Interview: David Baddiel on the stage adaptation of his children’s book AniMalcolm

AniMalcolm at the Gilded Balloon, Edinburgh
AniMalcolm at the Gilded Balloon, Edinburgh
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Story Pocket’s production of David Baddiel’s AniMalcolm brings the comedian’s children’s book about a child who hates all pets to life at the Gilded Balloon

David Baddiel has a chequered history at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. In 1982 he performed, in his own words, “terrible street theatre”. Returning four years later with the Cambridge Footlights, his show was likened by one critic to an open sewer. But from there it was onwards and upwards, with Baddiel pulling in the crowds with his stand-up, filming The Mary Whitehouse Experience at the Edinburgh Playhouse, and having “one of the best performance experiences I’ve ever had” with Frank Skinner in Unplanned.

But this year he’s making his presence felt at the Fringe without even entering the city, when Story Pocket Theatre performs its adaptation of Baddiel’s 2016 book, AniMalcolm. The tale of a young boy whose family is obsessed with animals but who can’t stand them himself, until he turns into several of them, the novel is one of four written by Baddiel for younger readers.

Used to delivering words in exactly the way he feels they should be heard, it must have been hard for him to hand over the job to somebody else. “I’ve adapted my own work a couple of times, and I’ve also given my novels to other people to adapt, and I do find that quite difficult,” says Baddiel. “But in the case of AniMalcolm, less so. When I met Story Pocket they were very passionate about the book, so I was confident they would stay faithful to it. But they’ve also added lots to it as well, with the songs and the staging, and the script is very good.”

Baddiel was inspired to write the book having grown up in a house full of pets himself, and then replicated that in his own home with wife Morwenna Banks and teenage children Dolly and Ezra. In essence, he’s the complete antithesis of Malcolm.

“We’re very obsessed with animals, we’ve got four cats and a guinea pig,” says Baddiel. “And I come from a background where, to some extent, in my parents’ house the most love and affection was always shown to the pets. But rather than being jealous, I just accepted it and became very affectionate to our animals. And I’ve noticed, as I’ve grown older, that I’m not entirely happy unless there’s an animal, particularly a cat, in the house.”

When it came to writing the book, however, Baddiel decided to turn all that on its head. Malcolm is longing for a laptop for his birthday, but is gifted a chinchilla instead. He begs his parents to pay for the end-of-year school trip, only to discover, to his horror, that it’s to a farm.

“I had the idea of rather than it being about a child who loves animals,” he says.” I’d make him the exact opposite. Because you want to take your hero, and your readers, on a journey.

“And then, on some level, it’s about how somebody who lacks that bit of empathy gets it via the magical process of transforming into various different animals.”

Along with Baddiel’s other books for nine- to 12-year olds, The Person Controller, Birthday Boy and The Parent Agency, AniMalcolm has been a big hit with younger readers – largely because he deliberately set out not to patronise them, especially when it came to humour. The wit on the page has been lifted to the stage, and Baddiel has his own children to thank for that.

“They’ve influenced me in lots of ways, especially Ezra,” he says. “Although actually he’s not a big reader himself, which is very galling for me as a writer. But both my kids are very funny, and talking to them is quite like talking to friends, in terms of the banter in our house. So that was one of the things that drove me to think ‘Right, I’m not going to make these books any less funny than anything else I write.’”

A visit to the Fringe was an annual affair for Baddiel for many years, but although he still sees it as “a happy place” and “a breeding ground for exciting new stuff”, he himself won’t be venturing north from his London home to see AniMalcolm come to life. “It feels great to have a kids’ show at the Fringe, but I won’t be able to see it in Edinburgh, which is a shame,” he says. “I’ve been touring for most of the year, and my family is quite fed up, so we’ll be away on holiday for most of August – and Edinburgh isn’t really somewhere where I can be on holiday.”

David Baddiel’s AniMalcolm is at Gilded Balloon Teviot until 19 August, 11:30am.