Life & Culture

David Baddiel: 'I am against the fact that you can't talk about being Jewish without people talking about Israel'

Time to challenge misconceptions says the man whose Twitter bio is simply 'Jew'


David Baddiel is a complex character. And that's a fact he'd like you to take on board. "If you're famous, another version gets put out there," he says earnestly. "But I'm a 360-degree person."

It's an interesting comment from a man the public might think they know.

After all, his rise to fame - at least on paper - seems so predictable: an upmarket school (Haberdasher's Askes') followed by Cambridge and the Footlights.

He followed that up, apparently effortlessly, with the comedy sketch show The Mary Whitehouse Experience, his partnership with Rob Newman, and then lad culture with Frank Skinner and Fantasy Football.

The man even had a hit single with Three Lions, before reinventing himself again as a writer of novels, for both adults and children.

I am a comedian. I put my experience on the stage David Baddiel

The reality of course, is not quite as straightforward. It starts with his upbringing.

"We were much poorer than many families," he explains. "We were lower-middle-class and only went on holiday to Swansea [Baddiel's father, Colin, is Welsh]. Dad was hyper-furious about money all the time and we didn't mix with high-flying or media families."

On this topic, he mentions, in passing, the Corens and the Freuds, and is keen to dismiss any comparisons. He is similarly determined to point out that he attended Haberdasher's only because it was a direct grant school and that his parents "hardly had to pay anything…

"I don't think it helped me going to the school. I didn't like the school," he adds emphatically, explaining that the only thing which did "help" him was writing a controversial sixth-form revue which was subsequently banned.

"Suddenly I was cool," he says. "That convinced me to be a comedian and I decided I wanted to go to Cambridge to join the Footlights.

"This is complexity," Baddiel continues, adding simply: "I went to those places [the school and Cambridge] because I was clever."

There's more complexity in his relationship with Judaism - of which, more later - and his unusual family.

As far as stereotypes go, David Baddiel's mother, Sarah, does not quite fit the bill. Aged five, she and her family fled Nazi Germany to settle in the UK, where she later married Colin and had three sons.

More unusual was her lengthy affair with a golf enthusiast, and the sharing of intimate details of that affair with her three boys.

These, by the way, included leaving love letters around the house for her sons to read, and later copying them into private - and very explicit - emails. She even invited her lover to David's barmitzvah. She wasn't quite the overbearing, devoted Jewish mother of lore.

All this, you'll be unsurprised to learn, was enough to send any child to therapy, which is where David ended up for 10 years. The sudden and painful death of his mother two years ago prompted more soul-searching culminating in a one-man show. My Family (Not the TV Show) is an honest look at a childhood which was clearly dysfunctional.

"It was definitely a challenging upbringing," Baddiel says, with severe understatement. "My parents were by no means perfect."

However, the brutally frank show is also a kind of eulogy to his parents, despite the fact that Colin is still alive, although now in a care home and suffering from a form of dementia called Pick's disease.

The confessional comedy follows on from Baddiel's return to stand-up in 2013 with Fame: Not the Musical and he sees that show and this as being a more adult and theatrical form of humour.

Although it's painful, he says that writing and performing from such personal experiences are something he needs to do.

"I am a comedian," he says. "I do feel I have to put my experience on a public stage. As an artist, that's what I do. Even though that sounds poncey.

"When I returned to stand-up I thought that I wanted to do something different and personal," he adds. "It felt to me more grown-up, more age-appropriate. I'm trying to move with who I am."

Baddiel's childhood sounds fascinating - but not at all as if it's something most of us would want to experience. His mother's affair clearly overshadowed it, and his parents' laid-back approach to child-rearing is exemplified by the way in which he talks about his older brother, Ivor.

"Ivor was very responsible," he says at one point, explaining that it was his brother who would give him breakfast before school in the morning, while his parents remained in bed.

"When I look at myself on TV I always think I'm like Ivor," he adds, and revealingly describes Ivor as his "parent" rather than brother at a later stage of our conversation.

Younger brother, Dan - who is now a taxi driver in New York - was apparently mollycoddled by his mother, and in the past David has said that he used humour to try and win her attention back. Now he says this comment was both "glib and right."

The comedian - who has two children of his own, aged 15 and 11- admits that writing and performing the show has not been easy. It can't be simple to pour out your heart to a roomful of strangers each evening, but Baddiel admits that it has had a cathartic effect and made him more sympathetic to his parents.

"Time goes on, and with time comes understanding," he says. "I think the show is about love on some levels.

"There's no question that doing the show has revealed something to me," he continues. "I am a combination of my mother, who always desperately wanted to tell people her feelings, and my dad, who was very sweary and a very male kind of bloke but always wanted to get laughs. That combination makes for a comedian."

Being a comedian means he always looks for humour. So, explaining why his Twitter biography is simply "Jew", he says: "I picked that primarily because I thought it was funny. I am instinctively someone who thinks 'where's the laugh to be found here?'"

But, if there's a deeper purpose, he adds, it's less to do with his identity and more to do with antisemitism. "Antisemites, although they won't describe themselves as antisemites, will write to me and say 'perhaps it's time to change your bio'," he explains. "It makes me want to keep it."

He makes the point, too, that the word "Jew" can sometimes be seen as an insult and that he is keen to take that meaning away from it. "It's a good word, a funny word," he says, explaining that he wants to "embrace it".

His children, Dolly and Ezra, are both halachically non-Jewish, as their mother, Morwenna Banks is Catholic.

"They are both aware of being half-Jewish," he says, explaining that they don't "do" Pesach since his parents stopped being able to take part, but that they do go to Baddiel's cousin Michael in Borehamwood (where else?) and that they celebrate Chanucah.

But he adds of his children: "I don't know if they see themselves as having a Jewish identity," and admits that "I can't put my hand on my heart and say it causes me any anxiety.

"I'm more of an atheist than Richard Dawkins," he continues with feeling.

"I absolutely culturally identify with being Jewish, but I know God doesn't exist and I believe not one iota in the religious roots of our heritage."

That doesn't mean antisemitism doesn't bother him, nor that he expects the current, fraught situation, to improve any time soon.

"Almost anything I say or write is immediately linked with Israel," he says grimly, adding that he is regularly asked about the situation in Gaza.

"I am against the fact that you can't talk about being Jewish without people talking about Israel.

"In my opinion, the left have an ambiguous relationship with Jews," he continues. "Jews are seen as privileged and wealthy and conservative. But they are the most persecuted minority in modern times."

Away from Judaism and confessional comedy, Baddiel has become a successful children's author. He signed a new multi-book deal this summer and his first two books, The Parent Agency and The Person Controller, have sold more than 220,000 copies in the UK alone.

His third, AniMalcolm (about a boy who doesn't like animals, even though he lives in a pet- mad family), has just been published. The stories all feature nuclear families and are funny, and enjoyable to read (my 11-year-old son is a fan).

"I write for the child inside me," Baddiel says. "It gives me licence to remain a child."

The latest books follow on from four adult novels, and imply that Baddiel has moved into another genre.

He, however, says that switching to children's fiction was easy for him and that he sees himself as a writer without boundaries.

"It's all storytelling in various forms," he explains. "I see it as one job. If you're a writer, you can do it."

And if you're willing to bare your soul in all its complexity, all the better.

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