PRETEND for a moment that you have never heard of Frank Skinner (yes, okay, chance would be a fine thing). Now consider, if you will, the name. Think about it carefully. Say it out loud if it helps. ''Frank Skinner.'' Try it with an exclamation mark. ''Frank Skinner!'' Put yourself in the shoes of an MC, introducing a new act at some fantasy late-night comedy club. ''Ladies and gentlemen, put your hands together and give a very warm

welcome to . . . Mr Frank Skinner!''

Not exactly perfect, is it? Doesn't really roll off the tongue like, say, Lenny Bruce, or Johnny Vegas, or even Les Dawson.

So why, pray tell, did Frank Skinner call himself Frank Skinner when, some years ago, he embarked upon a highly successful career as a stage comedian? Particularly when his mum and dad had given him a

perfectly good, stage-friendly name - Chris Collins - to start with? (Try it: ''Ladies

and gentlemen, give a very warm welcome to . . . Mr Chris Collins!'')

So why then? Well, two reasons. The

boring and straightforward one is that, when he started off in 1988, there already was a Chris Collins (and his performing dog act) registered on Equity's books, so he was forced to make the change. The more interesting reason, however, is that Frank, or rather Chris, considered his given name to be a bit on the wimpish side; insufficiently hard-edged for the cut-and-thrust of the

club circuit. To be, em, frank, Chris Collins sounded too damned middle class for him. Frank Skinner, the name of a man in his dad's pub dominos team, was much more Jack the lad.

Liking or disliking Frank Skinner rather depends on, well, a number of things. First, it obviously depends on your sense of humour. Skinner's uncompromising brand of comedy - crude but thoughtful, you might call it - is clearly not to everyone's taste. There is also that grating Brummie accent which, on a bad day, comes over like an only-slightly-more-intelligent Benny from Crossroads. Then there's his annoying habit of cheekily hogging the limelight

in his TV talk show; never giving his

guests the chance to shine. And, of course, there's his close association with the appallingly smug and far-too-clever-by-half David Baddiel.

Finally, it depends on which side of Hadrian's Wall you were born. It is hard to forget (no matter how hard you try) Skinner and Baddiel's excruciating collaboration with Ian Broudie from the Lightning Seeds for the England World Cup squad's 1996 anthem, Three Lions (personally, I preferred the Smurfs' version). It is equally hard to forget - without availing oneself of aversion therapy - the pair's undisguised glee at Scotland's failure and barely concealed conceit at England's relative success in the Euro '96 tournament. So, not on any self-respecting Scottish football fan's Christmas card list, our Frank.

To be fair, however, as a stand-up comic, Skinner is not the worst of turns. Behind that laddish exterior lies a politically correct Bernard Manning. His performance owes as much to the north of England working

men's club as it does to the trendy London comedy circuit. Near the knuckle his gags and stream-of-consciousness ramblings may be, but, deep down, he delivers some painfully funny truths and some mildly thought-provoking observations. He'd probably deny it, but Frank Skinner on form and on stage is almost philosophically funny.

He is certainly a very complex individual. On the one hand, he's your straight-up New Lad, never happier than when he's talking about football and birds. On the other, he has an MA in English and has forgotten more about Samuel Johnson than most of us will ever know. Unusual for a man who swears like a trooper and has an onstage fixation with anal sex and bodily functions, he is also a practising Roman Catholic.

And then there is his drink problem. He is a recovering alcoholic who signed the pledge 13 years ago and hasn't had a drink since. Mind you, he confesses to dreaming about getting drunk at least twice a week.

Skinner was born on January 28, 1957, in the West Midlands. He was the youngest of four children and was reared in the working-class towns of Oldbury and Smethwick. His parents, Doris and John, died (within a year of each other) in the 1980s.

He was expelled from school at the age of 16 after being involved in a scam involving lunch tickets. With just two O-levels, he went to work as a lathe operator in the Hughes Johnson Stamping Works in Birmingham. He was not impressed.

At the age of 22, by which time he had gained the necessary A-level qualifications, he enrolled at Birmingham Polytechnic where he studied English Litera- ture. He eventually gained his MA from Warwick University.

Most of his twenties were spent bumming around aimlessly and working on his drink problem. He was a great believer in the hair of the dog; an entire bottle of

sherry before breakfast was not an unknown quantity. The hair eventually became the whole dog and, at his alcoholic nadir, it was an entire kennel.

During this period he is said to have formed a particular dread of Christmas and New Year - for the simple reason that the pubs were mobbed with amateur drinkers and he, the consummate professional, couldn't get a look in. Times change, however, and recently Skinner remarked that the best festive celebration he had ever enjoyed was last year's millennium when he attended his pal (and fellow reformed alcoholic) Eric Clapton's drink-free party.

The emotional trauma which Skinner suffered following the deaths of his parents, he has claimed, was responsible for his sudden and short-lived plunge into his first marriage to a woman called Lisa, who was 14 years his junior. They separated after less than a year. What followed was a lengthy period of soul-mate searching. So long, in fact, that it didn't really end until last year when he finally found true romance with 23-year-old Capital Radio reporter Caroline Feraday. The pair had met in the mid-nineties when she interviewed him for the station. When the tape recorder was turned off she asked him if he would take her for dinner one night. He did - five years later. Earlier this month Ms Feraday moved into Skinner's luxury apartment.

Skinner's personal epiphany, the moment which set him on the comic career path, came in 1987. Having just stopped drinking, it was as if he dropped one obsession for another. He performed his first stand-up gig in December of that year. His first television appearance in 1988 prompted no fewer than 131 complaints, one of them from then cabinet minister Edwina Currie.

He met David Baddiel in 1990, during the Italian World Cup, and the pair struck up an enduring friendship. They shared a flat in Hampstead for several years and Skinner only moved out (to a house he bought 100 yards up the road) when Baddiel wanted his girlfriend to move in.

Skinner's comedy career really took off in 1991 when, having ploughed his meagre life savings into a one-man show at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, he won the Perrier Award. His celebrity pulling-power steadily increased thanks to a succession of television shows for the BBC. Over the years he has also attempted, with varying degrees of success, to expand into comic acting through the sitcom My Blue Heaven, and the West End theatre, most notably in the three-hander play, Art, and, more recently, in the musical farce, Cooking With Elvis.

His TV chat shows are often described, with some justification, as verging on the puerile. He once interviewed the country singer Kenny Rogers and spent much of the time playing with the words ''Kenny rogers''.

On another infamous occasion, he was less than kind to Tara Palmer-Tomkinson when she appeared on his show somewhat the worse for wear. On reflection, she was more a subject for pity rather than scorn, and within days she had booked herself in to a drug rehabilitation centre in America.

Last year Skinner moved his eponymous chat show from the BBC to ITV after contractual negotiations with the former broke down under acrimonious circumstances. With reports of an excessive #20m pay demand, the comedian was accused of being esurient. And, even though he has since strenuously denied that the figure was anything like that, the greedy tag appears to have stuck. Now signed up to ITV, he is one of the most popular and most highly-paid performers on television; his shows regularly attracting viewing audiences of nine million.

Skinner's best career move was to team up with his friend Baddiel to invent the Fantasy Football format, a programme which was wildly popular with England football fans (though not so much with Scots). The pair went on to develop the format into the live, unscripted, studio comedy show, Baddiel and Skinner Unplanned, a new series of which starts tomorrow night on ITV.