Back in the saddle: Frank Skinner live (review)

The photographer has left a space for David Baddiel to be photoshopped in.
The photographer has left a space for David Baddiel to be photoshopped in.

I like Frank Skinner.

I like him because he reminds me of the 90s, that more innocent time when Tony Blair was popular, the use of combat trousers were being revolutionised by the All Saints and curtains were considered to be a perfectly acceptable haircut. (I should know, I had a lovely pair myself.)

Skinner’s contribution to that Age of Innocence was co-writing, with David Baddiel and the Lightning Seeds, the song Three Lions in which they propagated the fictional idea that England could win at football. No less significantly, he pioneered an entirely new art form: that of Witty Banter, whereby men in their 20s and 30 sit and talk (either behind desks or on a sofa) in an unscripted, hilarious way about things they know nothing about.

Considering the above, Frank Skinner’s cultural significance in a fin de siecle context is absolutely secure.

Frank Skinner giving David Baddiel a hug for having the decency to shave his goatee off
Frank Skinner giving David Baddiel a hug for having the decency to shave his goatee off

But, trouble is, he’s still alive and kicking in 2013, at the age of 55. The TV work has dried up, and he’s got a baby at home, which means he needs to get out of the house more often. Hence, this return to stand-up at the Soho Theatre ahead of a full UK tour later in the year.

Right from the off it it was clear that the dichotomy of being rich, famous and comfortable, while having a stand-up act which relies heavily on him being an ordinary, honest bloke from the West Midlands, was weighing heavily upon him.

In the first fumbling minutes of the show, he confessed to all of this in a manner as awkward and nervous as a teenager on a first date (it’s no surprise that the only person he built a bit of rapport with was a 16-year-old who had come along with his mum because he liked Three Lions).

Some of his ‘topical’ jokes were as bad as anything I have ever heard, and poorly delivered as well. One about racehorses involved in the horsemeat scandal – “One minute they were under starter’s orders, the next they were being ordered as a starter” – was terrible, and made worse by him effectively giving the punchline away in the build-up. A bit rusty, shall we say.

The gig picked up in the second half when he started to swear a bit and talk about oral sex. He also raised an important moral question: If Shakin’ Stevens developed Parkinson’s would it still be okay to call him Shakin’? As a leading moral poet – known formally as a moraletrist – I was delighted that he consulted me on this matter.

My answer was clear: Yes. Because it is factually accurate.

I wanted to explore the matter in more detail, and share with him some moral questions I have successfully wrestled with over the years (such as: is it right to call a spade a spade if that spade is indeed a spade?), but he needed to get on sprinkling comedy gold about.

It is true that this show didn’t really have a beginning, or an end, or much of a middle. But Skinner shouldn’t worry, because I have developed a three-step plan to help him out.

1. Forget the topical material. You’re out of touch, Frank, and you know it.
2. Talk about the olden days: the 90s, the Spice Girls and their opposite numbers, the Spice Boys. Those days were good and people, particularly young people who were in push-chairs at the time, should be constantly reminded about them. Three Lions was a great song, despite what it sounds like.
3. Be realistic. You won’t win any comedy prizes with this show but, with a well-organised defence and a touch of luck, you might get a quarter-final spot. Which, as Sven Goran-Eriksson taught us, is still a very good result, given the available raw materials.

Have I become a boring, middle aged fool?

Why can’t I keep on hating you, Norah?

I have recently had an experience which has seriously made me question whether I am becoming middle-aged. Boring. Satisfied. Mellow. Less the angry person I used to be, and more a person my younger self would have bitterly, ironically, and derisively disliked.

For, this weekend, after listening to her new Little Broken Hearts album, I have become a Norah Jones fan.

Norah Jones. Norah fucking Jones. The one who did Come Away With Me. An album which might as well have been sponsored by Chill FM, in association with the Dignitas Clinic. An album which I couldn’t get past the first 20 seconds of, so filled with horror was I of its sheer, ‘let’s snuggle up, take sedatives and abandon all thought-ness’.

When she first released her ‘music to have an organic picnic to’ album in the early part of this century, I was a big fan of the Libertines. And Biggie Smalls. If I listened to a female artist it was PJ Harvey. I had a lot of anger and a short attention span.

So maybe I didn’t give Norah the chance she deserved.

But fuck that. Her album was a sweetly smelling pile of shite. Pitiful bollocks which John Peel would have said something about with a casual wit of which I am not capable.

I hated Norah Jones, her music and everything she represented. (You may have inferred this already, but I like to underline a point.)

And the good thing is, after the abortion that was her first album, it seems that a lot of people hated Norah, too. It appears that her nearest and dearest have undergone a concerted campaign to be as nasty as possible to the pretty girl with the pretty voice.

Because her new album is so full of malevolence, hate, and cruelty that it makes you wonder if the thing has been penned by Nick Cave.

Exhibit A is the song Miriam. The choice lyric here is:

“Miriam, you know you done me wrong, I’m gonna smile when I take your life.”

She sings it sweetly enough, which makes the murderous threat all the more twisted.

On She’s 22, she sings, “She’s 22, and she’s loving you, and you’ll never know how it makes me blue. Does it make you happy?” A very simple lyric, but delivered with a bittersweet attitude which is not far from Billie Holiday.

Norah Jones has gone from being background music of the worst sort, to music, if it were played at a dinner party, I’d tell people to shut up and listen (this is perhaps why I rarely get invited to dinner parties).

But maybe it is me. Maybe I have changed. I have been on the live performance scene for a couple of years now. I’ve witnessed performances which have made me cringe in horror (some, on reflection, by myself). I know what a revelation it is when you hear someone with talent, up close. If Norah Jones was in a small venue with an acoustic guitar, she would blow me away, saccharine lyrics or not.

I can now appreciate talent for what it is, rather than instantly seeking to denounce something which is not to my specific taste, however enjoyable that might be. I am, without doubt, more tolerant.

So, it seems, we’ve both changed. And from my new, slightly more mature standpoint I am happy to say Norah Jones’s new album is brilliant. However, just to balance things out, I also downloaded the new Killer Mike album, which hopefully will assuage my old self that I haven’t changed too much.