On the British comedy scene, Dan Renton Skinner can be found in just about every nook and cranny. While he first came to national prominence through his appearances on Shooting Stars, he had a deeply rooted background in entertainment before that. Best known for his character of Angelos Epithemiou, who he portrayed on Shooting Stars, it’s actually a turn he’d been performing for seven years previous. That may help to explain why the persona seemed so well-formed by the time Skinner brought him to the screen.
Aside from his work with Epithemiou, and across the 00’s, he gained considerable experience on shows like My Family, The Armstrong & Miller Show and Coupling. He’s a talent who pops up, almost, everywhere you look when it comes to British comedies of the past ten years. His workload is as sprawling as it is impressive, bringing him a wide variety of roles across television, radio, the stage and even film. After cutting his teeth on such formative acts as the Dutch Elm Conservatoire, Skinner became a consistent, reliable and downright hilarious force.
With keen instincts for improvisation, he’s been able to make the most of his Epithemiou alter-ego by working with such talents as David Earl and Alex Lowe (as Barry from Watford). His podcast with Lowe is a greatly enjoyable cult-favourite, showcasing his knack for off-the-cuff humour. That said, he’s a man who understands, and takes seriously, the roles he inhabits. While quiet and unassuming when out-of-character, it’s clear that his reverence for the craft is as considered as it vast.
This is, surely, why he’s become a key part of Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer‘s entourage. Besides his appearances on Shooting Stars, he’s also worked with them on Lucky Sexy Winners, The Ministry of Curious Stuff and, most prominently, House of Fools. That he’s been so readily and prolifically accepted by two of Britain’s most influential comedians is testament to his skill and personality. Since, he’s turned his hand to more straight acting work with roles in Yonderland and High-Rise, along with playing the main subject of Notes on Blindness.
As a huge fan of his work, and aware of his pedigree in the industry, it was somewhat intimidating to conduct an interview with Skinner for Secret Cave. However, he’s a wonderful conversationalist, making it a shame that interviews with himself (as opposed to Epithemiou) are comparatively rare. Indeed, that makes his guest slot on our podcast all the more of an honour. I’m very grateful to Skinner for his chat with me, which concentrated on British comedy itself, and the development of his career. In particular, it’s fascinating to hear his insights on the origins of Epithemiou, the state of television and collaboration with Reeves & Mortimer. Here’s the recording of our conversation:
See below for excerpts, and all relevant links.
On recent activities:
I’ve been touring with Alex (Barry from Watford). We’ve been all over the place. We did a couple of weeks at the Soho Theatre, and now we’re trying to write a sitcom; it’s a long, old process. We just do festival dates at the moment. So, we’re going around the country… We did Sheffield on Friday, we did Hastings this Friday and then we did the udderBELLY in London and Wales Comedy Festival… And Bristol… All these places that have comedy festivals, that I had no idea had comedy festivals! It was a bit of a, you know, “Oh right! Everybody’s got a comedy festival now!”.
On contemporary television:
Nowadays, it’s all, like, documentaries about, y’know, how far we can run and twenty-four hours on The Night Bus… It’s just watching people behave weirdly in, either, really mundane situations or extremely stressful situations. It’s all, sort of, wrapped up in the same way, and it’s generic documentaries. They’re quite interesting to turn on but, very soon, you feel like you’re eating a pizza. You just think, “Oh right, the same thing happens every week, and it’s the same comedy music when this happens, the same dramatic music when that happens…”
Just to watch something, and watch people do something they’ve been doing for thousands of years, in a way that is completely alien to you… That is what is fascinating. I think Guy Martin is right in that area. You know, I could watch him take an engine apart and put it back together again. I wouldn’t know what the fuck he was doing, but i’d be interested to watch him do it; because I don’t know what he’s doing.
On the anarchy of early 90’s British comedy:
I don’t think they allow people to do that on telly anymore; I really don’t think they do. If it happens it sorta slips through the net. There are just other platforms. I can’t think of anything that’s been on where you just go, “Bloody hell… I don’t know why I like this”. That’s how I felt when I first watched Vic & Bob. When watching Vic you just think, “You seem to know exactly what you’re doing, even though I don’t know what you’re doing!”
It completely divided people when it first came out. The majority of people that I spoke to were just like, “It’s bollocks, that is. It’s rubbish”. Of course, yeah, it didn’t mean anything, but it’s just something you either connect with or you don’t. It’s not something [where] you go, “I quite like that”. It’s something [where] you go, “That speaks to me completely and utterly. It, just, speaks to my soul”.
People want to know the “reason” for everything now; they want to know why something happens. They want to know why you’re doing something. It can happen when you’re writing scripts, or doing stuff on stage. People go, “Okay, so you write that line… Why have you written that line?”. Sometimes you go, “Well, ’cause it’s funny. I think it’s funny and I think I can make that funny”. But they want to know why. You can’t explain it! If someone said to me, “Why is Big Night Out funny?”, I couldn’t tell you. It just is, to me.
On the origins of Angelos Epithemiou:
Originally, it was an impression of someone that I met. I found him so funny that I just, immediately, started doing this impression. I just happened to be doing a, sort of, stage sketch-show at the time, so the people I was doing it with said, “Bung that into this sketch-show!”, and I was really reticent at first. I thought, “People are gonna accuse me of all sorts of things…”, you know? So, I did it and it got the biggest laugh so I thought, “Oh, this is fun!”.
There used to be loads of different character and sketch comedy nights around London, and I don’t know that they have so many of them now… I used to turn up to those and say, “Look, can you give me five, ten, minutes on-stage?”, and they’d go, “Yeah…”. Then, i’d go on-stage, and not really have any material, and just talk to the audience; as Angelos. Just, feeling my way through it.
I started doing stuff with David Earl, who’s a guy called Brian Gittins, and we used to do a show down in Brighton; about a three-hour show. We’d introduce it and host it, and have guests come on. We had a regular audience and that was good fun.
On joining the cast of Shooting Stars:
Then, I was doing The Armstrong & Miller Show and Lucy Montgomery… I’ve always kept doing Angelos to her, and i’d write notes as Angelos and put them under her dressing room door, and just annoy her. She said, “Bob Mortimer would love this character”. So I just sat on the end of my bed, and I made a little video of me just saying, “For God’s sake Mortimer, this is gettin’ ridiculous isn’t it?”, as if I knew him. I sent it off to him, and she had told Bob to expect this video; they get a lot of weird stuff. He watched it, then he rang me and said, “D’you wanna come and have a chat?”. I did, then they stuck me on Shooting Stars! It was all a bit of a whirlwind…
On working on Shooting Stars:
It looks improvised, but I really worked hard on a lot of the jokes, and a lot of the material. Once I had those locked in, what you do is, you do a rehearsal in the afternoon and then, if you made the crew laugh, it stayed in. If you didn’t, you had to change something. Once I knew I had those little bits all in there, then I felt secure and I felt safe. Then, I could just, sort of, muck around and improvise around those bits. They just said, “Chip in whenever you want. Do whatever you like”. So I was like, “Yeah, great! Cool!”.
I was really, really nervous at first, but… In fact, I was nervous the whole time I did it! I suppose that’s not unusual. It was a pair of comedians that I adored, and a show that I loved, and I was now asked to make it really funny. It’s quite daunting, but it was very rewarding for people to go, “Yeah, it was really funny!”
[Bob Mortimer] is a really funny bloke, and he loves to be made to laugh as well. As comedian, it’s quite rare actually that you find someone who wants to be made to laugh. He’s a lovely guy; so’s Jim! They’re both brilliant, brilliant men.
That’s completely, 100% improvised. That’s really good fun. We literally turn up, turn the machine on and get going; half an hour later [we] press “stop” and then go home! We’ll have a little flick through the papers sometimes but it’s, mostly, just talking about… Just making stuff up, basically. That’s what we’re trying to capture with the sitcom we’re writing. We’re trying to get it that way but, y’know, have some structure as well.
On new forms of media:
There’s a lofty new approach to media every week, I think, now! It’s a pretty fast-moving industry. I mean, whether or not anyone gives a shit… I suppose that’s all that really matters. You say, “Yeah, this is the way forward!”. Well, it’s not. Just because you say it is, doesn’t mean to say it is; people have to care about it for it to be a way forward.
There’s only a few ways of telling stories, I suppose. People want the simplest way, they don’t really care about all the bits that are added on. The latest one is VR. I’ve done one; I did one the other day, a VR film. You think, “Yeah, okay…”, but I shouldn’t think that’s gonna last long either… People that build the technology are amazed that they can do it, and everyone’s like, “Oh wow, this is really cool!”. It may have some sort of application, but I don’t think it will be a way that people consume stories.
I suppose streaming on the internet is a new way of receiving your stuff, so you don’t have to wait a week to watch the next episode. You can watch it all at once. I normally record a series and then watch it all at once, on TV, but recently I watched Apple Tree Yard and Line of Duty as it came on the TV, weekly. It’s brilliant doing it that way, ’cause every Sunday you go, “Ooh, it’s Line of Duty night!”, you know? If you’ve got the discipline to do it, it’s great to have something to look forward to like that.
On his part as Bosh changing drastically in House of Fools:
I got a bit bored of doing Bosh that way the first time round. I thought, “Well, i’m just gonna do it a different way”, and they said, “Yeah”. They didn’t mind. So, there was no great story or mystery. I didn’t think it mattered; just, like, he could become whatever he wanted. The thing is about a sitcom, is that nobody is supposed to change; nobody’s supposed to learn anything. As long as you’re consistent throughout the series with your choice then that’s okay. It was more interesting to me to do it a different way. Vic & Bob will always, as long they like it, let you try something.
Make sure to go and follow Skinner (as Angelos) over at Twitter, and check out the The Angelos and Barry Show! You can find regular updates about our podcasts and content on our own Twitter, Facebook and YouTube.