Interview: David Baddiel on how being misunderstood is almost part of the job

This article is from 2013

The fame game

The comedian, author and one-time chart-topper makes a long-awaited return to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe

Even after selling out Wembley Arena with Robert Newman in 1993, initiating the era of massive comedy gigs in the UK and prompting Janet Street-Porter to famously declare comedy ‘the new rock’n’roll’, David Baddiel ‘never really felt in my soul that I was Robert Plant’. Becoming a rock star or footballer had been his dream growing up in a lower-middle-class Jewish family in Cricklewood, north London.

Unfortunately, as he explains, self-mockingly quoting Martin Amis, every writer needs a wound to write from, and his is ‘that I can’t sing, as anyone who’s heard “Three Lions” will know’. His chart-topping single with the Lightning Seeds and erstwhile flatmate and Fantasy Football co-host Frank Skinner permitted Baddiel to indulge his sporting and musical fantasies for a while. But even at the height of his and Newman’s popularity, he never truly embraced the lifestyle.

‘I wish I had gone for it a bit more,’ he opines. ‘Because for a start I might have had sex with more women. I remember watching Rob rather take the lead in that department.’ Chatting in a pub in Hampstead, where he and his long-term partner, Absolutely star Morwenna Banks, have a house and two children, the 49-year-old is deliberating about whether to share with audiences of Fame: Not the Musical how Russell Brand’s Sachsgate scandal was essentially his fault. Bemused by, rather than envious of his friend, Baddiel explains that he and Brand had been trying to develop film ideas at Brand’s London home while the lothario continued to entertain a couple of young women. Yet it was Baddiel who inadvertently discovered that Georgina Baillie was Andrew Sachs’ granddaughter. The rest, as they say, is history. Or at least notoriety. For him, it demonstrates ‘how when you’re famous, every little mistake becomes magnified’.

Striving to scrutinise celebrity in a detached, analytical manner, Baddiel says that he’s ‘unbothered by whether I’m famous or not’ and is content talking about being less famous than he once was. He maintains that regardless of fame, he has an ‘almost autistic rock-solid personality and an obsession with self-knowledge. I can’t bear the idea that I might be in any way deluded about myself.’ Although he insists that he is ‘unfiltered’, ‘incapable of lying about who I am’ and has ‘a slight problem with a lack of self-censorship’, the main reason for his return to stand-up after 15 years appears to be a desire to confront the many misconceptions about himself.

It’s no coincidence, for example, that The Infidel, the 2010 film he wrote and produced, starring Omid Djalili as a Muslim who discovers that he was born Jewish, was derived from his own experience of being ethnically ambiguous. He’s been beaten up twice, once for being Jewish and once for being Pakistani. ‘When I first started on telly, I used to get quite a lot of fan mail from Indians saying it’s great that an Indian is on!’ he laughs. Early on, he suffered class snobbery from bookers for being ex-Cambridge Footlights; he was one of the first comedians to use the term ‘lad’ pejoratively but was himself saddled with its boozy, misogynist associations; and he really upset the liberal media, as much for suggesting that a sense of humour confers social status as for being a comedian-turned-novelist who unashamedly extolled pornography in his novel Whatever Love Means.

‘Because I’ve been around for quite a long time and done a lot of different stuff, there’s a shifting idea of who I am,’ he points out. ‘And I deal with these in the show: the comedy rock’n’roller, token Jew, football singer-songwriter, idea of new lad. I imagine David Bowie got to choose his personas. But it’s not been like that for me.’

One review in particular still irks. ‘It said: “David Baddiel has a relentless need to muddy his image.” And I remember thinking at the time, I don’t think I do. I think I have a relentless need to explain who I am, because that’s who I am as a comedian. Everyone is complicated, but when you’re famous, you have to be pigeon-holed. By doing different stuff, that’s rubbed up in complicated ways against the culture.’

He’s not enamoured with arena gigs, believing 1000-seater theatres to be the right size for the most popular comics. If he’s had a more positive influence, he suggests, it was as part of a generation that took stand-up away from exclusively political material into the realms of the personal. ‘I was someone who knew about pop music, football and pornography, and presented a comic vision of that, which was the way comedy went for a while. Also, if there is a laddish thing I could claim, it was that it was OK to be interested in male things and not to have to apologise for them.’

Another, less-discussed aspect of that watershed Wembley show was that it was his final performance with Newman. Groupies notwithstanding, he reckons that he coped better with fame than his colleague, ‘insofar as I don’t think it changed me very much. I was really glad to be doing big places, doing well and on TV because that’s what I wanted to do. But I never had a big, yawning need to be famous.’

Their fall-out wasn’t overplayed. ‘One of the reasons Rob and I ended up arguing was that he never liked the things I said about him in interviews. Because I was honest and just used to say, “Oh, he seems to have gone mad.” Fame was toxic for him. He became obsessed that “Baddiel and Newman” had to change to “Newman and Baddiel”. He got very worked up about which of us came on stage first. And I found that jostling for position within the double-act was something I couldn’t live with. I’m sure he had loads of reasons why he didn’t want to be in it any more but they always seemed to be scatter-gunned at me.’

Even so, their relationship isn’t acrimonious now. ‘I see him from time to time. I really like him and the shows of his that I’ve seen have been great. I’ve always thought he’s perhaps the most talented performer I’ve ever worked with. And I’ve been lucky enough to have worked with some incredibly talented people.’

David Baddiel – Fame: Not the Musical, Assembly George Square, 623 3030, 1–11 Aug, 7.30pm, £15–£17.50. Preview 31 Jul £7.50.

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David Baddiel: Fame: Not The Musical

It's been a whopping 15 years since David's last stand-up show, so tonight he's exploring the different ways he's perceived: whether it's token Jew, new lad or comedy rock'n'roller.