Interview: David Baddiel
Writer, stand-up, broadcaster, David Baddiel isn’t usually stuck for words but for once he’s struggling.
“Those things that roll out that you blow at parties. Unrolly blower things.”
“One of those, to give a party vibe.”
Baddiel has been posing, with party blower, for pictures to publicise his fifth children’s book Birthday Boy, in which 11-year-old Sam has his wish to celebrate his birthday every day granted.
“Both of my children have wished this, and of course Roy Wood of Wizzard had the same sentiment about Christmas, so I thought I’d give it a go,” says Baddiel who is father to Ezra, 12, and Dolly, 16, his children with comedian, writer and producer Morwenna Banks.
“All of my children’s books are attempts to tap into what I believe to be children’s, and to some extent human beings’, fantasies. My first book, The Parent Agency, about a world in which children can choose their own parents, came about when my son said, ‘why doesn’t Harry Potter just run away from the Dursleys and find better parents?’ After that I decided all my children’s books should be wish fulfilment in different ways. I act out the wish, and then things go wrong.”
What Baddiel calls his “weird upbringing” began in May 1964 in New York state where his dad was working before the family moved back to the UK and he was brought up in North London with his two brothers. Cambridge and the Footlights led to a stand-up career as well as writing for Rory Bremner and Spitting Image before he teamed up with Rob Newman in The Mary Whitehouse Experience, then Frank Skinner in the Nineties, their laddish humour proving a massive hit with five seasons of Fantasy Football League and the unscripted Baddiel and Skinner Unplanned. He’s appeared on various comedy panel shows, hosted Radio 4’s Don’t Make Me Laugh, and had a hit with his 2010 film turned musical, The Infidel, starring Omid Djalili as a Muslim who discovers he is in fact Jewish, managing to both delight and offend, just the way Baddiel likes it.
Now, following on from his 2013 stage show Fame: Not the Musical, an exploration of celebrity, he’s touring My Family: Not the Sitcom, a “disrespectful celebration” of his family, affairs, dementia, warts and all. He’s also currently getting to grips with tricky subjects from the Kardashians to hacking on Radio 4 with David Baddiel Tries to Understand.
Alongside comedy, he’s been writing books for 20 years, and as well as his four novels for adults, his children’s books have racked up joint sales of more than half a million and bagged him a LOLLIES children’s writing award.
“I wasn’t thinking about becoming a children’s writer,” he says. “I just have an idea and if it sounds like a kids’ book I’ll write a kids’ book. If it’s a film or a play, I’ll write that. When I first started, stand-up comedians writing novels was thought of as a great encroachment on the art form and people got very angsty. But comedians are storytellers so it’s really a hop, skip and a jump.”
Baddiel, with his anarchic comic style, has made a huge success of children’s books, so much so that he’s jostling David Walliams, Spot the Dog and various tigers and unicorns on the websites and bookshelves.
“I’m still quite a long way behind David Walliams,” he says of his friend. “I know him very well because he used to live opposite my house before he was in Little Britain and I’ve watched him grow from doing Edinburgh shows to the national treasure he is today. I have enormous respect for what he did with children’s books, re-introducing an alternative type of comedy. Since Roald Dahl they had lost that darker, edgier comedy and as soon as he wrote The Boy In The Dress, that was back. It’s causing trouble in Australia at the moment that one, with someone complaining about a library stocking it because it’s encouraging children to be transgender.” He laughs, delighted at the controversy.
Along with Walliams, Dahl and making up bedtime stories for his kids, Baddiel’s writing is in part inspired by his childhood love of Billy Bunter books.
“My parents both collected old stuff, [his dad DINKY toys and his mum golfing paraphernalia – more of this later], and she got me into Billy Bunter books from the 1920s and 1930s. She gave me one and I liked it so she decided, in her strange way, that that was my thing. She bought me loads and I ended up going to the London Old Boys’ Book Club when I was 11 and everyone else was 70. Willesden in the 1970s, where I grew up, was incredibly dull and slightly grim, so Billy toasting crumpets over the fire at his school had an appeal. Transporting from the mundane into a magical world, like Hogwarts, that’s what children hope will happen to them.”
Birthday Boy is dedicated to Baddiel’s dad, aka “Grandpa Colin”, a Welsh-born former research chemist and real-life grandpa far removed from the pleasant version in the book.
“He’s a very sweary sort of bad tempered curmudgeon of a man,” says Baddiel of his father. “That’s the joy of my dad, that he’s not a conventional nice grandpa, or indeed a conventional nice dad.”
What he does have in common with the pleasant book version is dementia, one of the serious issues Baddiel blends into the comedy in his fiction. Baddiel’s father has a form of dementia called Pick’s Disease, which causes uncontrolled swearing, irritation, mood swings, and extreme impatience as well as memory loss, although Baddiel stresses he was a bad-tempered, sweary parent anyway. His dementia is something Baddiel also explored in the Channel 4 documentary The Trouble with Dad, which aired earlier this year, and in the second part of My Family: Not the Sitcom, his one man show that comes to Scotland next year.
“Dementia is seen in a very simple way in our culture, it’s ‘oh well, you end up old in a wheelchair, looking out the window and don’t have anything in your head’, but no, people tend to have dementia in their own way and even though my dad has a more limited understanding than he used to have, he’s still very, very much himself. So when he sees me he knows I’m someone he is familiar with and will adopt an attitude he’s always adopted, which is that he shows affection through insulting banter. He’s always basically sworn and abused me and my brother and his mates as a way of showing affection. So he will still be calling me a turd, even though he’s hardly got any sense of what my name is, and that’s amazing, and in its own way life-enhancing.” He chuckles.
Baddiel has made a career out of telling it like it is, with a comic spin, and the family dirty linen is well and truly aired in My Family. As well as his dad’s dementia, My Family focuses on his mother’s long-running affair, something she gloried in and made no attempt to hide, but which failed to ever elicit a response from her husband.
“The central story is about my mum’s affair with a golfing memorabilia salesman, and about how she was very, very keen to tell people about it. I have loads of stuff from the affair, her erotic poetry, stories of her telling all and sundry about it and being the most open that anyone has ever been about an affair, except that my parents were not in an open relationship. Somehow my dad managed to remain unaware this was happening over the entire course of their marriage.
“My dad was not a meek or nervous man, so he wasn’t in denial in a ‘can’t deal with it’ way. He’s more incredibly male, so he was never bothered with the life of the emotions or to tune in to the melodrama of my mother’s Mills & Boon life. She was very self-dramatising, convinced her life was very glamorous and my dad, scientist, male, not interested in that world, that’s how he managed not to know. She wrote reams and reams of erotic poetry, but he’s not a man who would ever read poetry at all, so there was a disconnect.”
What ties the two parts of the show together, his mother’s affair and his dad’s dementia, is the theme of memory.
“The whole show at some level is about that. It’s about how do you remember someone who has gone? Do you remember them in an idealised, over-angelic way, or as they actually were? I try and be as true as possible, warts and all, about my mum because I feel that brings her to life, as opposed to erasing her into a kind of bland nice-ness.
“And the other part of the show is about how much someone can still be themselves when they have no memory, and that’s about my dad and what’s happened with his dementia. He’s sort of become an exaggerated version of himself, a cartoon version, rather than fading into nothingness.”
“The show is somewhere between stand-up, storytelling and a very weird TED talk,” he says.
“Despite it being about washing dirty linen in public and being negative about my parents – them behaving badly and being kind of useless – it’s a celebration of who they are. Who wants to hear about two people who behave like saints? Authenticity, for want of a better word, is something I’m really interested in, trying to get to the truth of who we are is more and more important to me.”
Baddiel is happy to have had a weird upbringing, and admits to occasionally ruminating that his own children’s childhood could do with being less balanced. It’s not entirely run of the mill, given that their dad is on the telly and their mum is the voice of Peppa Pig’s mother, as well as the writer of the play and film Miss You Already, starring Drew Barrymore and Toni Collette, and the recent Radio 4 comedy Shush!
“Some of the things I’ve been able to do and say have come out of my mental childhood,” he says. “But my generation have provided a nice environment for our kids and they’ll turn out to be nice well-rounded people. Where’s the edge? Although my son’s humour is so dark, and my daughter is interesting and complicated, so I think they will develop whatever. And there are enough challenges with the internet and social media...,” he says.
Not that social media has harmed Baddiel, who has embraced it with a love of Twitter and a determination to answer each and every troll, amassing a following of 497,000.
“Yeah, I like Twitter, sometimes I worry that I like it too much, because it gets in the way of writing. But I’ve got quite a lot of followers and they quite like joshing, and I like that too. I think it’s very entertaining. If I get trolled, I respond. I LOVE getting trolled most of the time because if I can think of something clever and funny and insulting, then I entertain my followers and it will be material. It comes from being a comedian – when I got heckled I would always respond. So if someone’s slagged me off or been racist, for a second I might be a bit hurt, but then I think ‘material’. There’s an art to accepting an insult and turning it back on that person.”
Back in the day with Skinner, Baddiel riffed on music, sex and football, but nowadays he’s become more political, something he puts down to Twitter.
“I was never that political a comic, but Twitter is a very good medium because you don’t have to wait for the camera. You see something on the news and can do the joke straight away. Back in the 1990s everyone was political, so I wanted to do something different. And politics was dull when John Major was prime minister. But now it’s mental – Donald Trump is president of America and we’re leaving the EU. All sorts of weird stuff has happened.”
Baddiel blames social media in part for the weird turn of events, crediting it with contributing to the election of Trump.
“I think social media has created a much more extreme environment about what people can say and think. It has mobilised very fringe opinions in a quick and powerful way and that leads to Trump, because Trump is essentially an internet troll who’s become president. It’s awful, but it’s good material.” He laughs.
Social media, a medium that provides a platform for opinion and expedites offence, it’s tailor made for Baddiel and comedy.
“When I first started I was thought of as quite radical but now the boundaries of acceptable discourse have got wider. Yet at the same time, ordinary jokes have become more monitored, so almost anything you joke about, someone can get offended. Whether I think it’s offensive or not, I still expect someone to get offended. I don’t really care – I’m happy to make fun of them for being offended,” he says.
Baddiel is a comedian and his interest in storytelling is generally comic, yet he doesn’t shy away from the darker side of life. He is after all the grandchild of Jews who fled Germany to escape the Holocaust. So he will deal with “serious issues” even in his children’s books – a refugee character, a grandparent with dementia – yet there will always be humour too.
“Whether it be telling a true story about my parents on the stage, or a completely imaginary story in my children’s books, or The Infidel, my interest is storytelling, generally comic. But however serious you get, I always want there to be comedy too, because life needs comedy. Even in my darker moments, I think of things that make me laugh,” he says.
He’s got a successful career, a family, second home in Cornwall, does he have darker moments?
“God, yeah, I definitely do have dark moments,” he says. “But I almost definitely never have a completely dark moment without there being comedy in there too. It’s a kind of reflex, and a useful one, because otherwise you might never get away from the darkness.
“It’s about taking the darkest things possible really – my mum’s death, my dad’s dementia – and saying, ‘where’s the comedy in this? Well here it is…’” n