Frank Skinner: ‘I was threatened in work because I was Catholic’

There’s a lot more to Frank Skinner than the New Lad tag he was once lumbered with. He talks about stand-up, John Giles, his ‘uncool’ faith and the IRA’s bombing of Birmingham

When Chris Collins left his home in Birmingham's Irish Catholic enclave in the mid-1970s to study English literature, he could scarcely have imagined that one day he would become England's Lad King and the doyen of the Loaded generation.

He did an MA at the University of Warwick and tried his hand at lecturing but his life took an unexpected twist when he abandoned the academic lecture circuit in favour of the comedy one. As his stature in stand-up grew, he discovered another Collins had an Equity card so he had no option but to change his name. He looked to his dad’s dominos team where he found a Frank Skinner lurking. Chris took the name and made it his own.

As Frank Skinner, in the 1990s he became a household name as co-presenter, along with his best mate, David Baddiel, of some very funny football-themed TV shows. He also co-wrote the infuriatingly catchy Three Lions anthem that England took to its heart as it hosted Euro 96.

"It's coming home, it's coming home, football's coming home," the Skinner song went. But football wasn't coming home, as it turned out. England were knocked out by the Germans in the Euro 96 semi-final after Paul Gascoigne wasted a glorious chance to be a hero at the death and Gareth Southgate missed a penalty in the shootout.

But Skinner (and Baddiel) came out of the tournament big winners and Skinner’s star hasn’t really dimmed since. He’s as busy today as he has ever been – busier perhaps. “I’m not a man with many plans,” he says, “but offers come in and I think this one or that one will be really interesting, so I say yes. I’ve said yes a lot this year, probably too much, as I don’t have a whole lot of free time. But I’m always thinking it might stop, all this might just stop, so I feel compelled to keep going, to keep saying yes. It’s like a sex drive, I suppose. I’m afraid it might leave me.”

This year he has presented the BBC's Room 101 series, written radio plays, hosted an absolutely wonderful weekend programme on Absolute Radio and gone on a extensive stand-up tour, which comes to Dublin's Vicar Street next month. He also had a speaking part in Doctor Who, a show he has loved since he was in short trousers.

He works in television, radio and on the stage. If a gun was put to his head and he had to choose one, which would it be? “I’d have to go with stand-up, though radio would be a temptation. You have more freedom on radio. When people used to tell me they preferred radio to TV, I always thought they were making the best of things because they couldn’t get any telly work, but now I understand, sort of. I can’t tell you why, but I feel like I’m more me on radio than on television. It’s because I’m more relaxed. The reason I feel that way is a mystery to me, mind you.”

Influenced by Robin Williams

One reason he went into radio five years ago was Robin Williams, or more specifically, Williams in Good Morning Vietnam. "That's who I imagine every time I put on the headphones. It's not like I was a great fan of his but I really liked that film."

In recent years, Skinner has made TV programmes about his twin loves, Elvis Presley and George Formby, but if that gun was put to his head again and he was forced to invite the king of rock'n'roll or the king of music hall to dinner, who would it be? He doesn't skip a beat. "It would be Elvis, because he was such a massive influence on my childhood and he was who I wanted to be when I grew up," he says.

Elvis died in 1977, when Skinner was 20. Birmingham was a very different place then, and Irish Catholics were treated like pariahs by some, thanks, largely, to the IRA’s bombing campaign in Britain. It’s 40 years since two Birmingham pubs were targeted by the IRA, but the memories are still fresh in Skinner’s mind.

“I remember getting threatened in work after the pub bombings because I was a Catholic. I still am,” he adds quickly. He acknowledges that his faith is “uncool” but never hides it. “The bombings were like nothing I’ve ever known. I remember going into town just after it happened and all the pubs were empty and everyone was frightened, and a lot of Catholics in our community were getting their windows put in. When I talk about it now I can’t believe it happened.”

John Giles and West Brom

He quickly moves on to a more comfortable subject. “One of the most exciting things about supporting West Bromwich Albion was watching Johnny Giles play in the late ’70s,” he says, with almost childlike glee. “He is still one of the best passers of the ball I have ever seen.”

Football is always a handy crutch for Skinner, but there’s a lot more to him than the beautiful game. “I was a flavour of the month in the mid-1990s. I liked football, and at the time I was sexually active, but I am not sure I was ever a lad. Looking back at the New Lad thing is fascinating for me. I still meet people who recall how I used to get drunk on every show, when in actual fact all I ever drank was water in clearly identifiable water bottles.” He has been teetotal since 1989.

"I think the New Lad thing, which was fuelled by Loaded magazine, is one of the few social movements that has no nostalgia value. It's been completely written off. Recently I saw all these stylised pictures of skinheads. Even skinheads have nostalgia value now and that was a culture built around racism and violence. I can't see that ever happening to New Lads.

“I remember Dave [Baddiel] telling me something he read by John Updike about how the light from stars has actually been shining for thousands of years before we see it. On some level people see those in the public eye through that prism, and that leads some to have this notion of me based on what they saw 20 years ago. And when they meet me they’re shocked I’m not wearing an England shirt.”

There is very little football in his new stand-up show, Man in a Suit. "It changes, but it's mostly me talking about that transformation from that lad to whatever I am now," he says. "I get something different from stand-up. I feel – and I know this sounds crap – slightly heroic on stage. It feels a bit special."

Frank Skinner is at Dublin’s Vicar Street on Dec 3