This year Frank Skinner passes up the microphone to debut his first play.
Frank Skinner has a confession to make. For all his deep and wide experience in the entertainment industry, from stand-up to TV presenting to memoir-writing to pretending to be Johnny Cash in a whimsical, self-written Sky Arts drama the other month, he still wouldn’t have written his first play if he hadn’t received a phone call saying: “Would you like to write a play that would be put on in Edinburgh?”
“I think because all my background is in television,” he replies. “That’s what I know best, even though I go to the theatre a lot. But if I was to chart why I love this job, I could write a book,
‘Frank Skinner’s 25 Phone Calls’, in which I’d just list those exciting calls when you get job offers.”
This exciting call came via BBC Arts and agents Avalon. They partnered in a project called Debut, aimed at encouraging writers to try their hand at a new format. Actress Katherine Parkinson (The IT Crowd, Humans) has written Sitting, while Skinner has penned Nina’s Got News.
Skinner wrote the first draft in ten days, working fast with his gift for, as he puts it, “expression rather than invention”. But, perhaps out of first-timer’s nerves, he declines to give away too much of the plot – “I’ve heard you’re not meant to,” he jokes, as if it’s some “Scottish play”-type curse. Still, he will say that it looks at the importance of belief and whether ex-partners can remain just good friends. In brief, “it tells the story of Nina’s truly incredible news, how her ex-boyfriend and her best friend react to it, and whether they can possibly believe her.”
In terms of casting, “it’s three people, in their late twenties, so there’s no place for me,” the remarkably youthful 61-year-old replies. But he has tapped fast-rising comedian/poet Rob Auton to act after Skinner caught an instalment of his anarchic show Bang Said The Gun, a spoken word night that’s featured guest turns from the likes of Kate Tempest, Roger McGough and Jarvis Cocker.
Still, one thing seems certain: it will be funny. And if anyone knows the heartbeat of the Fringe, it’s the man who first performed in Edinburgh 31 years ago and who, four years later, won the Perrier Award, beating Eddie Izzard and Jack Dee. On that first visit, in 1987, Skinner was acting in a student production. But in his spare time he obsessively watched the late night cabaret at Pleasance, hosted by his future Fantasy Football partner David Baddiel.
“I got back from that visit and decided I wanted to do a comedy show the next year,” he recalls. “So I called up Calton Studios and said I wanted to do a stand-up show in Edinburgh. They said, ‘well, that’s quite an early booking…’ ‘But I just want to get it sorted. How much is it?’ “Well, how long will you do?’ ‘I dunno, two hours?’ ‘Nobody does two hours.’
“So I said I’d do an hour, they said that would be £400. I had 435 quid in the bank, so I sent them 400.”
To be clear, he adds with a smile, he had, by this point, found sobriety after several years of ruinous drinking. So this was a sober decision?
“It was!” he chirps. “I hadn’t even written any jokes! I had nothing. But at that point, my original idea – and I swear this is true – was not to do any comedy in the interim: just turn up to Edinburgh the next year and do a show. Without writing any material. I always got laughs in the pub, so I thought I’d just do that.”
Still, common sense of a sort prevailed.“I did do a couple of gigs where I died on my arse. And I always wondered: might I have quit after those two disastrous shows had I not already spent that 400 quid?”
WHERE & WHEN
Nina’s Got News by Frank Skinner, Pleasance Dome, 1–26 August, 2.50pm, £14