BIG INTERVIEW David Baddiel: 'I think it's part of comedy's job to test boundaries'

David Baddiel is bringing his show, My Family: Not The Sitcom to Portsmouth Guildhall on June 16, 2018
David Baddiel is bringing his show, My Family: Not The Sitcom to Portsmouth Guildhall on June 16, 2018
Cast members and the trio of dogs chosen. Credit: West Meon Theatre

Trio of prized pooches picked for upcoming theatre show

Most people who have had dysfunctional family lives do their best to keep it behind closed doors.

Not so for David Baddiel. The comic, writer and TV presenter has made his chaotic family history the subject of his new show, My Family: Not The Sitcom.

The idea for the show came to David after his mother's death in 2014.

'At my mum’s funeral all of these people were telling me all of this reverent stuff about how wonderful she was,' David tells The Guide. 'If all you can say is that someone was wonderful, then that’s a waste of time, you may as well say nothing. And that’s what we tend to do when someone dies.

'The show was inspired by my gut need to tell the truth and to not erase her any further out of existence – if you’re trying to hold someone in your memory, then simply saying they were wonderful is actually fairly useless. It’s very reductive.'

And so David tells the story of his mother's affair with a golfing memorabilia salesman.

David Baddiel and Frank Skinner.

David Baddiel and Frank Skinner.

'When people see the show I think a lot of them expect it to be more about my dad and his dementia.' David filmed a documentary for Channel 4, The Trouble With Dad in 2017. That is a big part of it, but it’s more about my mum, and let’s not talk about how she was an angel, let’s talk about what she was really like.'

But rather than vilifying his mother, not that that was ever his intention, David has found the show has had the opposite effect.

'By the end of the show people are incredibly championing of my mum, even though I’ve presented this mad life where she had an affair and was probably very far from being a model parent. But she comes across as being a vibrant, real, idiosyncratic personality.'

Contrary to the way most people conduct affairs, his mother was very open about it.

David Baddiel brings his show, My Family: Not The Sitcom to Portsmouth Guildhall on June 16, 2018

David Baddiel brings his show, My Family: Not The Sitcom to Portsmouth Guildhall on June 16, 2018

'A large part of the comedy about my mother’s affair is her extreme broadcasting of it. She was proud of this affair – she felt it was very glamorous, and particularly with this guy who is this hilarious smoothy, golf-playing man. She thought he was the bee's knees. My dad’s much more of a Welsh working-class lad, and so I think she thought the fact she was in this affair was something everyone should know about – so I did know everything about it. And also it was totally obvious because she’d never shown any interest in golf and suddenly she was obsessed with it.

'When she died and I was going through her stuff, just to find wills and various documents – she’d died very suddenly so nothing was in order – then I found all these other things about the affair that I hadn’t known before, and that’s partly what the show is about, finding these things and, weirdly, celebrating them, because I don’t make any judgement about my mum for doing this.

'It definitely is a celebration of the mad way in which she conducted this affair. For example, I found a book of her erotic poetry, and I read some of it out. It’s very, very funny. The one thing that is missing is any sense that this was bad – it’s all done in the sense that this is hilarious and that’s okay.'

Given that the show is about keeping the real memory of a person alive, Baddiel has found one of the main problems he faces is not diminishing the stories through nightly repetition.

'If you’re doing this over and over again, then the reality of it, and the emotion of it might go. So I have to find ways of doing it every night that feel new enough and different enough, so when I’m talking about these things, whether it be purely funny, or towards the end of the show when there are some quite moving bits, that it doesn’t just feel like I’m doing it by rote.

'And then I won’t want to do it any more if it feels a bit awful to do that in a show that’s totally about truth.

'It’s important for me to stay real, and that’s where the laughs come from. I make it very clear all of these stories true. But then there’s this weird side-effect that saying something over and over again can make it feel not true.'

David was actually looking to put together a new show, when the idea for My Family presented itself as the obvious subject.

'I hadn’t done stand up for about a decade properly. I’d had a kid, written books, written a film and all that stuff, but I hadn’t done live stand-up for a long time.
'It started off as a talk, a sort of sub-Ted talk in London about fame in 2013 and it went so well, I thought maybe I should do this again, but I’ll do it in a different way. Rather than take a load of different observations that I try to yoke together, I’ll pick a topic and I’ll tell a story, and I’d use a screen. 

'That was called Fame: Not The Musical, and it went really well, so I thought maybe I should do another one, but what else do I have a bank of stories about?

'That show was mainly about the ridiculous and embarrassing things that have happened to me as a result of being on British telly for quite a long time. And I thought, obviously it’s my parents, and my childhood, where I have another cast-iron set of comedy stories.'

With the slightly taboo nature of the show's subject matter – death, dementia, adultery – was he ever concerned about how it would be received?

'I never really stopped to worry about it. The only thing that did concern me was my brothers' reaction to it because they’re the only other people it directly effects - my mum’s dead, my dad has dementia, and I talk about how both of them might react if they were able to see the show – but my brothers, I was concerned about them and they were had their concerns too.

'I had to say to them, you’re going to have to trust me, however much it sounds like I’m going to be washing our dirty linen in public, yes it will be that, but it will be a celebration of our dirty linen. It’s a tribute to the way we were raised, even though it’s going to include all these things that most people would sweep under the carpet.

'Both of them did come and see it quite early on, and both of them loved it, so that worked out okay. I was never concerned about offending general sensibilities though, I think it’s part of comedy’s job to test those boundaries anyway.'

David had his big break as part of The Mary Whitehouse Experience in the early '90s, along with Rob Newman, Steve Punt, and Hugh Dennis. He went on to perform with Newman, and the duo became the first comedy act to sell out Wembley Arena.

From there he starred in Fantasy Football League with his flatmate, Frank Skinner, which led to the pair co-writing the enduring anthem Three Lions with The Lightning Seeds. It's been a number one single three times since its original 1996 release.

And now this leg of David's tour will be coinciding with the imminent World Cup. Surely that was a mistake? 

'The tour was booked perhaps a year ago, and I didn’t think about it, and Avalon who booked it didn’t think about it, so I am pretty annoyed that I might be missing some games. I think the only one that might be difficult is England/Belgium, when I’m in Stoke, and I’ve asked for that show to begin at 9.30 so that I can watch the game, which will hopefully be a dead rubber anyway!'

I’ve checked the fixtures, so I think I’m going to be ok to watch them on telly. I wasn’t intending to go out to Russia anyway, partly because I’m terrified of Russia. I’ve been to loads of World Cups - I went to Japan, Germany, me and Frank went to the final in France in 1998, we went to South Africa for six weeks and it’s great, but I also really like watching it on TV.'

How does he feel about Three Lions these days?

'There was a fair bit of press the other day about the announcement of not being a song this time - I think Three Lions killed off the England World Cup song because it is a really good song, and I’m just going to say that. 'They tried a few after that and nothing seemed to really stick, so now they don’t seem to bother, which is fine because people can sing the old songs.

'The only thing about Three Lions is that it’s totally dependent as a song on England doing well. In Euro '96, the minute Germany won that semi-final, I could hear people immediately stop singing it around me.

I am always proud of Three Lions and hopefully it will be sung again, not just for the royalties,' he laughs, 'but because it means we’re doing well.'

David Baddiel, My Family: Not The Sitcom is at Portsmouth Guildhall on Saturday, June 16, door 7pm. Tickets £29.56. Go to portsmouthguildhall.org.uk.