After a sold-out run at the Menier Chocolate Factory and in London’s West End, comedian, novelist and TV presenter David Baddiel is taking his Olivier-nominated one-man show to theatres nationwide, with four dates already in the bag when we caught up.
My Family: Not the Sitcom is the follow up to 2013’s Fame: Not the Musical, David’s return to stand-up after several years. And as much as he enjoyed the previous tour, the new show is taking him into new areas, and he’s loving the reaction.
As his press release put it, ‘It’s a show about memory, ageing, infidelity, dysfunctional relatives, moral policing on social media, golf, and gay cats.’ Not your average stand-up show then. It’s also, ‘A massively disrespectful celebration of the lives of David Baddiel’s late sex-mad mother, Sarah, and dementia-ridden father, Colin,’ so we need to, ‘Come and be offended on David’s behalf.’
The 53-year-old Londoner is perhaps still best known for early ‘90s radio and TV comedy, The Mary Whitehouse Experience, alongside Rob Newman, Hugh Dennis and Steve Punt, and fellow BBC hit Fantasy Football League in the mid-’90s, with Frank Skinner. These days though, the father-of-two, married to fellow comedian Morwenna Banks, has seen his writing take precedence, both his adult and children’s novels. But right now, it’s his take on his parents grabbing the attention, following on from an autobiographical peek into his family through last year’s powerful Channel 4 documentary The Trouble With Dad, a very personal insight into dealing with a loved one’s dementia.
But don’t expect him to portray his folks – his mother died in 2014 – as saints. As he explains, “When family members die, or are lost to dementia, all we tend to say about them is that they were wonderful. But if that’s all you can say about them, you may as well say nothing. To truly remember our loved ones, you have to call up their weirdnesses, their madnesses, their flaws. Because the dead, despite what we may think, are not angels.”
The critical reaction to his latest show has been quite something, not least the reviews in the Evening Standard, The Guardian, The Telegraph and The Times. Then there’s all that social media praise, from the likes of JK Rowling, Russell Brand, Ricky Gervais, Hugh Laurie, Lily Allen, Graham Norton, Rob Brydon, Jack Dee, Sue Perkins, David Mitchell, David Walliams, Matt Lucas, Ross Noble, Katherine Ryan, Bill Bailey, George Ezra, David Morrissey, Chris Evans, Alan Carr … What’s more, as I suggest to him, it doesn’t seem like the average rent-a-quote West End back-patting.
“Well, that’s nice for you to say. It’s been really great, the reaction. I think because the show is very personal, and authentic, people respond to that. And every word is true. Despite being very personal to me, it also seems to speak to people about their own family experience. I think that’s what happens.”
His next date is on Friday, February 23rd, a sell-out at Chester’s Storyhouse, followed by a visit to Birmingham Alexandra on Wednesday, February 28th, then – my excuse for talking to David – a two-night run at Lancaster Grand on Thursday, March 1st and Friday, March 2nd. And when we spoke he was extremely pleased with the response to the first regional shows.
“Yes, I’ve done four already – Aberdeen, Bath, Truro and Cheltenham – and they’ve all gone really well, as is often the case. While I had a lovely time in the West End, out of London it’s really brilliant. There’s a real sense of joy at these gigs.”
It’s a truly personal show, as you say, and a different form of stand-up to that which perhaps we might have expected from you back in the ’90s. Is it good to be back out there playing live again? Because, let’s face it, you’re not exactly a regular gigging comedian these days.
“Well, I did a show in 2013, Fame: Not the Musical, the first time I came back to stand up after having not done it for a while, with a new type of stand-up, much more storytelling, including a screen, using clips, and very autobiographical. So it was a different type of stand-up, although not a million miles from what I did. It felt a bit more mature, for want of a better word.
“I hadn’t done it for a bit, but partly because I was having children and all sorts of things. It wasn’t because I didn’t want to perform. But I performed so much in the ‘90s, touring and doing all this for such a long time. It’s very all-consuming, stand-up comedy, so I think I needed time away from it. I wasn’t sure how it would feel to come back to it. But it felt really great.
“This show particularly has touched a chord with people, and that’s different to how it was. I used to enjoy getting laughs but didn’t get the sense I get with this – that people think it’s spoken to them and they want to tell me about their family and all that. It’s really lovely.”
Stand-up comedy can be a lonely profession, not least as you’re out there on your own most nights, even away from mates doing the same job in other towns.
“Well, you do bump into people quite a lot, and one of the things about having done this for a long time is that you do feel part of a little community. It’s a funny old thing, that.
“Actually, to say something rather bleak, when Sean Hughes died, I went to his funeral and part of going was seeing like 40 comedians from my generation, all feeling sad but also part of a real community. We were mourning one of our own, who came up in the same generation, and there’s something really nice about that. It’s not very competitive or anything. It’s very comradely.
“Funnily enough, Rob Newman is playing Salford Lowry the same night as me. And without going on about it, he’s in the smaller room! So it’s the first time Newman and Baddiel will be performing in the same theatre on the same night in … ”
Well at the end of this year it will be 25 years since those huge Wembley gigs you did together, won’t it?
“Yeah, and actually they offered us a gig … but it’s not going to be happening. Wembley did offer a big 25th anniversary gig. I was sort of interested. I think Rob wasn’t. I wasn’t sure either, because I didn’t quite know what we were going to do. But we wouldn’t have to dress up as History Today people, because we already look like them.”
At the same time, is this you trying to redress the balance. I mean, was there a danger of you just becoming known as that bloke married to Mummy Pig and Dr Hamster from Peppa Pig.
“Well, that’s alright. I don’t mind that. I can only be proud. Actually, of that younger generation, a lot are now into the kids’ books. The other day I was in a shop and this woman told me her daughter was a massive fan. She was around 10. Then she said, ‘Can I have your autograph, because I used to come and see you.’ So that’s nice.
At this point, David seems to have a go at me for suggesting – and I wasn’t, by the way – that his beloved Morwenna might just be the mother of his teenage children plus TV favourites Peppa and George, letting me know about her recent writing with Jo Brand for Channel 4 sitcom, Damned, set in the children’s services department office of a local council, starring its writers plus former writewyattuk interviewee Alan Davies, Kevin Eldon, Himesh Patel, Isy Suttie, Georgie Glen, and Aisling Bea. If you’ve not caught up on last autumn’s first series, you best hurry as they’re now running the second one, which began last week.
Anyway, I soon re-dress the balance, talking about Morwenna’s West Country roots and our mutual love of Cornwall.
“We’ve just come back from there, because my second or third night of the tour was in Truro. We decided after that gig to spend some time doing a whistle-stop tour of her family, who are mainly still there. We normally go there two or three times a year, and one thing I’ve noticed about Cornish people is that wherever they are, they have a yearning to return, in a way that I don’t have a particular yearning to return to Cricklewood. We spend a lot of time there. And it’s especially nice now, opposed to in the summer when it’s mental. Now there’s hardly anyone there, so it’s really nice.”
You mentioned Rob Newman before, and I see that next year marks the 30th anniversary of the radio pilot of The Mary Whitehouse Experience.
“Really? I saw Rob’s show recently, the stand-up show he’s doing now, and we had a long chat after, and we get on really well now, me and him. Frank (Skinner) and me are mates and he lives in my road, and while I don’t see him every day I see him a lot and we’re still very close. Me and Rob aren’t, but we’ve become more friendly in the last year or so.
“He came to see my show in the West End. He tweeted, asking for tickets, not realising that was a public message! It was all very nice though. There’s no animosity anymore, which is nice, but I doubt we’re going to work together any more. What Rob does and what I do now don’t really link together in the same way.”
I see at one point The Mary Whitehouse Experience might have been named The William Rees-Mogg Experience. Might we see a new spin on that now, as The Jacob Rees-Mogg Experience perhaps?
‘I’m very happy for someone else to do The Jacob Rees-Mogg Experience. And he could do it himself, because he is basically a comedy character. We have this situation now where politicians are like comedy characters – Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage, Jacob Rees-Mogg … You can imagine them being played by Harry Enfield.
“It’s almost as if a politician can’t get noticed anymore unless he or she has big, stupid, grotesque characters. I don’t know why. But I suppose John Major managed to be Prime Minister for eight years and no one even noticed him.”
While we’re on politics, talking to Mark Steel recently about Trump’s America and Brexit Britain, he was of the opinion that – as per his latest live show – ‘Everything’s Gonna Be Alright’ and the tide is turning. Do you share that optimism?
“I don’t really know. I’d like to think so. Things are getting more extreme, and I think that’s driven mainly by technology. We have technology that allows very quick mass communication, all the time, and It suggests in theory there’s going to be this lovely communication between all people at all times.
“But what’s really happening is that those who shout loudest are the ones most heard. So you end up essentially with an internet troll being President of the United States. That has happened very quickly. I don’t think anyone could have imagined Donald Trump or someone like him being President 10 years ago. And that’s not for any other reason than because of the internet.
“That’s a man who built his image and brand on Twitter, and as we know you can build your image and brand there by just saying very brash, loud, mad things. That is a worry, but I don’t think it necessarily means everything will be terrible, because things go in cycles, and maybe there will be a calming down.”
“Not adult books, but the children’s novels have done so well that I’ve become someone who thinks I should keep writing these, and they’re a joy to write and it’s a joy the way kids interact with them. I have another of those coming in October, which is going well, and I’m also written a film of the first one, The Parent’s Agency, which Is currently being thrashed out by the studio. We’re looking for a director at the moment. Then there’s AniMalcolm, my fourth children’s book, which is being made into a theatre show by Story Pocket Theatre, a puppet theatre company, and that will be touring in your area too.”
A year ago, David returned to our screens, with his brother Ivor in a moving documentary about their father, Colin Baddiel, filmed over the course of a year, charting their attempts to care for the 82-year-old, living with a form of frontotemporal dementia, known as Pick’s disease, that has affected the part of his brain that controls personality and behaviour.
You clearly got a good reaction to Channel 4’s The Trouble With Dad, which I’m guessing was the route for this show, in a sense.
“I was already doing this. In fact, it’s got footage in it of me doing this in the Menier Chocolate Factory when I started. The show’s changed quite a lot but it’s the same basic show. Then, because I was doing the show, the company who made that documentary got in touch, wondering if there was more to be said specifically about my Dad and this type of dementia.
“I wasn’t sure at first, but in the end they gave me and my brother a lot of control over it, and I felt very happy with that. And it seemed to touch a lot of people, that documentary. I was very glad to do it.”
You made a nice point recently about a perceived betrayal, letting on to others that a loved one has dementia when you haven’t had permission from them to say so. I’m sure a lot of us have encountered similar feelings of guilt.
“At the end of the day, I’d say that when one’s parents, either through death or dementia, aren’t able to tell their own stories, you have to accept that their children are the ones going to tell the story. You have a choice of going to silence or a very bland memory of them being a lovely person, or the true story, which will be more complicated. I consider it to be a bigger act of love to tell the true story. That’s the choice you have, and you’ll always be slightly conflicted about that. But I think the conflict is all part of it.”
You mentioned Frank Skinner before. Will you be off to Russia for the World Cup with him this June?
“We’re not planning anything. I’m still on tour for the first part. I’ve tried to carve out the England games, although for the big one against Belgium I think I’m in Stoke, so I’ve asked for it to be put back.
“The trouble with doing stuff around the World Cup is that you’re always dependent on what England do, and you don’t want to put too much store on that and build a whole show around England getting to the World Cup Final and winning it. I think that would be a mistake.”
When I spoke to Frank four years ago (with a link here), just before the World Cup in Brazil, he was of the opinion that he’d probably be happier watching it all at home rather than heading out there.
“Well, we’ve gone to quite a few, going to Germany in 2006 and South Africa in 2010, and had a brilliant time. Those podcasts were really fun. But it’s also nice to watch it at home, so I agree with him.”
You previously shared something of your family history on Who Do You Think You Are? In 2004, not least your Jewish heritage and details of the Government’s internment policy for refugees from Nazi Germany during the Second World War. That also proved to be powerful viewing.
“Well, I wrote a book about that, a novel called The Secret Purposes, based very loosely on my Grandfather’s experiences on the Isle of Man. I felt it wasn’t very well known, like a secret part of British history. And for me it remains so. I think most people still don’t know that refugees were interned on the Isle of Man, in the case of my Grandfather for around two years. But it’s good if it’s opened up something.”
Finally, it’s too late for our own parents, but dementia is a ticking timebomb for our futures. What, in your view, needs to be done? Is it about throwing money at scientific research, care improvements, or both?
“I don’t know. Sorry! All the things it involves with me talking about dementia in my show, people tend to come to me for answers. A woman wrote to me saying her Dad had got the same type of frontal lobe dementia that my Dad had and was getting no help from her local NHS authority, and did I have any advice. And I don’t.
“All I am is a comedian and a storyteller. I can only tell my own story. I can’t fix stuff like that. I wished her all the best, but I’m afraid I don’t know what should be done.”
Well, I’m sure just by talking about it so openly, you’re making a big difference, helping open up the debate.
“Well, I hope so. Thank you.”
David Baddiel’s My Family: Not the Sitcom is out and about around the UK between now and July 2nd’s finale at Bristol Hippodrome. For a full list of dates and ticket information, head to his website.