"I vote sentimentally. James Callaghan waved at me in the 1970s"

From Samuel Johnson to <em>The King's Speech</em>: a few bits of my interview with Frank Skinner tha

If they sold shares in Frank Skinner, I'd buy some. Not only is he the only man in the world who could make me watch a show about football (Statto!) but he is perhaps the perfect interviewee. He's funny, provocative and has an opinion on just about everything. I interviewed him for the magazine (online here) but here are some of the best bits we didn't have room for . . .

Victoria Coren wrote a column last year saying that she was going to admit that she believed in God, although it was the kind of thing that makes people gasp at dinner parties.

There was a time when, if I said I was a Catholic, people would be quite interested -- a bit like if you said, "I play the percussive dulcimer." People would say, "Oh, what's that? That's really interesting." Whereas [now], if I say I'm a Catholic, it's much more negative and aggressive.

I'm very much in the God camp. Having said that, I have a lot of time for atheists who have properly pursued the topic of God. I prefer people who've read a few books, had some thoughts about it, considered their own experience and then arrived at the position that there is no God, rather than someone who, if you say, "Do you believe in God?", says, "Yeah, I think so."

If you entertain the possibility that there might be a God, would you not pursue that as an interesting and relevant topic to your life? I'd rather have Dawkins than just a dork.

Wasn't Thomas Aquinas the Catholic who was big on doubt?

I've always thought that there was a moment of doubt -- this is going to get quite theological -- when Jesus was on the cross, depending on which occurrence in the Bible you take. I can't remember the Aramaic but he said: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" Then he dies. When I read that, I thought that was because he couldn't go back home and say, "I've been a human being," if he didn't have any doubt. Doubt is really important. That was the last brick in the wall. Once he'd experienced doubt, he could die. The job was done. You can't understand what it's like being a human being if you haven't experienced doubt of your most profound and fundamental belief.

Is your Catholicism something people fixate on -- something they you about?

I probably mention it quite a lot . . . I mean, you brought it up today! I do talk about it light-heartedly in conversation. I suppose I like the fact that it's sort of the antithesis of cool. What's really cool is to know about science and being an atheist at the moment, so I've sort of taken an anti-cool stance. Probably by needs must.

There was a time when you were quite "cool".

I don't think I've ever been cool. How dare you! That's it, the interview ends here!

In the Fantasy Football days.

I don't know if we were cool . . . I once drove to the West End and there was a very fat man being sick in the gutter. He hadn't even moved his feet, so he was being sick on his shoes. He had a Frank Skinner Fantasy Football T-shirt on. And I remember thinking: "That's my people." [Laughs] But what you mean is I used to be more popular than I am now!

You're definitely more refined now. With Opinionated, was it deliberately supposed to be a "nice" show, because it's quite friendly, with comics working together?

I'm slightly wary of saying this, because it could be misheard . . . but panel shows can be a bit like the January sales, when the biggest, strongest, most violent people get the best bargain. And I was very, very keen to have proper women comics on, who have the chance to be proper women comics. That was partly selfish -- I thought there's a whole area of comedy that's been slightly squandered on telly and I'm happy for them to come on the show because my name's on the door. If ultimately people think it's a funny show, I get the credit for it.

Do you think it's hard for female comics when they're seen as doing "women's jokes" -- about hairspray and wedding dresses and stuff like that?

That doesn't apply on Opinionated because we talk about whatever we talk about. I talk about it and the male comic talks about it and the female comic, too. And, obviously, when we get to the audience, we don't know who's gonna put their hand up. It could be a man or a woman and, in one case, even someone in the middle. So I don't know what a women's issue is, really. I mean, I did a column about dieting in the Times; it was about how, as I've got older, when I get ill now, in the gloom there's always a candle flickering saying, "Well, I am losing weight." I don't think men admit to that.

But, oddly enough, there's quite a few male comics who have lost a shed-load of weight.

Yeah, but they never talk about it.

They say: "Oh no, I walked a lot."

Yeah, but it's rubbish. I've always been skinny but there have been periods when I've been un-skinny -- and I was very glad to drop them off. But you know that pair of jeans that women are supposed to keep? I don't have those!

So things seen as being women issues or male issues, I think are slightly bogus. If blokes and women talk about them, you might get a feminine angle on it but it's not excluding it as a topic. I feel we could talk now about babies if you like, or something seen as a feminine thing.

I'm 27, I don't want to talk about babies!

Well, you know what I mean, we could talk about something profoundly feminine and I think I'd be able to have an angle on it.

Is that because you're a man and it's OK - like is it OK for straight actors to play gay roles because they don't get typecast?

Do you think it's OK for straight actors to play gay roles? I only ask that because I watched The King's Speech the other day and thought: "Is it OK for a non-stutterer to play this part?" Is he doing a stutterer out of a job? There isn't much acting work for a stutterer. Also, where is that cut-off point where you can't black up but you can stutter?

You're president of the Samuel Johnson Society. Do you have a Samuel Johnson joke? The only thing I could think of as material was I read that Boswell used to have sex with trees. But it's not necessarily a joke, so much as a horrifying observation*.

Did he used to have sex with trees? Because I understand his motivation. I was tree hugging once at two o'clock in the morning at, what is that festival? Latitude. I've got a bit of a thing about trees. Do you know what I've always thought about trees? If there were no trees and I made one and put it in an art exhibition, it would be considered the most incredible, beautiful thing. But you can walk past them all the time and not even notice them.

When I was at college, me and a mate used to do Johnson quotes all the time. We got obsessed with Johnson. We were with this student, who started telling us that his girlfriend had gone on holiday with an ex-boyfriend and he was worried about it but he trusted her. Except that he didn't trust her. My mate -- I knew he was going to say it -- said: "Sir, never accustom your mind to mingle vice and virtue. The woman's a whore and there's an end on't." As he was saying it, I was thinking, "Please don't say that." But he did.

How did it go down?

Not very well. He probably had a sense of it being a quote but he wouldn't have known the quote. You know, it had the word "whore" in it, for goodness sake.

Do you vote?

Yes. I probably vote sentimentally more than anything else. James Callaghan waved at me in the late 1970s outside Downing Street and I thought: "That's it." That was a factor. But I vote Labour because I have an emotional attachment to my working-class background and I like the idea of being someone who cares about the lowly more than my own tax rate. Obviously, that wavers but I feel like the moment I vote, I am seeing through that ideal of myself.

Do you get asked to do events for Labour?

I do occasionally, but I don't [do them]. I've been asked to do Tory things and Lib Dem things -- not so much since the Times column, where I'm fairly obviously Labour. I always think it's a bit embarrassing, celebrities. Even in the Times column, where I speak about politics to make jokes about it or in a sort of emotional, stylised [way], I don't really understand.

When I read about politics, I never read opinion columns. I want absolutely stark figures, I want to know about facts and figures and stuff like that. But I don't have the capability to write like that so I sort of poetise it. It can be entertaining but I don't know how informative it is.

Do you read newspapers then?

Yes, a lot.

But you stay away from opinion?

I don't read opinion unless it's someone who I feel is an expert or Matthew Parris, who I feel is an expert on everything.

I went to a debate about whether England should be Catholic again. He was brought up as a sort of token atheist but he didn't do an atheist speech -- he spoke on behalf of Anglicanism. He said: "If I did believe, I would be an Anglican and this is why . . ." Then, he did an assault on the Catholic Church, which was brilliant. Some of it, I agreed with and some of it, I didn't. I was with a Catholic friend who was outraged and there were Catholics in the audience booing but I thought it was brilliant.

It's more heroic, presumably, to take that stance?

It was a clever idea to not play the card we all thought he was going to play. If you see Will Self on Question Time, you think: if everyone who was on Question Time was like Will Self, you could watch it every week. You wouldn't need to read anything about politics that week: you would have all the important original thoughts. It's a worry that the people running the country seem much blander, less informed and less generally "on it" than someone who's a bit of a part-timer.

But isn't that our fault for ripping apart politicians every time they say anything vaguely interesting?

I used to think that, until I interviewed some politicians. I realised that I am quite confessional. On the radio, I have talked about my girlfriend; in stand-up over the years, I've talked about every aspect of my sex life. Then, if somebody writes something that I consider to be personal about me in the papers, I'm affronted -- something that's an intrusion into my privacy.

But my whole angle and my whole projection of myself into that world has been my personal life and my most secret thoughts. I'm very happy, as long as I'm in control of them.

Are you wary of making your personal life into a routine?

No, I talk about my personal life on my radio show, which is probably where I'm most "me". I talk about my home life a lot because I'm doing this show every week and it lasts for two hours: it's all grist to the mill. I've talked about big arguments [that my girlfriend and I have] had, whether I'm right or wrong. This week's phone-in was: "Was it right of me not to offer to pay her train fare, blah blah blah?"

How does she feel about that?

She seems fine with it. The second book I wrote, she's in it quite a lot. She was very cool about it but she did seem to ask for a lot of copies to give to her friends.

Frank Skinner's Opinionated returns to BBC Two on 25 March at 10pm. He hosts The Frank Skinner Show on Absolute Radio from 8am every Saturday.

* [Helen's note: I subsequently couldn't find a source for this, so -- worryingly -- I think I might have imagined it.]

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

Photo: Getty Images
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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.