Joker of the pack

14th November 1997 at 00:00
Mrs McGee, who taught me at St Hubert's Roman Catholic junior school in Oldbury, near Birmingham, was the first teacher to cotton on to the fact that I was a bit of a joker. One day, when she had to leave the classroom for a few minutes, she asked me to get up and tell one or two jokes in her absence. It was my first stand-up gig. It was only three or four minutes, but it went down quite well. I was abut ten at the time.

Most teachers thought of me as a quiet kid, but in the company of friends I'd been the class comedian since I started school at Moat Farm infants at the age of five. I remember there were only two of us who didn't cry on our first day - me and Jeffrey who became my chum from then on. I couldn't understand why the others were in tears, I thought school was OK. My first teacher was Miss Page. I remember she wore very pointed bras that gave her the look of an operatic heroine.

After three years, my Dad decided I'd spent quite enough time among the Protestants and moved me to St Hubert's which was a three-halfpenny bus ride away.

Some of the teachers were nuns and I remember them as being quite ferocious. Mother Mary Adrian, the headmistress, once caught me and a friend singing in the corridor and sent the two of us to wait outside her office. We were absolutely terrified.

Being a nun, Mother Mary had the power and authority of God as well as that of a headmistress as far as we were concerned. My friend was desperate to go to the toilet but didn't dare in case she came out and found him missing. We waited and waited and waited and eventually she came out and started ranting and raving and he wet himself with fright. She made him stay in his wet trousers all day which, looking back, was an incredibly cruel thing to do.

Mother Mary Adrian must have been in her early sixties, but the younger nuns were just as hard. Smacking was a normal activity at that school - usually across the legs, so tempting when kids have short trousers on. I got no sympathy at home. Dad believed that if a teacher hit you it must have been for a good reason.

I was quite respectful to teachers when I was small and there was never any trouble in Mrs McGee's class. She was one of those teachers whose authority you felt before you walked into the room. I could never imagine questioning her or giving her cheek. She never raised her voice. She was a very thin, frail-looking woman, but she had warmth.

Mrs McGee thought I was capable of getting into King Edward's, which was the top grammar school in the area. But I didn't want to go to school with a lot of snobby kids and persuaded my parents that it would make me very unhappy. Instead I went to Oldbury Tech, not because I was handy, but if you didn't want to go to grammar school and you weren't thick there was nowhere else.

I particularly remember two teachers there: Norman Hughes, who taught art, and Ray Wilcockson, who taught English. They were the only subjects I passed at O-level out of the eight I took.

Norman Hughes was a bluff Yorkshireman who, when we reached the fourth form, encouraged us to call him Norm. That appealed to me a lot. I could draw and paint a bit, but he inspired me to try a lot harder. He came across as an ordinary bloke whose outlook was more aligned to ours than the other teachers'.

Mr Wilcockson got me to realise that it was OK to be interested in things like Shakespeare that might in working-class circles be regarded as slightly poncy and arty. That was an enormous barrier for me to get over because until then I really felt that education was for other people. Mr Wilcockson would talk about the Rolling Stones and various film actresses he fancied and it started to dawn on me that some teachers were actually human beings. With a few friends I formed a pop group called Olde English and Mr Wilcockson compared us with the Howlin Wolf blues band which was incredibly flattering.

I went into the sixth form but was only there for six weeks before I got expelled, which didn't go down very well at home. I'd been picking up used dinner tickets and re-selling them. I'd been on a last warning for truancy and various other things for some time and was established by then as one of the bad lads. I think the headmaster, Mr Lardner, felt he had to make an example of me. I don't bear him any ill will: he gave me more chances than many would have done. I was the school jester and my reports said things like: "He spends too much time playing to the gallery."

The day I got expelled was the last time my Dad hit me. I thought my future lay in pop music and saw myself as another Mick Jagger but I got chucked out of the group for drinking too much cider. So I worked in a factory for a couple of years, which was incredibly boring.

Dad, who was a great believer in second chances, then subsidised me while I went to Warley College of Technology to do my O-levels again. Then I did A-levels and went to Birmingham Polytechnic to train to be a teacher. I failed everything there except the English paper in which I got an A - and thanks to two teachers, Marilyn Young and Marjorie Birtwistle, I was allowed to transfer to study for an English degree. I hadn't read a novel until I was 21, but was now introduced to Shelley and Byron and Wordsworth. I got a 2:1 and did an MA.

Then I went on the dole for three-and-a-half years before getting a job as a lecturer at Halesowen College. For a while I was a comedian by night and a teacher by day, but gradually the comedy took over. People say that stand-up comedy is tough - but I think teaching's tougher.

Frank Skinner, 40, is currently touring Britain with his stand-up comedy show. He has recently released two videos, The Frank Skinner TV Show Unseen and More Unseen Fantasy Football.

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