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The NS Interview: Frank Skinner

“People are more accepting of transvestism than Catholicism.”

Is it true that you had never read a novel until you were 21?
That's correct. It was Saturday Night and Sunday Morning by Alan Sillitoe. The second book I read was Billy Liar by Keith Waterhouse. That was life-changing. It acknowledged the existence of daydreaming -- I used to think it was only me who did it. It was funny and great.

Do you make a conscious effort not to put religion or politics into your comedy?
Years ago, I went to Sweden with Eddie Izzard to do gigs. He was a transvestite but he hadn't yet talked about it on stage. He said: "Let's make a pact -- I'll talk about being a transvestite and you talk about Catholicism." I said: "No, because people in the modern world are much more accepting of transvestism than any kind of religious belief." Knowing about science and being an atheist is what's cool now.

Your TV show Frank Skinner's Opinionated bucks the current comedy trend by being nice.
Panel shows can be a bit like the January sales -- the biggest, strongest, most violent people get the best bargains. And I was keen to have proper women comics on. I thought: there's a whole area of comedy that has been slightly squandered on telly.

Some comedy fans think that female comics are preoccupied with "women's stuff".
I don't know what a "women's issue" is. I once wrote a column about dieting in the Times -- it was about how, as I've got older, when I get ill, there's always a candle flickering in the gloom that says, "I am losing weight." I don't think men admit to that. It's bogus to say that things are either women's issues or men's issues.

You have said that you want to interview the Pope. What would you ask him?
I'd ask him what a lot of Catholics would like to ask, such as: "How come being a saint used to be a really rare and unusual thing? Yet now they're churning them out." It wouldn't be a very interesting interview for non-Catholics. I'd ask him some in-house stuff.

How do you feel about the Catholic Church's hostility to gay and women priests?
It's like it is with friends -- often, there are things about them that you don't like but all the good stuff about them keeps them back. It's important to have a devil's advocate approach. When there's anything anti-Catholic in the papers, I read it extensively because I think it's good to keep testing whether it's acceptable or not. Sometimes, it's difficult. Catholics should be ahead of the game in liberating oppressed groups, not 500 years late.

Do you read atheist books, such as Richard Dawkins's God Delusion?
Before I read The God Delusion, I held it in my hands and thought, "When I finish this book, I might not believe in God any more." But it didn't happen.

Do you ever doubt your faith?
I think doubt is crucial. I worry about those who go without any doubt. That's one of the things that put me off Dawkins. If someone is utterly convinced about something, it worries me. I'm very much in the God camp but, having said that, I have a lot of time for atheists who have properly pursued the topic. I'd rather have Dawkins than just a dork.

Do you vote?
Yes, I vote Labour. I have an emotional attachment to my working-class background and I like the idea of being someone who cares more about the lowly than my own tax rate.

What have your encounters with politicians been like?
Politicians, when I interview them, are so deliberately evasive that, in the end, I find that my interviewing manner, which is usually fairly genial, becomes quite aggressive and rude. Otherwise, they just rattle off their learned bits of policy rhetoric.

Are the media partly at fault?
It seems that the great task of journalism now is to catch people out, to get them to say the wrong thing -- whether it's Andy Gray, Glenn Hoddle or Gordon Brown and the "bigoted woman". It doesn't encourage articulate freedom at all.

Is there a plan?
I think I went through a period -- it wasn't deliberate -- of saying, "I'm not just a comic." But the truth is, I'm happy to be just a comic.

Is there anything you'd like to forget?
No. I think bad memories are instructive.

Are we all doomed?
I never quite believe we are. Everything that is supposed to doom us -- from the cold war and the millennium bug to Sars and swine flu -- never turns out to be very spectacular. I remember that there was a massive panic about what would happen after decimalisation -- people thought that we would all be wildly overcharged and wouldn't understand what we had in our hands. It was rubbish.

Defining Moments

1957 Born Christopher Graham Collins in West Bromwich
1982 Graduates from Warwick University with an MA in English literature
1991 Wins Perrier Award
1994 Starts presenting Fantasy Football League with David Baddiel on BBC2
1995 The Frank Skinner Show airs on BBC1
1996 Releases the "Three Lions" song for Euro 96. It reaches number one
2010 Frank Skinner's Opinionated debuts

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


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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An English hero for the ages: Ian Botham at 60

Botham blends his sportsmanship and deep-seated passion for cricket with a lust for life.

Begging W H Auden’s pardon, it is possible both to honour and to value the vertical man, and in the case of Ian Botham, who turned 60 on 24 November, it is our bounden duty. No sportsman has given Britons so much to enjoy in the past half-century and no sportsman is loved more. Two decades after he retired from first-class cricket, his reputation as one of life’s champions remains unassailable.

No mere cricketer is he, either. Botham is a philanthropist, having raised more than £12m for various charities, notably Leukaemia and Lymphoma Research. In December, 30 years after his first walk from John o’Groats to Land’s End, he will set off again, in South Africa, where England are on tour. And he really does walk, too, not amble. As somebody who accompanied him on one of his dozen walks said: “You can’t keep up with him. The man is a phenomenon.”

Of all postwar sportsmen, only Bobby Charlton and, at a pinch, Henry Cooper come close to matching Botham’s enduring popularity. But Charlton, a shy man who was scarred by the Munich plane crash of 1958 (and may never have recovered from its emotional effects), has never comfortably occupied a public stage; and Cooper, being a boxer, had a solitary role. Botham, by contrast, spoke for England. Whenever he picked up his bat, or had a ball in his hand, he left spectators in no doubt.

Others have also spoken for England. Bobby Moore and Martin Johnson, captains respectively of England’s World Cup-winning football and rugby teams, were great players but did not reach out to people as naturally as Botham. Nick Faldo, Lester Piggott, Sebastian Coe and, to bring us up to date, Lewis Hamilton have beaten the best in the world, but they lacked those qualities that Botham displayed so freely. That is not to mark them down. They were, and are, champions. But Botham was born under a different star.

It was John Arlott, the great cricket commentator, who first spotted his uniqueness. Covering a match at Taunton in 1974, he asked the young colt to carry his bags up the rickety staircase to the press box, where Arlott, wearing his oenophile’s hat, pulled out a bottle of red wine and invited Botham to drink. Forty years later Botham is a discriminating wine drinker – and maker. Along with his friend and fellow England great Bob Willis, and their Australian wine­making pal Geoff Merrill, he has put his name to a notable Shiraz, “BMW”.

Arlott, with his nose for talent and good company, saw something in the young Botham that Brian Close, his captain at Somerset, was beginning to bring out. Later, Mike Brearley, as England captain, drew out something even more remarkable. As Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote, you’ve got to be carefully taught. And Botham, a fine team man as well as a supreme individual performer, has never withheld praise from those who enabled him to find his voice.

If sport reveals character, then cricket is the game that reveals it most clearly. In no other sport is the individual performance rooted so firmly in a team context. Every over brings a contest of skill and intelligence between batsman and bowler but only a team can win the match. “A cricketer,” as Arlott said, “is showing you something of himself all the time.”

Cricket also reveals national character more than any other sport. Football may be the most popular game in the world but cricket, and cricketers, tell us far more about England and Englishness. It is instructive, in this regard, to hear what Philippe Auclair, a French journalist and author long resident in London, has to say about Botham: “He is essentially an 18th-century Englishman.” In one! It’s not difficult to sense a kinship with Tom Jones, Fielding’s embodiment of 18th-century life, who began his journey, as readers may recall, in Somerset.

A country boy who played for Worcestershire after leaving Somerset, and who lives by choice in North Yorkshire, Botham is an old-fashioned Englishman. Although nobody has yet found him listening to the parson’s sermon, he is conservative with a small and upper-case C, a robust monarchist, handy with rod and gun, and happiest with a beaker in front of him. He represents (though he would never claim to be a representative) all those people who understand instinctively what England means, not in a narrow way, but through something that is in the blood.

Above all, he will be remembered for ever as the hero of 1981. Even now it takes some believing that Botham bowled and batted with such striking success that the Australians, who were one up after two Tests, were crushed. Some of us who were actually at Headingley for the famous third Test – thousands who claim to have been there were not – recall the odds of 500-1 on an England victory going up on the electronic scoreboard that Saturday evening.

Botham made 149 not out as England, following on, beat the Aussies by 18 runs. For three hours the country seemed to stop. In the next Test, at Edgbaston, Botham took five wickets for one run as Australia fell under his spell. Then, at Old Trafford, on a dank Saturday afternoon, he played the most memorable innings of his life and one of the greatest innings ever played by an Englishman: 118 magnificent, joyful runs. Joy: that’s the word. Botham brought joy into people’s lives.

Yet it was the final Test at the Oval, which ended in a draw, that brought from him a performance no less remarkable than those from before. He bowled 89 overs in that match, flat out, continuing to run in when others withdrew with injury. That was the team man coming to the fore. Little wonder his comrades thought the world of him.

Modest, loyal, respectful to opponents, grateful to all who have lent him a hand, and supported throughout a turbulent life by Kath, his rock of a wife, and their three children, this is a cricketing hero to rank with W G Grace, Jack Hobbs, Wally Hammond and Fred Trueman. A feature in the lives of all who saw him, and a very English hero. 

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State