Interview: David Baddiel
David Baddiel talks about his new culture-clash comedy in which a Muslim discovers his parents were Jewish
David Baddiel: proud of The Infidel
David Baddiel is tucked away in a back corner of the Hampstead café where we have arranged to meet. It occurs to me that maybe he is attempting to do something of a Salman Rushdie-style disappearing act given the controversial subject matter of his new comedy movie, The Infidel, about a Muslim man who finds in middle age that he is really a Jew by birth.
But Baddiel, while anxious about how the film will be received both in the Muslim and Jewish communities, is not expecting a fatwa. Clearly, though, he has given the subject a fair amount of thought.
"All fatwas are about being sacrilegious - taking the name of the prophet in vain, being horrible about the sacred icons of the religion, and this movie tries hard to be respectful."
However, the film certainly does not shy away from the issues which divide Jews and Muslims. It is this and the comic potential of the The Infidel's premise which drew Baddiel into writing the script and developing the project.
"The comedy is edgy, about the clash of cultures. Muslims don't like Jews and Jews don't like Muslims. But it is not about trying to degrade things that either community holds sacred. Apart from the trouble it would get me into, it wouldn't be funny."
It gives me cancer not to follow an idea through
Yet the movie does explore issues which may make both Muslims and Jews shift uncomfortably in their seats, particularly the scene in which Omid Djalili, who plays Mahmoud, the Muslim who has just discovered his real parents were actually Jewish, realises that some of his Muslim workmates are antisemitic.
"There are two things going on in that scene," says Baddiel. "Mahmoud's insecurities are being played out so he becomes ridiculously antisemitic himself - he doesn't want to admit he is Jewish and this is a way to do it.
"The other thing is that if he discovered he was a Jew and then didn't encounter any antisemitism, what a crap movie that would be. It would be unreal and bland. You have to deal with it. Also, the stuff about Israel in the film - I couldn't leave that out, it would be like an elephant in the room. You have to deal with that too."
He agrees that the British Jewish-themed movie does not have a particularly distinguished history. Unsurprisingly perhaps, he feels The Infidel is different. "Every ethnic comedy, from Fiddler on the Roof to Bend it Like Beckham to Sixty Six has been about assimilation - the way the minority culture deals with the majority culture, normally through marriage or, in the case of Sixty Six, through football. In this film, there is no majority culture. Nearly every character is a Muslim or a Jew. I'm kind of proud of that because this film has been made at a time when both communities can be seen as straightforwardly British and not worry about what the whites are thinking."
Baddiel says that the idea for The Infidel came originally from the fact that here were two communities which shared elements of history, culture and possibly genetics, and were similar enough in looks to be confused with each. He recalls the time as a child when he was beaten up for being a Pakistani - an experience which gave him the material for one of his first gags.
"It did occur to me to tell the people who were punching me: 'No, you don't understand, I'm actually Jewish,' like that would make a big difference.
"Omid could be either - he's got a big nose. It was the same with me. When I was first on the telly I was mistaken all the time for an Asian, and when I was a kid at Haberdashers' School as well. Baddiel is a slightly quizzical name - it comes from Latvia but people thought it sounded vaguely Hindustani or something. I thought it might be a good idea to write a body swap movie, like Trading Places or Freaky Friday, about somebody who believes they are one thing but suddenly become another."
Baddiel comes back to the fact that the people who might be upset about this comedy may not be the people one would like to offend. But then, he has never shied away from controversy - after all, his stand-up routine used to contain plenty of references to his hardcore porn habit.
"I don't worry too much about the fact that this is a subject which is not supposed to be covered. I'm not scared to be out there, but it doesn't come from courage. It comes more from a sort of Tourettes thing. If I have an idea for something I have to follow it through. It gives me cancer to have an idea but not do it. Whether I get into trouble for it is not as important as the need to chase the idea."
Baddiel was brought up in a non-religious but very Jewish family in Dollis Hill, north-west London. "I went to a Jewish primary school and all my parents' friends were Jewish. I had probably never met a non-Jew until the age of 12."
However, he has never really imagined how he would feel if he was to find out by accident that he was actually Muslim. "I haven't put myself in that mindset. I'm an atheist so it wouldn't really make that much difference. But then again, I've spent all this time thinking I was this person - blimey, I even did Who do You Think You Are. What would I do about that?
"People have asked me why I did the film this way round rather than making Omid's character a Jewish guy who realises he is actually a Muslim. There's a very simple reason for that. Comically, I know more about what I'm doing when I write Jewish stuff. It's about somebody finding out what it is to be Jew in a very comic way."
Although Mahmoud is a Muslim, Baddiel shied away from making him a fundamentalist. "I wondered whether I should make him more extreme because that would make more sense as far as the film went, but then extremists don't tend to be likeable. So I made him a bit more like me - he's a football fan, a slob, but hopefully likeable."
Baddiel, now 45, lives with his girlfriend, Morwenna Banks and their two children, Dolly, aged eight, and Ezra, five. He has not done stand-up for several years now. "I don't feel the need, which I used to very strongly, to write a two-hour stand-up set."
He does, however, still enjoy the buzz of performing live, and would relish another series of Baddiel and Skinner Unplanned - the TV show in which he feels viewers became aware of his Jewishness. "Frank used to refer to it a lot in the programmes. He's obsessed by my Jewishness. He'd never met a Jew before me."
Baddiel's other public obsession is football. Yet despite it being World Cup year, he and Skinner will not be reunited on the famous Fantasy Football League sofa as they have for previous World Cups. "Major tournaments were ruined for me because I was watching the football for jokes. We will be doing a podcast which is great because we don't have to be in a studio in London. I do miss Fantasy Football, particularly when we used to do it for the BBC. However we did 130 episodes. It ran its course. "
So who would he like to win the World Cup if, or more probably when, England are eliminated in the quarter finals on penalties? "Portugal. I like it when the team with the best player in the world wins the World Cup. Ronaldo is the best player in the world, but we can't see it because we hate him."
So you can add Manchester United fans to the list of people who may be taking out a fatwa against him.
'The Infidel' is released nationwide on April 9. The UK Jewish Film Festival is premiering the film on Thursday April 8 at the Apollo Hammersmith. www.ticketmaster.co.uk