"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.

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Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

***

Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.