November 1, 2008

Frank Skinner: On the Road

Posted in Skinner Frank at 11:08 am by John Self

Celebrity memoirs are not my usual fare – is there a circle of hell deep enough for them? – but I succumbed to this one on various grounds. (Readers outside the UK might balk at the word ‘celebrity’ here. Frank Skinner, by way of primer, is a British comedian and TV presenter.) I’m one of the small family of people who considers Skinner to be a genuinely funny man, a rare natural wit in an industry of mugging clowns and aimless surrealists. He also wrote it himself, without ghost or Dictaphone (though admittedly this would not normally be enough in itself to recommend a book to me). Finally, I had admired his earlier autobiography, Frank Skinner by Frank Skinner, which I bought after its opening pages calmed my nerves when bookshop browsing ahead of a job interview some years ago. All this counters the criminally bad cover, which is not improved by being deliberate. Still, he doesn’t look 51, does he?

As memoirs go, this is no Patrimony, but on the other hand it deserves a clear line to be drawn between it and the likes of Peter Kay’s The Sound of Laughter (the best-selling autobiography of all time in the UK). Skinner, I felt, was writing this book for himself, which makes it a much more interesting – and spikier – prospect than a string of anecdotes in large type.

As the title hints, On the Road is Skinner’s account of his return to stand-up comedy after ten years making popular and undemanding TV programmes, none of which I watched more than once or twice (maybe this ignorance of most of his professional output is the only reason I think he’s good). Skinner, however, is more introspective than his public image suggests:

A tour-book about a churchgoing, drug-free teetotaller who’s not shagging strangers: I won’t think ill of you if you leave now.

In that sentence is the essence of what we learned in Skinner’s first memoir: his alcoholism and ongoing recovery, his Catholicism, and his very traditional way with groupies at the stage door. He’s over that now, we are informed (via one or two eye-wateringly explicit memories, for old times’ sake). “In the old days I would have been falling over myself to get friendly with this woman, but at my age, falling over is a much bigger deal than it used to be.” He has the love of a good woman now, or at least of Cath, a fellow “weirdo loner.”

This new resolve is strange to me, but I gave up alcohol, drugs, cigarettes, milk and sugar in porridge; I might as well give up casual sex as well. I like the chill of giving up; the cold denial of hot, basic instinct; the shock of the no.

At times this insistence on detailing his reformation can seem forced, but he is equally open about those qualities unlikely to endear himself to the reader (“celebrity … brings with it a certain amount of cuntiness”). He is candid about his tendency towards prima donna behaviour with his tour manager, and harbours no Spinal Tap-like delusions about why his television star seems to be fading. However there is still some remaining bitterness that although he made a second series of his sitcom Shane, it has never been shown (“How bad does a sitcom have to be to be rejected by ITV?”)

Where Skinner shows his truest colours, however, is in his dedication to the day job, his stand-up comedy. As he tests his new show in Edinburgh, then tours it across the UK, he is constantly weighing and judging each joke according to audience reaction, editing and filleting, grading gags up and down, and only in the last few dates of the tour does he have a show he is entirely happy with. It’s a story of obsession, and this ultimately is how Skinner appears in general: driven, compulsive, as obsessive about visiting cathedrals around the country while he tours as about getting the show fine-tuned. He is also, without falling into ‘tears of a clown’ cliché, relentlessly self-critical about his readiness to trade on jokes about downtrodden figures of popular culture such as Jade Goody -

I actually felt sorry for Jade. People loved her for being a gobby, slightly thick, working-class girl and now they hated her for being a gobby, slightly thick, working-class girl. Her journey from the donkey to the cross was particularly swift. Still, as a Sun journalist once said to me after he’d written an unpleasant kiss-and-tell hatchet-job featuring my ex-wife, ‘Come on mate, it’s nothing personal.’ Journalists, paparazzi, critics, comedians… we all roam the celebrity battlefield looking for the injured and dying, seeing what parasitical pickings there might be, something we can use to reinforce the jealousies and resentments of the folks back home. I did start the routine with a ‘does anyone here feel sorry for Jade?’ bit, but it only produced boos; thus giving me full licence to make fun of her fall from grace. Just like all the other vultures, I use, when pushed, the ‘oh well, if you choose to be a public figure, you have to accept criticism’ justification that one often hears trotted out to justify cruelty and spite. I’m sure the Pharisees and Sadducees said something similar. If I’d been in Jerusalem 2,000 years ago, I don’t think I would have been a party to the Crucifixion, but I might well have gone on to write a comic song about it.

Simultaneously he regrets his own inability to address more ‘controversial’ topics in his show such as race and paedophile hysteria, and struggles with his awareness that by dropping ‘challenging’ material and replacing it with a routine about ‘sex from behind … it stormed’, he is pandering to his audience’s prejudices and limiting his own growth as a performer – but also giving people what they have paid for. On the Road is not elegantly written, but it is its roughness and candour which are its strongest qualities, and which denies questions about whether this is a throwaway read or a document of record. Finally Skinner appears a troubled figure, but entirely human, and even provides a good deal of material from his shows for those of us who like him but don’t know why. Now I know why.

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15 Comments »

  1. Sam said,

    I like him. I think that’s probably because in my head I have him down as a heart-in-the-right-place old-school socialist of a more appealingly milder variety than, say, Ricky Tomlinson. I don’t know why I think this – maybe because of Skinner’s Black Country origins (but then I suppose Enoch Powell had Black Country origins as well).

    I was slightly disappointed when, talking about Russian oligarchs on ‘Have I Got News For You’ recently, he made the joke about ‘the haves and the have yachts’. That’s a really tired joke that I first heard about three years ago via a review of Rachel ‘sister-of-Boris’ Johnson’s debut novel. I’m sure comedians steal material all the time, but it would’ve been nice if Skinner could’ve put an original spin on it.

    But it does say a lot of his charm that he’s still likeable despite his close association with the very much less likeable David Baddiel.

    Funnily, ‘Shane’ – the title of Skinner’s sitcom – had been misfiled in my memory as ‘Shame’, which perhaps just goes to show that what you think you remember is sometimes more true that what actually happened.

  2. John Self said,

    Re the old-socialist thing, in his first memoir there’s a photo of him with Tara Palmer-Tompkinson on his knee, captioned: “Yes, I would. But only as an act of class warfare.” And Skinner is certainly more appealing than Ricky Tomlinson, who’s forever turning up to awards ceremonies with a Tesco bag full of Carlsberg Special Brew.

    I was interested in his Have I Got News For You appearance, which I thought was very good (I didn’t recognise the ‘have yachts’ joke), and couldn’t help thinking of the passage in the book where he talks about an appearance on Channel 4′s Big Fat 25th Anniversary Quiz, where he was a guest along with a newer breed of comedians such as David Mitchell, and felt he died on his arse in front of a crowd who resented his old-fogey presence. He was devastated by it. As a result I felt obscurely pleased for him when he got so many laughs on Have I Got News For You, knowing he would have gone home happy that night.

  3. Okay you guys this is totally unrelated but could you all send good vibrations, prayers or whatever you do, our way so that this election is not as disastrous as the last one. Thanks. I have already voted.

  4. Paul said,

    I like Frank Skinner too. Supporting West Bromwich Albion must have something to do with his comedic outlook on the world.

    Now, speaking of David Baddiel, his best mate. Do you ever read his column in the book section of the Times on a Saturday? I remember reading once a whine by him about how he was not taken seriously by certain amorphous members of the literary establishment, that he felt in some way marginalised by fashions for hip young ethnic writers, all that kind of baloney. And I thought, mate, you have no special literary talent, sure you can string a sentence together with your Oxford degree, but your books are nothing original, you only get published because you’re a multi-millionaire television comedian, and publishers love publishing books by famous celebrities because it guarantees profiles in newspapers and instant marketing built into your launch, and you also have a high profile column in a national newspaper, and you’re complaining about your lot in the world? There are many talented writers who can’t even get a publishing contract, and there are published writers of some originality who don’t even get a tiny percentage of the attention they deserve, whilst you bleat unremarkable medicority in a national newspaper column as a supposed light of literary insight and precision, and then complain about how hard you have it.

    I also believe that last week he said that Updike’s first Rabbit book was the greatest novel of the twentieth century.

  5. Sam said,

    A cavalry charge couldn’t stop me in my haste to change the channel whenever Baddiel pops on the telly.

    I have in the past scrolled down his Times column: his writing’s poor, his arguments banal and his comedy such as it is stopped being funny sometime around 1995. Actually, in my previous post I was going to refer to him as David ‘who-you-calling-lad-lit?’ Baddiel, but then I thought the guy’s colossal twatness was so obvious that I really didn’t need to.

  6. Andrew said,

    If you enjoyed Skinner’s book, I recommend you check out the Russian writer Leo Tolstoy’s “War and Peace.”

  7. John Self said,

    Never heard of him, Andrew. What’s he been in?

    As for Baddiel, in his defence I’ll say that I’m more likely to get to the end of one of his columns than one of Jeanette Winterson’s, though that’s mainly because Winterson’s are always a variant on ‘we need to return to a more contemplative life’ (which probably never existed in the first place) and I could write most of her columns myself now. I remain an admirer of her fiction though.

    Baddiel’s column is sometimes entertaining, though his worship of Updike is a worry. I think it was Rabbit is Rich (the third volume), rather than the first, which he called the greatest novel of the 20th century, but still. I disliked it, though I did really like the last one, Rabbit at Rest (part of that may have come from the knowledge that I’d finally finished this very fat series of books). Nonetheless, Rich does have a fine closing paragraph:

    Oblong cocooned little visitor, the baby shows her profile blindly in the shuddering flashes of colour from the Sony, the tiny stitchless seam of the closed eyelid aslant, lips bubbled forward beneath the whorled nose as if in delicate disdain, she knows she’s good. You can feel in the curve of the cranium she’s feminine, that shows from the first day. Through all this she has pushed to be here, in his lap, his hands, a real presence hardly weighing anything but alive. Fortune’s hostage, heart’s desire, a granddaughter. His. Another nail in his coffin. His.

    Though that may be something to do with my being surrounded by babies at the moment.

  8. Paul said,

    That’s good writing. Wouldn’t make it the best novel of the last 108 years though, in my opinion. And yes, Jeanestte Winterson, you made me smile with your nailing down of her columns.

  9. Andrew said,

    I think Tolstoy first acquired something of mass fame in a Big Brother type sociological/entertainment experiment in the late 19th century, called “I’m a Russian Literary Heavyweight- Get Me Out of Here.” In it he notoriously bullied and harangued an Ivan Turgenev, but got the shite kicked out of him by a Fyodor Dostoevsky, after needling him over some gambling debts he’d accrued abroad.

  10. Lee Monks said,

    David Baddiel: irritatingly dyspeptic self-aggrandising talentless tosspot – that’s you, that is.

  11. Lee Monks said,

    PS I do like Frank Skinner and genuinely find him funny. So that’s about 3 Brit comedians that are beyond ‘mildly chucklesome’.

  12. Sam said,

    Thanks for pointing this out, John.

    I was at my usual Borders, passing my eye along the usual shelves of fiction, and I just suddenly felt depressed at the sheer volume of novels on display (this happens to me occasionally – I think it must be the thought that most of those novels will fall short of expectations). Sod it, I thought. I went and bought Skinner’s first autobiography, and even got a discount because it was a bit tatty. Undoubtedly it benefits from low – or no – expectations, but it’s wonderful fun. I’m about halfway through, have probably got as much as I’m going to get out of it and will put it down tomorrow, but it’s managed to both keep me entertained and make me miss novels.

  13. drug problem said,

    Frank Skinner’s story of triumph over alcoholism and drug addiction is just amazing. He sets an example to those people who wants to recover from these kind of addictions.

  14. Billy said,

    Cracking write-up, John!

    I too love Frank Skinner – I pray for the return of Unplanned, as I’m one of the (possibily even fewer) people that finds Baddiel funny too. I think the two of them together are wonderful and I could watch them for hours. But why, oh why, oh WHY has this book been released in such a massive format? I hate big paperbacks and find myself hesitating in my buying of this because of its size. It’s ridiculously big for a paperback!

  15. John Self said,

    Thanks for your comment Billy. I think On the Road will be released as a normal sized paperback; the large format one was published in tandem with the hardback, as a lower priced option. But I agree, those large format paperbacks are a pain.


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