Ten minutes have passed since Frank Skinner owned up to his sins. We’re nearing the end of an hour-long chat in a corner of an unassuming north London café, where Skinner has been espousing on poetry, politics, alcoholism, history – even comedy, at times. Currently, the topic is religion. Raised a Roman Catholic, he left the Church at 17, returning to the fold 12 years later. In the near three decades since, his faith has never wavered. So what crimes does the comedian admit to during confession? “Intolerance,” he says after some thought, and when it’s suggested that sounds a somewhat modest confession, he insists: “No! It’s massive.”
And now, abruptly, a man has arrived by the side of our table, gazing at Skinner. The comedian looks up, quite reasonably anticipating a fan. “Just keep it down a little bit,” orders the stranger without preamble. “I realise it’s an interview. I don’t really want to hear it.”
Skinner’s response is immediate: “Well, go somewhere else then, you cheeky git.”
The stranger is put out, claiming somewhat inaccurately: “I’m just asking really politely.”
“You’re not,” replies Skinner. “You’re asking in a really aggressive, unfriendly… Put your fingers in your ears. Try that.” The stranger sits sulkily at a nearby table, while Skinner resumes speaking as if it never happened. One way or another, intolerance – albeit of a particularly regretful kind – is a recurring theme of his.
He spends a good chunk of the interview describing the regular arguments and splits that have punctuated his 14-year relationship with partner and comedy agent Cath Mason (above), although his loving admiration for her and patent adoration of their two-year-old son are written in mile-high neon with every word.
“I always knew I didn’t want to be with anyone else, but we had so many rows that I couldn’t cope and would walk away,” he explains with his trademark amiability. “For the first ten years it was on-off and very volatile. Neither of us thought we could bring a child into that. We once split up because we disagreed about the colour of my hair. These days Cath ends the relationship about once a fortnight, but I just hold on and don’t leave.”
Famously, she has refused his proposals of marriage four times. “They haven’t involved flash-mobs and choirs or even a ring,” he concedes. “They’re more like, ‘I don’t see why we don’t get married.’ I last asked a couple of years ago. I’ll probably give it another go. But her mum and dad got divorced, so she thinks marriage puts a hoodoo on a relationship.”
Six years ago they had couples counselling – not because they were splitting up, but because they were getting back together. “We’d been apart for nine months, and a year another time,” says Skinner. “I phoned her and said, ‘Look, we’re going to end up together. We might as well accept it.’ It was that romantic. She was very wary so I did two commitment things – I asked her to move in, and I said let’s have counselling. I didn’t have much faith in it but it was brilliant.”
Skinner hosting Room 101
All the same, it was May 2012 before their son – his first child – Buzz Cody arrived. Skinner was 55. “Buzz after Aldrin, obviously. Cath liked Cody because it’s cool, and I liked it for the Buffalo Bill connection. His baptismal name is Francis – we got in with that before the current Pope. We did have a conversation at the Church about us not being married, but they’re OK with it.
“People tell me Buzz will be bullied for his name, but I don’t think that happens any more because kids have so many unusual names now. Besides, he’s got ginger hair, so they’ll be spoilt for choice on what to bully him about. I used to worry that I won’t be around for all that much of his life. But now I think you really want your parents around until university or so, and then after that you don’t so much.
“He saw himself in a mirror the other day and said, ‘I’m very beautiful.’ I do agree with that. He’s the best thing that’s ever happened. I could never have guessed it. No one could conjure up parental love in their imagination. Even if he grows up to be a Conservative, I’ll forgive him, like one of those mothers who goes to visit their serial killer son in prison.”
Politics matters to Skinner. Born in West Bromwich, the youngest of four children of a semi-professional foot- baller, he’s a lifelong Labour voter, although he appears uncertain whether Ed Miliband will be Prime Minister. “Depends,” he grins. “He might be part of a small group with a shared stake in being Prime Minister. I used to think it was clever to point out that he was an unelectable dork, but my early New Year’s resolution is to be pro-Ed. Leaders shouldn’t be that important. The whole thrust of liberal Catholics for the past 20 years has been more collegial, not just a Pope making announcements.”
Skinner in Doctor Who this year
Matters Catholic pervade his life even more than politics. His return to the Church at 29 was “just a gut thing”. He prays daily (“doesn’t everyone?”) and goes to Mass each Sunday. But for a man who eagerly engages in articulate debate and is clearly enormously well read, it’s startling how little he has to say of interest about his faith. Ask how he reconciles some of the less fashion- able doctrinal teachings about abortion and homosexuality with his politics, and he offers the pedestrian reply: “The Church is not perfect. It makes mistakes.”
“The Church is on the road to truth but it finds several cul-de-sacs on the way. There are certainly doctrines that I don’t agree with – I can’t see any logical reason why there aren’t women priests. But the Church is generally viewed by its faults whereas, at ground level, it can be a massive force for good.”
He cheerfully admits Cath “has no religious beliefs at all”, but her lifelong teetotalism is important. For a decade from his late teens he was “a reckless alcoholic”, but managed to stop aged 29 when flu stopped him drinking for four days, so he resolved to carry on. But 13 years later, in 1999, he was “looking for a reason” to start again. “A friend who had a gambling problem told me you haven’t beaten something until you can do it in moderation. I told him he might be right but I didn’t have the courage to try it. It’d be nice to think I could handle it. But I can’t. So ultimately I didn’t.”
His alcoholism was at its height when he discovered literature, and especially poetry. Expelled from school for selling forged dinner tickets, he started work in a factory making metal parts for aircraft. But he went back into education, fell in love with literature and, after two years on the dole, became a lecturer at Halesowen College in the West Midlands. For a while he combined teaching and stand-up, before committing himself to the latter and abstinence along with it. He still reads poetry every day, and has the kind of curious mind that yearns for knowledge. It led him to devise his new Radio 4 panel game, The Rest Is History (on tonight at 7.15pm).
“I’m fascinated by history but have never studied it,” he says. “The show has me and a guest panel speculating on a person or event that we think we know about, and then our expert, Dr Kate Williams, gives the facts. I like that as well as being funny, you learn some history.”
“I once made a joke about the Whig Party on BBC2 and a commissioning editor said, ‘No one knows who they are.’ On the radio I can make those jokes, which I find more liberating than being able to say ‘f***’ on air.” Those who are offended by such words used to puzzle him. Then he saw Jerry Springer – the Opera, and was shocked to find himself offended by a joke about the Virgin Mary. “It made me realise that being offended isn’t a choice, it’s just how you feel. I’d like to think it’s possible to make jokes about anything, but you’d need an audience that really listened to what you were saying.”
As for the recent row engulfing the comedian Dapper Laughs (whose ITV show was dropped last month after he announced that a female audience member was “gagging for a rape”), Skinner says: “I hadn’t even heard of him until he became anathema. I couldn’t quite understand how, if he was so offensive, he got an ITV dating show. Weird.”
Skinner himself does not like to offend. As the interview ends, he says: “Perhaps I should apologise.” He goes over to the nearby table where the grumpy stranger is nursing his cup of tea. Amends are made and a handshake exchanged. All is well. Nonetheless, Skinner is wearing an expression unfamiliar to his audiences – shame. He will be confessing to intolerance again, come Sunday.
The Rest is History begins on Radio 4 tonight at 7.15pm