November 1, 2008
Frank Skinner: On the Road
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.