‘I can’t get it out of my head,’ says David Baddiel, talking of the day his mother died. ‘She was in and out of consciousness for about five hours, and I didn’t stay in the room the whole time because it was the worst experience of my life.’
The writer and comedian is clearly still grieving for Sarah, who died just before Christmas three years ago. ‘I could feel the damage happening and how I would flashback with horror to see my mum drown in her own lung fluid for the rest of my life. So I didn’t stay. I started to feel guilty soon afterwards, that I hadn’t been there the whole time, and I still feel guilty now.’ His father Colin was in the grip of dementia but had to be told. ‘I would say my dad looked about as upset and frightened and vulnerable as I’ve ever seen him. Then about 20 minutes later we had to tell him again. And again. And again.’
The writer and comedian David Baddiel is clearly still grieving for his mother Sarah, who died just before Christmas three years ago
It was heartbreaking for Baddiel, who reacted in a way that initially alarmed his brothers. Within a few months of their mother’s death he was on stage, working up a one-man comedy show about the deep, dark secrets of the Baddiel family, including his dad’s awful behaviour and his mum’s wild sex life, in which she had a passionate and quite public affair with a golfing memorabilia salesman.
‘My younger brother Dan, who’s a taxi driver in New York, is a hard fellow. Lovely fellow but gets into fights. He sent me a one-line email saying: “You’re not doing it!” Our older brother Ivor said, “Do you have to do it so soon?” And I said, “Yes, I feel the need to do this and it’s going to take me a while to work out the right way, so I have to start.”’
My Family: Not The Sitcom was a hit in the West End and now he is taking it on the road for a nationwide tour. Against all the odds, given the subject matter, it is hilarious, telling a story that veers from funny to tragic and poignant and back to funny again.
But what do the other members of his family really think of all this? What about his mother’s lover, who is shown, named and described at length? Does his father know what’s happening, as he slides further into the dementia that was documented so movingly by a Channel 4 documentary earlier this year? And why would a normally very private 53-year-old, best known for his comedy partnership with Frank Skinner and lately his successful children’s books, choose to air his dirty laundry in such a public way? Or to put it another way, exploit his own grief for laughs?
‘Whenever anything happens in my life, a part of me thinks of it as material,’ says Baddiel. ‘That might seem cold-hearted but I don’t think it is. This is just my way of dealing with what happened. My first instinct is, “How can I tell stories about this?” I’m sure that’s a defence mechanism.’
David Baddiel’s parents on their wedding day
Baddiel, on left, with father Colin and older brothers Dan and Ivor in the late Seventies
Baddiel was at the height of his fame in the Nineties when he and Skinner had several hit series and a No 1 single, Three Lions. He’s a successful screenwriter, novelist and children’s author who is often on television, appearing in shows such as QI and Would I Lie To You?, as well as taking part in the Red Nose Convoy across Africa for Comic Relief earlier this year. His face is familiar, with his dark-rimmed glasses and scruffy black and silver beard, but we’re talking in a cafe near his home that is nearly empty and this is Hampstead, London, where many famous people live, so nobody bothers him. That means Baddiel can be perfectly frank about everything from the rise of anti-Semitism to his own personal struggles. ‘There’s a random awfulness to life,’ he says, ‘but if you can make it into a story that feels less random and awful.’
The show is breathtaking at times. He shows a clip of his mother being funny about sex on his chat show Baddiel And Skinner Unplanned but then reads out lines from emails to her lover (inexplicably copied to her sons), in which she talks about her clitoris being on fire with desire. The laughter is uneasy, as people wonder whether they ought to be listening to this at all.
Baddiel with wife Morwenna Banks and children Ezra and Dolly at a 2015 film premiere
‘Sex was her way of saying she was not just a prim, suburban, Jewish housewife. Sex was how she showed she was modern,’ says Baddiel in the show. She didn’t hide the affair, suddenly becoming obsessed with golfing memorabilia in a way that now seems bizarre and amusing. ‘My mum was very emotional, always wanting to live her life as if she was having a grand passion,’ he tells me, ‘but because she was from Dollis Hill in 1974, she had to do that with just the available resources. A golfing memorabilia salesman.’
His father is portrayed as a difficult, hard man whose way of showing affection was to slag off his sons to their faces. Baddiel tells how a doctor diagnosed Pick’s disease and said his father would develop mood swings, start doing inappropriate things and swearing uncontrollably. ‘When the neurologist described these symptoms I said, “Sorry, does he have a disease or have you just met him?”’
His lack of inhibition and habit of swearing rudely at his sons – amplified by the dementia – is seen at the start of the documentary the Baddiel boys made for Channel 4, The Trouble With Dad. But the film also captures his retreat into silence, which they find harder to bear.
‘In the old days I would leave thinking, I’ve got to go, I can’t be abused any more,’ says Baddiel on camera. ‘Now I miss it.’
There are still fragments of his old behaviour that are a comfort, such as when it is put to Colin that he never loved his sons and he replies: ‘That’s a load of b*****ks.’
It’s easy to see why his brothers were alarmed at all this being made into a full-blown stand-up comedy show though, so have they changed their minds?
‘Ivor came to see the show and said: “I loved it, because [Mum] was in the room.” That made me start welling up. If the show has a manifesto at all then it is this: “Remember people as they were in all their flaws and faults and strangeness, because that is what will keep them alive.” Saying they were nice and wonderful will not keep them alive.’
Baddiel as a baby with parents Sarah and Colin and brother Ivor in New York, 1964
What about his younger brother, who objected so clearly? I said, “Dan, you’ve got to trust me. I’ll fly you over from New York, come and see it.” He didn’t come. But then he came when it was in the West End and he loved it. Really loved it. I think he particularly liked the fact that he was in it.’
Baddiel displays a picture of Dan as Mr February on the yellow cab driver’s calendar in New York, although he now drives an Uber. ‘He’s gone over to the dark side I’m afraid, but that’s because he was found to have dope in his bloodstream while in a yellow cab. So I don’t think he’s got much choice there!’
There he goes again, disclosing a bit too much. Their reactions must have been a relief? ‘Yes, but I was also fairly confident in saying, “The show will have some big laughs in it, but in the end it’s going to be a love letter to our parents. And you have to trust me on that.”’
His motivation goes back to that day his mother died, although he pulls up short for a moment. ‘I hate it when celebrities go on about their torment, because ordinary people have terrible stuff in their lives, and why should we be any more deserving of sympathy?
‘But this was a very dark thing to happen. My mum died very suddenly one Saturday and it was very horrible, because she suddenly went from having a chest infection to double pneumonia overnight.’
She didn’t turn up to meet his brother at a synagogue as arranged so Ivor went to their home. ‘No one answered, so eventually he knocked the door down and went in and she was unconscious. My dad was completely out of it because of the dementia, didn’t understand what was going on, just swearing and stuff. He was calling Ivor a turd and making fun of him so it was really weird. And he was still doing that when the paramedics arrived.’
She was taken to hospital, where the family gathered, but it was traumatic. ‘I couldn’t get what I saw out of my head. It still comes back to me quite a lot. But doing the show did hold that at bay somewhat.’
So by creating and performing My Family: Not The Sitcom he is holding off the horror, keeping Mum in the room with him somehow and also saying goodbye, in the way he says he was not able to do in the hospital or at the funeral. So this show is his long goodbye, isn’t it? ‘Yes. A long goodbye to her and to my dad as well. My dad’s experience is a different type of death. Diminishing-whilst-alive.’
Baddiel with Steve Coogan and Frank Skinner in 1998. Baddiel is most well-known for his comedy partnership with Skinner
Eventually the brothers wrote a note for their father explaining that his wife had passed away, which he kept on a tray with his drink. ‘We’ve taken it away now because he doesn’t ask about her any more. Who knows what’s the right thing to do? I did think this was an incredibly dark, awful thing to be going through. And that’s why I wrote a show quite quickly, because I had to find a way of coping.’
Was there any way to get his father’s permission for the show? ‘Permission is very complicated with someone with dementia. The only permission I can give is that despite everything I love my parents, so therefore I know that the place the show comes from is a good one.’
Some people will be offended just by his talking about dementia and showing clips of his father. ‘How can you do a show about difficult subjects at a time when comedy is very policed and it seems that whatever you say, you’ll upset someone? One way is to make it incredibly personal and challenge the audience. I’m not offended talking about dementia, or my mum’s infidelity. So I hope I’m out-flanking those people.’
Should there be any limits in comedy? ‘There are no limits, but that doesn’t mean that all jokes are funny. It’s not the subject that’s important, it’s the joke. You can tell a joke about the Holocaust that is horrible and mean and anti-Semitic and cruel, or you can tell a joke that is satirising fascism, or that makes victims feel less alone.’
That’s a pressing matter at a time when anti-Semitism is more visible than it has been for a long time, with the Labour Party particularly struggling to stamp it out. ‘Yeah, but it’s not just Labour. It is sort of extraordinary that we just live with it. Every day on Twitter there is something anti-Semitic. Almost any controversial situation I get into, someone is going to relate it to either Jewishness or Israel.’
Isn’t that partly because his Twitter profile just says, in one word, ‘Jew’? ‘Yeah, well that is true. I think that’s funny. What’s funny about the word is that it’s an insult. But one of the things about being Jewish in Britain is that it’s been for many years an incredibly quiet community. I am actually from New York [where he was born] and my feeling’s always been that I want to be quite loud about this, because it’s an interesting thing about me, and I’m very happy to own it. And that’s unusual for a British Jew.’
There is one person in the show who has been given no choice and was not even asked for permission: David White, his mother’s lover, who is still alive.
‘His niece came, and his half-sister, and she told me that he’s been asked twice by a newspaper to come and see the show. He lives abroad. They were going to bring him to the show, first class apparently, and sort of doorstep me with him, but he hasn’t come,’ says Baddiel.
‘His niece told me he’s decided to tell his sons about what happened. What do I feel about that? I think that’s very difficult. I try and restrict the information in the show to how he impacted on our lives, which was in a very big way. If you’re going to have that amount of impact on a person’s life as they are growing up, they are allowed to talk about you when they’re older.’
Is he not worried about David White’s feelings? ‘I don’t lose much sleep about it. I’m actually quite nice about him in the show. My mum wanted something my dad absolutely couldn’t give her. She wanted a sort of Milk Tray man. Someone who was romantic and dashing, who loved her and showered her with love. My dad was the opposite of that.
‘She wanted a very active sex life but she also wanted a prince of a man. Hilariously, she found it in this slightly Alan Partridge kind of figure.’
There was no happy ending for Sarah Baddiel. ‘At the point in time when I think my mum might have left my dad, and might have ended up with the love of her life, [White] just f***** off out of there. So to some extent he was a cad.’
I have to ask this, but as they share the same name, is he absolutely sure David White is not his father?
‘People have asked that, but I don’t think the timeline quite steps up. I was born in 1964. I don’t think he came into my mum’s life till after that. Although I’m not sure. Also, there may have been other men who I don’t know. But no, he’s not my dad. I actually look amazingly like my dad.’
Baddiel has two teenage children of his own now, Ezra and Dolly. Have they been to see the show? ‘Dolly has seen it. I do quite an emotional bit about how I want my kids to know that these people, their grandparents – who they only really knew as old and infirm and with dementia and gone – were young once. They did crazy s***, they did drugs and had affairs. They were people who were funny. I found myself welling up when Dolly was in the room and I was doing that bit. It’s the only time that I’ve really started to cry on stage. I couldn’t speak for a while.’
What about his son? ‘Ezra’s too young, although I think he’d love it. Ezra is the funniest kid. Almost everything Ezra says now is an extreme, unacceptable joke, quite often at my expense, so he pushes me all the time. But he’s hilarious and incredibly quick. He doesn’t read much. I’m a children’s author. Ezra doesn’t read my books. It’s particularly irritating because I would like to say, “Ezra you need to read to be smart.” But he is unbelievably witty and articulate. I have to say that comes from the telly. I grew up with The Magic Roundabout, he’s grown up with The Simpsons. Go figure.’
What will he do if either of them decides to tell stories, funny or otherwise, about his private life in the future?
‘I couldn’t complain now, could I?’
Perhaps it will help them as it has helped him, he says, although for Baddiel the healing process is clearly not over yet.
‘I don’t know what people who are not writers or performers do if your mum dies and your dad gets dementia and you’re trying to deal with the fact that your mum was unfaithful. Just sort of suck it up? That seems to me to be very difficult. Whereas if you can convert it into a story and make people laugh at it and feel like it’s having a useful impact on people’s lives, it feels like the death, the dementia, is not all just a waste.’
‘My Family: Not The Sitcom’ tours nationwide from Jan 28. davidbaddiel.com