‘I have an obsession with authenticity’: David Baddiel on growing up, golf and family affairs

David Baddiel is a bit worried that his new book could sound like misery lit. Called My Family: The Memoir, it tells the story of the 60-year-old comedian and author’s life through his relationship with his parents: Sarah and Colin Baddiel. There was no abuse – to be clear – but no shortage of identity-defining casual neglect. Colin was a scientist from Swansea who could be funny, but was emotionally stunted. “If Roger Mellie from Viz had been Welsh and a bit more aggressive – that was my father,” Baddiel writes. In later life, Colin had dementia and became even more sweary and profane, to the point where Baddiel stopped taking his own children to visit him.

Sarah was a more flamboyant personality and her three sons (David is the middle child) played second fiddle to a man named David White, with whom Sarah had a decades-long affair. Sarah was not embarrassed to have a lover; in fact, it may have been her proudest achievement. Once, when she was in the audience of her son’s ITV show Baddiel and Skinner Unplanned, she was talking about her children and made the quip: “Are you quite sure they’re all from your father?” Forget, for a moment, that millions of people would have been at home watching. Colin was in the studio with her, smiling!

Two words, though, stop My Family from spiralling into the misery genre: “golfing memorabilia”. David White ran a business selling golfing memorabilia called Golfiana. Sarah Baddiel’s way of showing her adoration for him was to set up a rival golfing memorabilia company, even though she had no interest in the sport whatsoever, and to call her company Golfiana, too. Sarah’s became rather successful: when Baddiel was clearing through his mother’s effects, after she died in December 2014, he found a note from Willie Whitelaw, once Margaret Thatcher’s deputy prime minister, and a voice message from the legendary commentator Peter Alliss thanking Sarah for tracking down obscure golfing collectibles.

Fairway to go: Sarah Fabian Baddiel, David’s mother, with some of her collection of golfing memorabilia, 2004. Photograph: Heritage Image Partnership/Alamy

“I can’t think of anything more perfect,” says Baddiel, of his mother’s improbable obsession with golf. “It’s possible to look at this story in the broad strokes: a mother with three children who has an affair and that’s all she cares about and she takes her eye off her growing children. Then her very, very clever, but emotionally inarticulate husband is rendered just angry or whatever – you can see a really grim Play for Today in that. But the minute the phrase ‘golfing memorabilia’ is introduced, it has to be a comedy. You have no choice.

“It could be the naffest sport, and you’ll get people writing into the Observer disagreeing,” Baddiel goes on. “But I associate it with men like David White: slightly Partridgey men who think about their aftershave and smoke pipes.”

Baddiel entered the public eye in this country 35 years ago and has never left. He has been a new-lad standup, creator with Frank Skinner of the TV show Fantasy Football League and is the writer and performer of the song Three Lions, which you might have heard once or twice these past weeks. In recent times, he has become a bestselling author of children’s books, as well as something of a public intellectual (if Britain had such things) with considered, combative polemics on antisemitism (Jews Don’t Count in 2021) and atheism (last year’s The God Desire). He was also one of the most rubbish ever contestants on the homespun TV gameshow Taskmaster. What unites this disparate body of work, Baddiel hopes, is that all of his output – including My Family – is funny.

Family matters: David’s two brothers and his mum and dad outside their home in north London in 1976.

“A few people have said to me they’ve been really laughing at the book,” says Baddiel. “And I’m pleased the book is achieving what it’s meant to achieve, which is telling quite a complex story that has elements of tragedy to it, but with comedy as its thing. I suppose I still need that. I still need to hear the laughter somewhere.”

Baddiel, in person, is more Taskmaster fall guy than intimidating deep thinker. We meet at his office in Kentish Town, north London, and he arrives a couple of minutes late having first overslept (a lifelong insomniac, he catches sleep where he can) and then forgotten the packed lunch he had just made: chopped liver and a boiled egg. He launches into a convoluted explanation-of-sorts that takes in the Tupperware system in his house and the opinion of Ezra, his 19-year-old son, that he only cooks liver because his dad used to make it, which Baddiel denied, but begrudgingly accepts might ring true. He’s now arranged for his daughter, Dolly, who is in her early 20s, to drop off the lunch after the interview. Phew!

Baddiel’s wife, the actor and writer (and, to a certain generation, voice of Mummy Pig) Morwenna Banks, knows well enough to stay out of the hare-brained schemes. “Morwenna is deeply private, unbelievably private,” says Baddiel, who wears a somewhat crumpled T-shirt and jeans. “She’s always a bit worried when I’m about to do something because she thinks I’ll reveal too much of myself. But then when Taskmaster happened, she was pleased, because she thought, ‘Oh right, you are revealing some of yourself which I have to live with, which is that your decision-making process in everyday life is mental.’” He goes on, “I’m constantly getting into these weird little scrapes, which I think are just straightforward, like, ‘This is obviously the way to deal with this.’”

I suggest it all makes good material.

“It’s quite good material,” Baddiel agrees. “I’m sometimes surprised I’m not dead, because I’m not very cautious. As it happens, I don’t drink, I don’t take drugs – that’s one reason why I’m not dead. But I remember when I was about 13 and I was out and about with my brother, Ivor, near Brent Cross. We were too young… another part of the neglect. I just stepped out into the road without looking and I heard the screech of brakes, and a car did knock me over. Luckily, I’d stepped out just long enough for the car to press on the brakes. Otherwise I’d be dead.”

While this trait might make Baddiel infuriating to live with at times, it has led to a certain fearlessness in his career. “That not quite looking before I go into the road is what I’m talking about,” says Baddiel. “When I wanted to write about the downgrading of antisemitism in our modern, anti-offence culture, a few people said to me, ‘It was brave to write that.’ It would never occur to me for a second it was brave. Because I had the urge to write it. It’s a slightly consequence-less way of thinking.”

The idea to write about his parents came to Baddiel at his mother’s funeral in early 2015. There was a large turnout at the crematorium, and many of the mourners took him aside to tell him how “wonderful” Sarah was. Most people would have smiled and accepted the compliments, but Baddiel is not most people. He didn’t say it at the time – that would have been “awkward and rude and fucked up,” he notes – but he imagined snapping back: “OK, what was her real first name?” It was actually Frommet, one of the “shit” – Baddiel’s word – approved names that Jewish parents living in Nazi Germany could call their children when she was born in 1939.

‘Have you ever thought about saying the second thing that comes into your head?’: David with his wife Morwenna Banks at a film premiere in 2012. Photograph: Fred Duval/Getty Images

Baddiel’s point is that when we fall back on platitudes, we potentially gloss over many of the other strange and funny parts of a person’s life. “I have an obsession with authenticity,” says Baddiel. “It’s the nearest thing I have to a moral code: I try to be as honest and as true as possible. So it felt like when my mother died, and when I went to her funeral, that something was wrong with the way we think about death. And how we think about memory.”

This instinct – along with uncovering some simply jaw-dropping poems written by Sarah to David White and a trove of explosive love letters (“MY CLITORIS IS ON FIRE!!!!!”) – inspired a stage show in 2016, My Family: Not the Sitcom, which was nominated for an Olivier award. After that, Baddiel wasn’t planning to return to the subject of his parents, but when his father died in 2022, he found even more material they had hoarded, including hours of taped conversations. “I do believe – although some people might disagree – that the book is very much an act of love,” he says, “however much there are individual details in it that might be revelatory or graphic or not the sort of thing that you say about someone who’s dead or your parents. People live their lives in a flawed way and that’s where the interesting stuff is. And I’m deeply flawed.”

How does Baddiel feel about David White now? “I’m going to tell you a little scoop… he died three days ago,” he replies. “His half-sister, a very nice woman, wrote to me: ‘He was having breakfast this morning and collapsed and died.’” Baddiel pauses, looks up at the ceiling. “I felt weird about it,” he goes on. “A tiny part of me thought, ‘OK, so we don’t have to worry about any legal issues.’ But also, that’s the last player leaving the stage of this extraordinary tragi-comic drama that defines my early life. And I’m sad the three main players are now all dead.”

As much as we learn about Colin and Sarah in My Family, we also find out a lot about Baddiel himself. There’s his total lack of filter, which is a big part of the reason it is such an extraordinary, hilarious book. Apparently, his wife, Banks, once asked him: “Have you ever thought about saying the second thing that comes into your head?” One reason that Baddiel has never worked much as an actor, or even as a character comedian, is that he finds it hard to express emotions that are not truthful.

Ready for promotion: with Frank Skinner hosting Fantasy Football League on BBC2 in 1994. Photograph: Trinity Mirror/Mirrorpix/Alamy

Then, there’s the fact that Baddiel doesn’t seem to experience shame. “That comes from my mum,” he says. “She never stopped what she was doing because of a notion that it might be somehow shameful. She was proud of almost everything she was doing. And there’s a brilliance to that. It would not be the case that I’m proud of everything I’ve done, but I don’t have shame much as a gene.”

Baddiel is not sure how much he learned about himself writing My Family. “I’ve been in therapy and I’ve spent far too long thinking about who I think I am,” he says. “What I’m doing in a lot of these shows and books is talking about my own life in a more microscopic way than most people do. Although it’s very typical of me that having decided to write a memoir, I’m not going to write a showbiz autobiography.”

Some lessons, though, have been taken from his parents. “I’m always telling my children that I love them,” says Baddiel. “I get on incredibly well with both of them. My son, I’d say, sort of is my best mate. There’s a problem with that: he has a girlfriend now. I knew that was coming. So I’m not seeing as much of him as I was. But it’s fine because I’m hanging out with my daughter more, which is really great.”

In May, Baddiel turned 60. He looks good for it, in part perhaps because he has kept up a weekly game of seven-a-side football for a team called the Snakepit Strollers. He started playing in the early 1990s when he was in his 20s: now the oldest regular is 75 (shout out to “Macca”) and children of the original group – including Ezra – have replenished the ranks. “It’s not walking football,” says Baddiel. “When Ez first came along, I could tell he was a bit embarrassed. He was like, ‘Some of my mates might see me playing with my dad.’ But that was when he was 16. Now he’s totally a Stroller.

“I scored two goals in the last game,” adds Baddiel, with satisfaction. “Still got it.”

Baddiel is sanguine, even cheery, about entering a new decade; he even had a party to celebrate. “Which is unusual, because Morwenna hates parties,” he says. “But my son said, ‘Look, you’re 60, you should mark it.’ And by the way, I live my life a bit by the Tao of Ezra, who is 19, but seems to have incredible wisdom, including wisdom about me. And I’m really glad we did it. Dolly sang Lady Stardust by David Bowie, and she’s got an amazing voice. It was really beautiful.”

His list of forthcoming projects suggests that Baddiel plans to keep up his relentless, unpredictable output: there’s another children’s book, Small Fry, out later this year and he’s working on a book about heterosexual male desire, provisionally titled The Male Gaze; he would also like to write another play, another film. “I love life,” says Baddiel. “I really love life. And this book, My Family, to some extent, is an example of that. However shit life is, it’s still fucking great. And so, therefore, getting old is always bad.

“There’s always that question in Q&As: ‘Do you have any regrets?’ And 99% of people say, ‘I have no regrets. I’d do it all again, exactly the same way.’ But my life is constantly assailed by regret, like any thinking person. I should have brought my bag here. I’m constantly fucking up. But I am in quite a good place in general. Yes, that would be true. But I can’t say that without thinking, ‘That’s precarious…’”

Still, at least one of those regrets is about to be expunged. Baddiel grins as he shows me to the door: “I think Dolly is about to turn up with my chopped liver.”

My Family: The Memoir by David Baddiel is published by Fourth Estate at £22. Buy a copy for £19.36 at guardianbookshop.com

The Guardian

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