They're coming home: Frank Skinner and David Baddiel on their return to the Fringe
- Craig McLean
- 10 July 2018
The Old New Lads talk about Edinburgh memories, dirty flats, and whether you can be a bloke and woke
In the Hampstead branch of Starbucks on an early summer morning, confusion abounds. Does one play a 'playwright' make, Frank Skinner ponders? Is David Baddiel's new show actually on at the Fringe? And what kind of beast is said new show anyway?
'So this is a play based on a book that you haven't written?' says a puzzled Skinner to his old sparring, joking, flat-sharing and Fantasy Footballing partner.
'Well, I wrote the book, but I didn't write the adaptation. And it's a musical,' clarifies Baddiel, having first called his agent to confirm that AniMalcolm is indeed being staged in Edinburgh (he's been on tour since the start of the year with My Family: Not the Sitcom, so a little diary confusion is understandable).
AniMalcolm is based on Baddiel's third children's book. Nina's Got News was written by Skinner under the auspices of a joint initiative from BBC Arts and comedy agents Avalon to 'encourage writers to step out of their comfort zone and write their debut play, which will then be produced for the Edinburgh Fringe'.
Cue more confusion: despite living on the same nearby north London street, and being pals of almost three decades' standing, Baddiel admits he knows nothing about Nina's Got News. 'I knew you'd done it,' the 54-year-old acknowledges, 'but what's it about?'
Skinner, 61, squirms behind his flagon of latte. 'It's … 'em … I haven't really told anyone what it's about. But part of it is about belief. Not so much religious belief, just the art of believing. The other thing is: can you remain friends after a sexual relationship? So Nina hears a revelation, but I don't want to tell you what that is. But I will tell you that I'm not in it.'
David, how do you feel about seeing your work translated by other people into a different medium?
Baddiel: Well, the people who are making it are in rehearsals in a church hall in south London, and last night, on my way to a gig in Aldershot, I popped in to see it. I honestly thought it would be a bit shit (I suppose you can print that) but it wasn't. It was really beautiful, and I was in pieces at the end. They've written songs, and that's key: they're all great. And the actors are all brilliant. So I feel a bit of a twat now.
Skinner: But most children's entertainment isn't great. With one exception: I saw Noggin the Nog at Leicester Square Theatre and it was really good. In fact they now use a quote from me on the poster: 'Better Than Hamilton'. But Hamilton is shit. It's exposition set to music.
What were your first experiences of the Fringe?
Skinner: I went in 1987 in a play. I was working at a college and they asked me to join the cast, playing a copper. He was racist against the Irish, and I was interviewing an Irish terrorist suspect. We came on stage to Sham 69.
Baddiel: That sounds like the most 80s thing in Edinburgh ever! I was in Edinburgh in 1982 doing street theatre with the Merry Mac Fun Company, and we were shit. But in '87, I co-hosted the 12:12 Cabaret at the Pleasance, which Frank came to see. One night, one of the comedians got stuck in traffic so his keyboard player had to go on solo. After about five minutes the audience are shouting and booing, then a man gets up and pours a pint of beer over the poor guy's head. Luckily, Chris Lynam came on and saved the gig by sticking fireworks up his arse to the tune of 'There's No Business Like Show Business'.
Skinner: Before that, the only comedy I'd seen was stuff like Bernard Manning. Seeing those guys at the Pleasance absolutely triggered it all off and made me want to do comedy.
Then in the summer of 1991, the year Frank won the Perrier, you shared an Edinburgh flat …
Baddiel: It was Frank and Denis Leary and a novelty act, a bloke who balanced an ironing board on his chin.
Skinner: I was telling Denis about my marriage breaking up, and in the corner of the room there's this guy balancing furniture on his chin.
Baddiel: That is Edinburgh! I was up with Rob Newman that year doing three nights at the Playhouse and recording a video there. I remember having to tell Frank off because the flat was so dirty. I'm not that clean, but Frank … put it this way: we had a cleaning lady when we lived together round here, and she refused to go in Frank's room.
Flatmates became workmates with the hugely successful '90s TV show Fantasy Football League. What's your view now on the show's relationship with Lad Culture?
Baddiel: The only difficult question I had when I was on Desert Island Discs recently was 'how do you feel about being the poster boy for a generation of men who should know better?' And I would defend this still: part of what Frank and I were doing with comedy in the '90s was a reaction against very, very stifling political correctness.
Skinner: I remember doing a gig in The White Horse in Brixton and referred to 'my girlfriend'. And someone said 'oh, you own her, do you?' That was a pretty right-on place. But the first time I heard the phrase 'New Lads' was in (defunct London listings magazine) City Limits, when you and Rob were on the cover. And Rob said something like 'It's all about liking football and being a little bit sexist'.
Baddiel: You'd have to ask Rob Newman about that. I'm sure he would deny that because Rob Newman is very right-on indeed now. Very woke indeed.
Skinner: If you think about the New Lad magazines, it involved a lot of brilliant writing about football, about films, about fashion. And actually I think it made it OK for blokes who liked football and beer who were heterosexual, to talk seriously about … stuff. People think of Liz Hurley in her underwear and that's it. But it was a lot more than that.
Finally, in the spirit of Frank's inspired poster quote for Noggin the Nog, could you each offer one for your own Edinburgh 2018 theatrical excursions?
Baddiel: 'Fun for all the family': 'cause I don't think that's ever been said before.
Skinner: 'Who knew?'
Nina's Got News by Frank Skinner, Pleasance Dome, Bristo Square, 0131 556 6550, 4–26 Aug, 2.50pm, £14–£16 (£13–£14). Previews 1–3 Aug, £8.
David Baddiel's AniMalcolm, Gilded Balloon Teviot, Bristo Square, 0131 622 6552, 4–19 Aug (not 13), 11.30am, £11–£12 (£9–£10; family ticket £36–£40). Previews 1–3 Aug, £7.