Frankie Boyle: I'll never fly again



Frankie Boyle, star of the BBC's Mock The Week and arguably Scotland's funniest man, is sitting in an office, on an industrial estate in London, reading a newspaper. He is clean-shaven, wearing blue chunky cords and a khaki-coloured hoodie.

He pushes his black-rimmed glasses up on his nose, turns a page, lifts an apple from a fruit bowl on the table between us. Crunch. Crunch. He is allergic to oranges, he says, and copper coins - both make his hands swell "although you get less oranges in with your change".

Crunch. Boyle is sleepy; the atmosphere is relaxed. It feels a bit like lunchtime on a building site: those private, tired moments in the Portakabin, with a joke or two here and there, before the foreman calls the squad back out again.

Boyle is drinking water, having given up coffee before his ongoing, sold-out national tour. "The combination of the caffeine and the adrenaline would just be too much," he says. He is match-fit, and enjoying his day off, but the nearly non-stop touring schedule is affecting his mind. "Fucking hell man, you just go completely mad," he says.

Crunch. Slaver. "Well, not completely mad. It's actually surprising how much you take it in your stride after you've done the show for a few nights."

Certain adjustments to his act are necessary from gig to gig. "Sometimes you have to sell the show to the audience differently. Swearing less is quite a key thing. You've maybe just done a Saturday night in Edinburgh and it's Monday in Sheffield and you're still going mental. You can't really do that – you've got to present things in an alternative way." But his show is not really all that extreme, he adds. "I don't piss on anyone."

Typically his audiences have had a drink before performances, while Boyle remains sober as a judge. When he started out in stand-up in his early 20s (he is now 36), he took full advantage of the free bars afforded to him at low-key venues. But those bars took advantage of him. He has been teetotal for more than 10 years after a period of borderline alcoholism.

"It was a problem," he admits. "I was never a wet-the-bed alcoholic, so giving up I never got the DTs. But it's very easy, in Scotland especially, to say you're an alcoholic because people will stop offering you a drink, otherwise you'll be under a lot of pressure."

One advantage of beating the booze is being able to slip quietly out of social functions, while the drinkers get steadily noisier. "I think a lot of people are bored with drinking but they just don't admit it," he says. "Culturally, it's an impossible thing in Britain to go, Actually I just don't need to drink'."

Boyle took up taekwondo for a couple of years to replace alcohol, and it worked. "I was shite at martial arts, actually," he says. "But I'd still rather be doing that than doing comedy."

Boyle's downbeat demeanour comes as a surprise. He is not zany; nor is he wearing his trademark pink Ozwald Boateng suit. I had been expecting the interview equivalent of a few rounds with an on-form Joe Calzaghe, or that boy at the back of the class the teachers hate and other kids live in fear of being teased by.

He has given few private press audiences during his career and is part-novice, part-painfully sincere. Which is sometimes a bit weird. He says he recently told a middle-aged journalist from a women's magazine about the first time he masturbated as a boy: while watching Tenko, the TV drama series set in a female prisoner-of-war camp.

The scene when the woman bit the head off a grasshopper?

This is my idea of a joke. It sucks. But Boyle was being deadly serious. "No, it was a full-frontal nudity scene," he says quietly. "In a metal bath."


Boyle, who was raised in Glasgow's Pollokshaws, is the son of Irish immigrants from Donegal. His mother, a nursery school dinner lady, is about to retire; his father was a labourer until recently. His sister raises funds for Edinburgh University; his older brother works as an economist for a bank. At least, he did.

"He's potentially unemployed now," says Boyle. "Maybe he's working for fucking Greggs." It was during a teacher training course in Edinburgh, after which he planned to teach children with learning disabilities, that Boyle first tried stand-up, aged 23.

"I had been working in mental health and you couldn't really get promoted," he says. "I thought if I had a teaching qualification I would have a better chance." But the classroom was a bad fit. "I find education really horrendous," he says.

"That whole thing of having to move on to the next class when the bell rings, so that obedience is more important than what you're studying. The Big Bang? Hamlet? Drrinngg – off you go. I never got past that, really."

But life is currently all right. The BBC's Mock The Week has been unofficially dubbed The Frankie Boyle Show in some quarters. Boyle stands out from the other comedians who regularly appear on the show – a mixture of Whose Line Is It Anyway? and Have I Got News For You – especially when contestants have to step forward and respond to news-related prompts by the host, Dara O'Briain. Boyle is usually first; if not, he is usually the funniest. Without exception, he is always the most intense.

He writes dozens of topical gags before the show's three-hour recording session, the most offensive of which are then sieved out for the final half-hour cut. Certain tabloids took issue with his recent quip on the show about the Queen ("I'm so old my pussy is haunted") – a joke that surely weakened any likelihood that Boyle would be invited to appear on the Royal Variety Performance any time soon.

"I'd never get on that anyway," he says. "And that's a good thing. I don't think I'd ever be accepted into the establishment because of the nature of what I'm like. You have to have slightly more entry possibilities than I have."

Boyle moved to London four years ago after being bumped from BBC Scotland's comedy cabaret Live Floor Show when it went national. With a second child on the way, and limited career opportunities in Glasgow, he headed south. "I felt a real sort of career spurt when my daughter was born," he says.

"A real sort of dad-responsibility software kicked in." He spent a full year in London doing office pilots – literally going from office to office, performing in shows that were never commissioned. In the interim, he wrote for Jimmy Carr as part of a team of television writers.

But from those office pilots he scored a place in the short-lived Channel Four show FAQ U and then subsequently Mock The Week. Being a Scot was not necessarily to his advantage. "Not at all," he says.

"I found to start with it was a really unfashionable thing to be. There's also that idea that Billy Connolly's kind of done it all. You're never going to be the most successful Scottish comedian because Billy Connolly's just done a gig on the moon."

I wonder if there has been any backlash against Boyle in Scotland over his Scottish jokes, such as this one from Mock The Week: "The east end of Glasgow is already like the Olympics. Lots of people wandering around trying to speak English wearing tracksuits." Do people accuse him, as with Connolly, of belittling his country for the sake of comedy?

"Was that what people said about Billy Connolly?" he asks. "I thought it was more to do with him being a friend of the royals, that's what I always remember as a kid. He did stuff about drunks in Glasgow, I suppose, but you can't really argue with that.

People think it's an easy route to do the whole slagging Scotland thing, but it's not necessarily easy to travel all the way to Aberdeen to tell them it's a shithole."

Boyle plans to return to Glasgow soon for good, and to commute back and forth to London, a city whose intensity, and traffic jams, he hates. He bemoans the fact that London is where the work is, and complains that Scotland is at least 25 years behind the city in terms of television. "In fact, it would be hard to quantify just how far behind the times it is," he says. Particularly comedy.

"It's all based on stuff I've never heard of before," he says. "People doing jokes like Aye, that's what you say when your wife's down the bingo', and you're like What? This guy's only 30'. Until recently, there were still shows on BBC Scotland with people doing two guys walked into a pub' jokes. You're like, What the fuck, is this – 1970-something?' There are lots of talented people in Scotland. Why doesn't someone do a show with them? It's sickening."

Boyle's career options are limited by the fact he refuses to fly. The final straw came a couple of years ago during a flight to Kilkenny in Ireland. When the plane hit a small air pocket, Boyle screamed "Jesus fucking Christ", to the astonishment of the other, still tranquil, passengers.

"I'll never fly again," he says. "I didn't realise how much it was affecting my life. I thought I was just stressed in general but actually it was the fact that I had a flight coming up. Once you take that out of the equation, life gets much easier."

Does he not think his fear is illogical?

"It is fucking logical," he insists. "I mean, what a fucking way to go – brilliant view and then your head gets ripped off. I'm not inclined to think plummeting towards the ground at 700 miles an hour upside down is logical. It takes three minutes for you to drop from the sky going Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhh!'"

Recently, he was offered work in America, but said he would have to get a boat: "A six-week journey and then, Hi everybody'." Would he consider hypnotherapy to try and overcome his fear?

"Fuck that," he says. "To try and shut down my body's natural defence mechanism from going, This is wrong'? Nah."

Boyle has an unsettling theory that his phobia makes dying in a plane crash all the more likely. "I sometimes think, what if those people in air disasters were all scared of flying? What if you're much more likely to die if you're afraid of flying?"

THE mood has turned decidedly edgy, but then "edgy" is a byword for Boyle. His televised jokes on paedophilia, date rape and gang bangs cut close to the bone, although, at times, he is wonderfully surreal. "If Tim Henman had won Wimbledon it would have been so weird it would have torn a hole in our normality," he once said. "Oh, Henman's won, and here to present the trophy is Winston Churchill with the head of a bee."

His comedy approach comes across as no-holds-barred, but there are some self-imposed limits. He is not, for example, Jim Davidson ("My parents fucking hated his jokes about the Irish"). The recent Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand row is just the latest example of the pitfalls Boyle wants to avoid.

"I won't say anything I think can be taken the wrong way, as racist, or homophobic," he says. "There have been a couple of times in recent years where people have been slapped on the wrist for the type of gags they've done, and they've gone, Oh, well, it just sort of slipped through'. Your job as a comedian is to make sure that it doesn't slip through, to make sure it's something you're happy saying, because you're saying it."

His comedy is "quite right-on in a way", although he acknowledges that people might not automatically get this from his act. He gives careful consideration to everything he says on stage and screen, and insists there is a philosophy underpinning his work.

"I suppose my ideology is that we're all living on a dying world where we'll probably f***ing nuke each other to death before the planet gets a chance to die," he says. "We're dancing on a burning ship and we really need to do something about it." He finds it hard to get the urgency of the problem across to people.

He considers government carbon reduction targets to be inadequate and is hoping for a "large-scale change of consciousness". He smiles slightly but he isn't joking. The solution, he says, may be something we haven't thought about yet, a catalyst that we don't yet recognise. For example?

"For example, people who are 25 in Glasgow these days aren't like the people who were in Glasgow when I was a teenager," he says. "My brother's mates were quite brutal. But there's a whole generation of people who took ecstasy and became very different. That's where the whole hill-walking and surfing culture in Scotland came from, the whole outdoors thing - it's down to a drug. So what else could happen in terms of technology that could change things? It's going to have to be something major but I don't think that's impossible."

One of the press clippings I have brought with me, from 1997, is headlined Glasgow Funny Man. It catches Boyle's eye. He examines the article; it's an artefact - one of few - pertaining to his early stand-up career. He is amazed to read his assertion, as a 20-something winner of the Daily Telegraph Open Mic Award, that he would love to still be doing stand-up when he's 50.

"Wow," he murmurs. "I said that?" His attention is fixed on the page. "I think I'm just fucking lying basically. I imagine as a younger guy I was saying that to please people. It doesn't sound like that's what I really thought."

In fact, Boyle plans to write just one more touring show after the current one, then retire from stand-up completely. He wants to write a TV sitcom, a novel and - to further indulge a lifelong passion – a comic book. The last of these is already in train and can be glimpsed in part on Boyle's website: it tells the story of a superhero who would save the world, but for his addiction to internet porn.

"I'm certainly looking at maybe three years left as a stand-up," he says. "People are never really that great after 40. At the minute it's very good because I'm very intense about comedy and I'm working at it all the time, and it would be good to stop before that stops.

Especially with kids; you've got to live a life as well. It's not that I fear becoming establishment – it's more that I don't want to become boring or stale."

His career, as it stands, revolves around writing hundreds of new jokes a year: far more than his comedy predecessors would have been expected to produce, and a tall order to achieve consistently. And consistency is important to Boyle. "It's about trying to do a good thing before you go," he says.

"I've turned offers down this week for TV work because I'm focusing on my tour, and they were still going, Yeah, but it's OK, it'll be fine'. But it wouldn't be. I want things be of a certain standard because that's all there is in this for me. Ultimately, all there is to look back on is that you did things properly."


First published in The Sunday Herald, 2008.