Behind the scenes – David Baddiel in Saga Magazine
The grey hairs in the mirror tell him otherwise, but David Baddiel still struggles to believe that he’s clocked up nearly six decades.
‘At 57 I essentially still feel about 12 to 13 in my head, that I’m winging adulthood,’ he muses. ‘There’s part of my brain that remains very childish and luckily, being a comedian, you’re allowed to carry on channelling the child within yourself your whole life.’
It’s certainly served him well, given he’s had a near four-decade long career as a comedian. Perhaps it is those childlike instincts which have also led David to make such a successful foray into children’s fiction: he’s just released his tenth children’s book in paperback, (The Boy Who Got) Accidentally Famous. A comic probe into the absurdities of modern-day fame, it can be appreciated by adults and children alike, although David, who has two children – Dolly, 20, and 17-year-old Ezra – says that when it comes to humour, he feels that ‘the distinction between what children find funny and what adults find funny doesn’t exist like it used to’.
‘Both my children were really funny at a very early age,’ he says. ‘So, when I started to write kids’ books, I wanted to make the writing as funny as anything else I write, just without the swearing and sex.’ While in no way autobiographical, the book draws on David’s decades on board what he wryly calls ‘The Good Ship Show Business’, gleefully satirising the current obsession with fame, although he insists it’s not meant to be a modern morality tale.
‘Look, fame is an adventure, fame is quite fun,’ says David. ‘At the same time, it is odd because in some ways you are wearing another skin. I’ve seen many people changed by the experience, although I do think that I am almost exactly the same person I was when I started out.’
He’s certainly not moved far from his roots. Today he and his partner, the comedian Morwenna Banks, and their children live in North London not far from where David was raised alongside his brothers Ivor and Dan. Their mother Sarah’s family had fled to England from Nazi Germany in the wake of the horrors of Kristallnacht when she was just five months old and while David is robustly atheist, being Jewish firmly underpins his identity.
His Twitter profile bears just the single word ‘Jew’, and last year he made his first foray into non-fiction with the book Jews Don’t Count, an angry polemic at a refusal to acknowledge anti-Semitism among those who would consider themselves progressive in the struggle against discrimination and racism.
‘Fame is quite fun. At the same time, it is odd because in some ways you are wearing another skin.’
To his surprise it became a bestseller – he’s now in the early stages of working on an accompanying documentary – and while he is heartened by the attention it received, he is in no doubt that anti-Semitism is on the rise, particularly on the far right. ‘There’s a growing threat in terms of violent hate crime,’ he says. Against this backdrop, David’s intervention earlier this year in the wake of an offensive Holocaust-related quip made by fellow comedian – and friend – Jimmy Carr is particularly striking.
Carr was fiercely criticised for a section in his one-man Netflix show in which he made an offensive joke about Gypsies who were murdered by the Nazis during the Holocaust. David, who has always insisted that in comedy nothing should be off limits, labelled it ‘indefensible’.
‘It was a complicated thing for me to say because Jimmy is a friend of mine,’ Davids says now. ‘It is not the subject matter but the lineaments of a joke that count and my position on that has always been the same.’ Is Jimmy still a friend? ‘I hope so,’ he adds. ‘I haven’t spoken to him recently because he went into hiding a bit.’
The episode was undoubtedly magnified by the prism of social media, of which David is a self-confessed keen user, particularly of Twitter, which he today jokingly calls the ‘cross person’s medium’.
Last year he made a BBC documentary, Social Media, Anger and Us, exploring why everyone was so angry and concluded that anger helps to give people a sense of identity. ‘People want to be seen as this very powerful anti-vaxxer or trans-activist, or whatever else, and social media has created a situation whereby you can strengthen that brand by being angry with everyone else who is not that,’ he says.
‘It’s definitely dangerous. At the same time, it also means that you’ve got many more different voices speaking out and that’s a good thing. So it’s a mixed bag.’
David is no stranger to mining uncomfortable territory for laughs himself: in 2014, in the wake of his mother’s unexpected death from a chest infection which turned into pneumonia, he wrote a one-man show, My Family Not the Sitcom, in which he explored a childhood growing up against the backdrop of both his dad’s foul-mouthed stream of insults and his mum’s voracious affair with a golfing memorabilia salesman. If this sounds unkind or exploitative, then it is to misunderstand David’s intentions.
‘You're allowed to carry on channelling the child within yourself your whole life'
‘Mum died very suddenly, and people were endlessly coming up to me and saying, “Your mother was a wonderful woman’’. And after a while I wanted to say, “Did you actually know her?’’ Because she was not straightforwardly a wonderful woman,’ he reflects. ‘I mean she was in a way, but in a bizarre, crazy, mad way, not in this idealised way. So the show was comedy, but it was also about reclaiming my mother from the idealisation of death, because if you do that you erase them completely.’
He brought that same gritty realism to his father Colin’s protracted decline and eventual death from dementia, making an intimate and unflinching 2017 documentary called The Trouble with Dad, and when Colin passed away in January this year, David’s funeral tribute was loving but similarly searingly honest about his father’s tricky character.
‘I think our generation had a lot of dads like that, who were annoyed about everything,’ he muses. ‘Dad was a man who was dedicated to football, science, rough and tumble play, and saying, “Who the hell is this now?” every time the phone rang. Everything was aggravation for him.’
Theirs was not an openly emotional bond, and he recalls how in the 2017 documentary he jokingly suggested that perhaps his dad didn’t love him as he’d never directly said the words to him. ‘And the filmmaker turned to my dad and said, “Your son is saying you never loved him.” And Dad said, “That’s absolute b*llocks.” And I find that more moving because it was so him.’
Both Ezra, a music student, and dance student Dolly are ‘unbelievably different’ from each other, although they get on well. ‘My son really reminds me of my dad in general. He’s not as angry, but he’s got a very similar no-nonsense attitude to life.’
He and Morwenna, 60 – the voice of Mummy Pig in the children’s series Peppa Pig – are also ‘fiercely different’, not least because she is intensely private.
‘I hardly ever row with Morwenna, while Frank Skinner thinks that rowing is a default state'
‘And I am intensely not private,’ says David, who collaborated with Frank Skinner for many years and still considers him a close friend. ‘I hardly ever row with Morwenna, while Frank Skinner thinks that rowing is a default state of being with someone, but I would say if we do have any arguments, they tend to be about things that I have said or done that are too revealing for her of who we are. She does say, “Please don’t put that on Twitter”.’
Theirs is clearly a happy partnership though, bound by laughter, the quality David feels is vital to relationship longevity.
‘Monogamy is a weird thing, right? We’re clearly not instinctively meant to be straightforwardly monogamous, so if we are going to suppress the instinct [to not be monogamous], there’s one thing that can make you get through that, which is really liking being the person that you’re with,’ he says. ‘And the primary way of knowing that is whether or not they make you laugh, and that’s how me and Morwenna get on.’
Happily married, close to his kids and enjoying a varied and thriving career: all told, David is in a good place, although he admits that for all his inner child, he is ‘constantly assailed’ by thoughts of mortality.
‘Dementia worries me too because of my dad, although I don’t think I am unusual in being someone who monitors himself all the time for signs of that,’ he says. ‘But yes, I am without doubt pretty happy with where I am now.’
(The Boy Who Got) Accidentally Famous by David Baddiel, published by HarperCollins Children’s Books is out now in paperback.
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