The New Freedom

Describing his ideal evening, the comedian Frank Skinner explains how staying in is the new going out – and offers some tips on how best to do it

The New Freedom illustration by Jason Ford
Illustration by Jason Ford

A few years ago, I spoke to two guys who’d just got back from a holiday in Italy. I can’t remember exactly where they’d been, just that they’d shared a cheap room in a cheap hotel and found a nearby cinema that showed a different old American movie every day. For two weeks, they got drunk every night in the hotel bar and spent their afternoons ignoring subtitles. Aside from the alcohol, they existed on takeaway pizza and strawberry-flavoured milk. They slept till midday. The film started at two. They did no sightseeing, they didn’t even sunbathe. I was genuinely appalled to hear about their wasted trip. The idea of them sitting in darkness, while Italy was right there outside the cinema, actually unnerved me. I never looked at a guide book after I’d left a holiday destination in case I came across something I’d missed. I knew such an omission would torment me. I was upset for these two guys – I anticipated their deep remorse at some future date – but they were completely confused by my reaction. They argued that holidays were all about doing exactly what you wanted to do, with no alarm-clocks, must-sees or itineraries. I trotted out that old line about people on their deathbeds regretting what they didn’t do rather than what they did. They shrugged, smiled and started talking to someone else.The conversation had a profound effect on me. I think it’s important that all our opinions are disposable otherwise we cling to wrongness simply because it feels like part of us. On reflection, their want-to-do seemed much more authentic than my ought-to-do. Should I really be on my deathbed, wishing I’d found time for the Leprosy Museum in Bergen? If God had meant us to have deathbed regrets he wouldn’t have given us dementia. I felt the ripple-effect of this freshly-forming opinion. I wasn’t just thinking about holidays anymore. I was applying these revelations to life in general. Had I been trying too hard? Maybe I didn’t have to see every talked-about new movie or hot band. Maybe I could experience a new thrill – the thrill of not-being-there. Why queue for tickets when I could just stay-in and drink strawberry-flavoured milk?

“To be fair, I often enjoy dinner parties nowadays but that’s just because they like staying-in at someone else’s house”

I asked myself what I wanted to do that I hadn’t been doing. Surprisingly, it was staying-in that came to symbolise my new freedom. In those days I never stayed in. I always felt like the best party ever was happening just over there, wherever over there was. I needed to be out-and-about, looking for it. Now I asked myself if the party-quest was a want-to or an ought-to.

Clearly it was the latter. At some parties I’d stand there and literally no one would speak to me. Those were the only ones I enjoyed. The abstract idea of a party is exhilarating. The practical reality isn’t. Crisps tend to snap when you use them to scoop guacamole and most people are a poor substitute for Google. Staying in is the opposite of a party and the opposite of a party was exactly what I was looking for. I realised that staying-in, for me, was now definitely a want-to. To be fair, I often enjoy dinner parties nowadays but that’s just because they like staying-in at someone else’s house.Those who still desperately seek that elusive party cannot conceive of the joy of staying in – cannot imagine its unexpected delights. Take, for example, the glory of cancellation – that night when, steeling oneself to go out, one receives a last-minute reprieve. My terribly-sorry friends are always impressed by how understanding I am, how sympathetic to their unforeseen situation. I hold the phone in my left hand; my right hand punches the air. It feels like a moderately-sized lottery win.

Then there’s the gift of minor illness – a licence to stay-in, indeed an obligation to do so. Such sickness wraps around me like a soft, warm blanket. I noticed, recently, that while reading an article about a prison riot, I pronounced the words ‘solitary confinement’ just to feel them on my lips. Pronounced them with that same slippery sensuality one usually reserves for a phrase like ‘chocolate éclair’.I’m not championing misanthropy. It’s merely a question of distance. I love people- watching, but mainly from the window of my eleventh-floor apartment, like Harry Lime looking down from the ferris wheel in The Third Man. However, I’m no recluse. I live with the woman I love. Sometimes we stay-in together and that’s beautiful but staying in alone, of course, is the purer discipline. The German poet, Rainer Maria Rilke, felt strongly that lovers should embrace their separateness. He felt they should be ‘the guardians of each other’s solitude’. Some people really wouldn’t like that. I once went out with a woman who’d get upset if I rolled-over during the night and, in so doing, turned my back on her. In retrospect, we were ill-matched.

Staying-in alone, for me, has developed some central themes. What I wear is important. Ideally, my outfit should be twice my size, have no zips or buttons, and be only slightly interrupted by elastication. In such clothes, I seem to revert to liquid form. The very idea of sitting upright seems ridiculous.

“Because my nights-in alone feel strangely masculine, I like the whole flat to smell of meat. I guess it’s how the cave smelt when the sabre-tooth tiger was on the griddle”

Of course, I also ditch my contact lenses and wear spectacles. This fits in with the need to look as unsexy as possible, a key policy in my opposite-of-party manifesto. Also, I feel my eyes are having a night-in too so I cut them a little slack. I had my eyes tested recently and part of the examination required me placing the weight of my head on a metal chin rest. I imagine it’s to keep the head completely still but it was very relaxing and I did wonder if such rests were commercially available. I like the idea of a night-in with my neck-muscles completely disengaged.For food, I generally cook steak. This is partly to do with the eating of it but mainly to do with the cooking. Because my nights-in alone feel strangely masculine, I like the whole flat to smell of meat. I guess it’s how the cave smelt when the sabre-tooth tiger was on the griddle. The masculine-thing needs some explanation. I don’t regard myself as particularly male. In fact, I’d say, generally speaking, I’m testosterone-intolerant. I think my solitary nights-in only assume an air of maleness in response to the fact that my girlfriend is out. Even then, it’s not horribly male. I’m not drinking beer and watching pornography. I’m eating steak and watching a 1950s science-fiction movie. Don’t get me wrong. I’m sure there are women who love It Came from Outer Space but I’m guessing they stay-in on their own a lot too.I hear staying-in is the new going out. Well, I’m living the dream. There will be readers who feel I’m wasting my life but one of my favourite things is learning. I don’t necessarily mean doing a course in something, I mean just acquiring ideas and stuff. I can learn more from watching Forbidden Planet than I ever did from someone shouting small-talk at me in a fashionable bar. I’ve given up cool for cosy. I’ve stopped worrying about that deathbed checklist too. Just don’t bury me in anything tight. And get me a coffin with Blu-Ray. I hear death is the new life.

Frank Skinner’s Opinionated returns to BBC2 on 25 March, and he hosts The Frank Skinner Show on Absolute Radio from 8am every Saturday