a Cadillac.’ The same spirit compelled him, ‘in a fervour of care’, to donate Elvis’s stage-shirt to the relief effort following the Boxing Day tsunami in 2004.
As a comic he prefers to avoid political material but I’m keen to learn where he stands on Brexit. ‘Obviously I’m not going to ask you outright how you voted,’ I say, trying to sound a bit naive, ‘because it’s such a divisive issue and I expect you’d rather not say.’ I pause significantly. He says nothing. My trap fails. ‘What I find utterly fascinating,’ he says, ‘is the coverage. I’ll miss it when it’s solved.’ Could it be done and dusted by 31 October? ‘No, because there’ll still be lots of discussions going on and decisions to get through. But I can’t remember the news being more interesting. If I turn on the TV and Brexit is only the third item, I just don’t want to hear.’
At last year’s Fringe Skinner wrote a witty flatshare comedy, Nina’s Got News, about two ex-lovers who can’t manage to break up. He tells me he could hardly believe the headline in The Spectator’s arts pages: ‘Is Frank Skinner the new Alan Bennett?’ ‘Was that your review?’ It was. ‘I don’t usually keep things from the papers but I hung on to that.’ He explains that in the mid-1990s, when he first emerged as a national figure, he wrote to Alan Bennett. ‘I said to him, “You probably haven’t heard of me but would you consider teaming up to write a play?” And I got a lovely letter back which didn’t just say “PISS OFF”, it said, “Of course I’ve heard of you but I fear I’m not a very good collaborator. However, I’m delighted to have been asked.”’ Skinner says the thought of proposing himself as Bennett’s co-writer makes him ‘squirm a bit now. But maybe he’ll write to me and say we should do a double act on stage together. And I’d say OK.’