Book review: On The Road

by Frank Skinner

It’s the ultimate ‘difficult second book’ syndrome. When your first volume has covered an entire life, what do you do for an encore?

After her superlative biography of Billy Connolly, for example, Pamela Stephenson decided to follow up with an account of a year in his now-cosseted life. The ensuing self-indulgent tales of extravagant holidays and lavish parties were an unmitigated disappointment.

It might be something of a worry, then, to learn that Frank Skinner has adopted the same approach to the follow-up to his honest, hilarious and revealing autobiography of 2001 with a tour diary from a year on the road.

Thankfully, though, he manages to provide a fascinating insight into the world, and the insecure mind, of a stand-up comedian… even if it isn’t quite in the same premier league as his first book.

It isn’t just any tour he’s writing about, mind you, but his comeback after a decade or so away from the live arena. TV made him a star, so rich he’d never have to work again. But he still felt the call of the road – especially when he was left without purpose after ITV showed little enthusiasm for renewing his seven-year, £55,000-a-show contract.

Anyone who’s seen the splendid Jerry Seinfeld documentary Comedian will know what to expect here. The one-time big shot, wondering if he’s still got it, and throwing himself on to the mercy of the instant judgment of the audience, who may be inherently antagonistic towards any celebrity on stage. As many have found out, when it comes to stand-up audiences, it’s not your fame or track record that counts, but what you can do on stage here and now, so it was back to square one for Skinner.

The book starts as he’s about to return to the Edinburgh festival, preparing for a run at the same venue where he won the Perrier all those years before. In flashback, some of the gigs that led him here are revealed: the small pub rooms where he tried out his new material, and the car-crash of a show at Montreal’s Just For Laughs festival where he suddenly appeared leagues out of his depth.

Skinner’s experiences of grappling with the nuts and bolts of stand-up, with making gags work and reluctantly dropping those that don’t, are the same as any other comedian’s, from the lowliest open-spot upwards, and anyone fascinated by how this most ephemeral of art forms functions will understand the way he frets over his beloved gags as if they were his children, which is so pithily described here.

He also covers honestly his personal reactions to his career, such as his disappointment that the second series of his sitcom Shane was made, but deemed too poor ever to air, and the way he copes with his dwindling fame and relevance, ignored by paparazzi and an alien outsider on panel shows alongside the new breed of comics who have ousted him from favour. Skinner doesn’t mourn the passing of celebrity, nor feel bitter that he’s no longer flavour-of-the-moment, but is simply upfront about describing the realities of the situation he finds himself in.

Touring as a 50-year-old man is also different from the wild ride of his youth. He described his addiction to booze, and his kicking of the habit in the last book. Now he’s given up his other favourite vice, one-night stands with the eager girls who would wait at the stage door.

‘A tour book about a church-going, drug-free teetotaller who’s not shagging strangers,’ he writes. ‘I won’t think ill of you if you leave now.’

Indeed, much of the talk of his off-stage emotions, especially his ‘ready-to-settle-down’ relationship, isn’t as interesting as when he talks about his job. Talk about his Catholic faith, especially, I could live without – but that might just be my atheistic prejudices coming to the fore. Then again, the tale of the unsympathetic priest demanding a confession is a frighteningly revelatory one.

Notwithstanding, the picture that emerges of Skinner – almost certainly by design – is far from the laddish womaniser his material might lead you to believe. He listens to Radio 3 in the tour car, likes visiting churches and art galleries, and has good intentions, at least, of self-improvement.

His tour manager, Adam, deserves a nod for best supporting character, with his kneejerk turns of phrase, supposedly funny but frequently rubbing his charge up the wrong way. The way Skinner admits to reacting to him – even if it doesn’t show the comedian in the best light, adds to the feel this is a real, honest account of life on the road.

And you can’t expect more from a tour diary than that.

Reviewed by: Steve Bennett

Frank Skinner: On The Road is published today by Century, priced £18.99. Click here to order from Amazon at £11.39

Published: 2 Oct 2008

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