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Thursday, September 2, 1999 Published at 15:44 GMT 16:44 UK


Mad about the boys

They shoot... And score new TV deals?

Frank Skinner and David Baddiel started in the 1990s as cult comedians - and end the decade as cultural icons.

Now the duo are in the spotlight simply for changing channels, with Baddiel signing a £5.5m deal to develop a new sitcom for Sky, and Skinner being dropped by the BBC after demanding a new contract worth £20m.

Skinner, 42, will not be without a TV home for long - both ITV and Channel 4 are said to be interested in hiring him, and signing Baddiel's comedy partner would be a great coup for Sky.

[ image: Frank Skinner: Took his name from a friend of his father]
Frank Skinner: Took his name from a friend of his father
What the real Frank Skinner would have made of the TV bidding war is open to question. The original Skinner played in a dominos team in Smethwick, near Birmingham, with factory worker John Collins.

Collins' son, Chris, was starting out in stand-up comedy - and decided Chris Collins was not as a good a name as Frank Skinner.

Skinner did not taste success until his 30s. Before then he had flitted between factory work and unemployment, and had battled with alcoholism.

After a miserable 30th birthday, he decided to take up comedy. He also decided to go back to Catholicism - he rejected it in his teens - and to this day, his is still proud of the fact that he has not drunk alcohol since 24 September 1987.

In 1991 he won the Edinburgh Fringe's Perrier award after sinking his life savings into the show. He met up with David Baddiel, seven years his junior and already one of British comedy's hottest young talents.

Comedy the new rock 'n' roll

Skinner came to London to stay in Baddiel's spare room - and didn't leave for five years. The partnership became the basis of Fantasy Football League.

[ image: David Baddiel: Lived with Skinner for five years]
David Baddiel: Lived with Skinner for five years
Baddiel was becoming a big name; the Cambridge graduate's radio comedy The Mary Whitehouse Experience had just transferred to television and was fast building up a dedicated cult following.

His shows with partner Rob Newman attracted sell-out crowds - and made pundits wonder if comedy was the new rock 'n' roll.

But the partnership became strained and the duo split after a show at Wembley Arena in 1993.

Skinner's early TV shows, Packet of Three and Blue Heaven, were not successes. But Fantasy Football was a hit right from its start in 1995.

The format was simple. Celebrity guests - who had chosen teams to compete in a fantasy league - would drop into the duo's front room set and exchange jokes with them.

Meanwhile, satellite TV commentator Angus Loughran donned a dressing gown and glasses to become Statto, the nerdy statician who delivered the week's football news, while 1970s West Bromwich Albion and England player Jeff Astle would inexplicably arrive to sing a song.

With enough to entertain both fans and the less committed alike, Fantasy Football League became a huge hit, capitalising on the duo's mainstream comedy appeal and the popularity of irreverent football fanzines.

The show was also tied into to the rise of "laddism" - with sales of racy men's magazines such as Loaded and FHM soaring.

Three Lions peak of success

The duo were even blamed for destroying a footballer's career - when Nottingham Forest player Jason Lee complained of fans jeering him for his "pineapple" haircut after a series of gags on Fantasy Football League.

[ image: David Baddiel first came to fame with Rob Newman (left)]
David Baddiel first came to fame with Rob Newman (left)
The peak of their success came in 1996, when England hosted the European football championships. They recorded an unofficial anthem with Lightning Seeds singer Ian Broudie, and Three Lions was the song sung by fans when the tournament opened at Wembley, rather than the official song recorded by Simply Red.

A price was put on the duo's popularity when Fantasy Football crossed to ITV for the 1998 World Cup, with the commercial network paying £3m for just one month of shows.

Skinner also moved into chat shows, and the last series of The Frank Skinner Show attracted nine million viewers - making it one of the BBC's most popular light entertainment shows.

Guests have included Spice Girls singer Mel C and Prime Minister Tony Blair, but some critics were uneasy about his treatment of other guests, notably socialite Tara Palmer-Tompkinson, whom he ridiculed when she appeared on the show shortly before she checked into a rehabilitation clinic.

Now Skinner has moved out of Baddiel's flat - and the duo have developed separate careers. Baddiel is hoping to sign a big Hollywood star for his Sky project, and his new novel, Whatever Love Means, is released in October.

Skinner is currently starring in West End stage show Art. As far as his TV career goes, he is now on the market - and several broadcasting bosses will have him in mind to head up their fantasy schedules.

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