David Baddiel grew up with a wild mother and a 'sweary’ father. As his new show about them opens, he tells Julia Llewellyn Smith about his quirky upbringing
When comedian David Baddiel’s mother, Sarah, died two years ago, he took absolutely no comfort from funeral guests telling him she had been a “wonderful woman”.
“All that one’s allowed to say about a dead person is that they’re wonderful, but that’s incredibly flattening to their individuality,” says Baddiel, 51, sitting in a coffee shop near his home in north London. “My mother was wonderful, but not in the way people mean. She was incredibly idiosyncratic and the things you would celebrate about her were not respectable, certainly not things that would feature in any funeral speech.”
The germ was planted for Baddiel’s latest stand-up comedy show, My Family: Not the Sitcom, which he describes as a “celebration of all the stuff we don’t usually celebrate about our parents”.
The show, which tells the life of both Sarah and Baddiel’s 81-year-old father, Colin – who for the past eight years has suffered from Pick’s disease, a form of dementia that, according to his son, makes him “sexually disinhibited, irritable and impatient” – includes reminiscences and riffs from Baddiel and film footage of both parents.
He also reads out extracts from Sarah’s “extraordinarily sexual” emails to her long-term lover. It may not be the most respectful way to honour both the dead and the still living, but Baddiel insists it’s “a love letter” to both parents.
“I say to the audience: 'You might think it’s a bit weird there being so much in this show about my mother’s anatomy, but I tell you what – it brings her back to life.’ Love is not all flowers and roses, it’s quirks and madness. My mother wasn’t just a nice old lady, who volunteered in a charity shop – though she did.
"Early in her life she was wild and whirling – but not in an aristocratic way, in a way that was much more common and involved golf. I absolutely love that.” Born into a rich German-Jewish family, Sarah was five when her family fled the Nazis for Britain, losing their fortune.
She married Colin Baddiel, a Welsh-born research chemist with Unilever, but in the Seventies began an affair with a collector of golf memorabilia, which continued on and off for decades. Sarah tried to impress her lover by setting up her own “golfiana” business, stuffing their north London home with her collection.
“She thought her lover would like it, but of course he didn’t because she was a rival,” says Baddiel, the second of her three sons, chuckling. “She talked about her affair all the time, she was proud of it; she thought it made her glamorous, not just a housewife.”
As a teenager, he was embarrassed; as an adult, however, he sympathises with Sarah, not least because his father never reacted to her flaunting of the affair and didn’t seem to care. “Dad was and is a very blokey, unemotional, unromantic guy and she was a melodramatic person.”
Baddiel is equally forgiving of Colin’s fondness for showing off and foul language, both of which have been exacerbated by his dementia. (The first time Colin met Baddiel’s partner and mother of his two children, comedian Morwenna Banks, at Sarah’s 60th birthday party, he greeted them with, “You couple of c---- are late”.)
“Every time I’ve done the show [in previews] I find myself near tears at the end, I find it quite difficult. There’s footage of Dad coming backstage when I played Wembley [he was the first comedian to sell out the 12,000-seat Wembley Arena with former comedy partner Rob Newman in 1994] and I say: 'I know he could be sweary and angry, but he could also be a nice dad.’ ”
Audiences, including Baddiel’s brothers, who have seen previews, have greeted the show enthusiastically, with no one suggesting it’s in poor taste. “People see it as lifting a taboo.” Only one area is off limits for the comedian, who became famous in the Nineties with “lad comedy” shows such as Fantasy Football League and Baddiel and Skinner Unplanned – Sarah’s sudden death, aged 75, from pneumonia.
Baddiel, who found her collapsed at home, next to his confused father, took her to hospital where doctors spent six hours trying to save her. “It was so incredibly bleak, there is nothing to be gained from talking about it. I find it fascinating the way we have this Hollywood idea that you should be there when your parents die, because we think we’ll be holding their hand in a white room. Then if they die in A&E with doctors running around with oxygen masks and defibrillators, it’s intensely traumatising. You find yourself having flashbacks for months.”
As a “fundamentalist atheist”, Baddiel finds no consolation in faith, although he celebrates Jewish traditions such as Passover. “I want to explore that part of my own identity.” He’s a vocal opponent of anti-Semitism, fronting a recent campaign to ban fans from using the word “Yid” in anthems.
“If a football club allowed its supporters to use the N-word, it would be shut down,” he says. “I don’t think anti-Semitism is growing but it’s more visible because of social media, so stuff that’s toxic gets normalised and taken as part and parcel of life.”
He’s pleased to see Jeremy Corbyn launch an investigation into anti-Semitism in the Labour Party. “It’s not so much that the Left is anti-Semitic, it’s that it won’t adopt the Jews as a minority. It’s a hangover from the belief that Jews are rich, so they don’t need protection.”
Yet he also thinks the Facebook post shared by Labour MP Naz Shah (which proposed “transporting” Israel’s citizens to America) and which sparked the current furore, was “actually not that bad. Don’t get me wrong, it was stupid, but I see so much worse on Twitter all the time."
It was a desire to escape crude social media debate that also fuelled his new show. “You sometimes feel as if you can’t talk about anything without attracting abuse, but this is my family history, so no one can tell me off about it.”