David Baddiel Talks Death and Dementia – Funny? Yes, Actually

Comedian David Baddiel brings his Olivier-nominated stand up show, ‘My Family: Not The Sitcom’, to the Wyvern later this month. Ahead of his visit, we spoke to David about death, dementia and laughing through the dark times…

David, as you know, Swindon Theatres are currently fundraising for dementia causes and working hard to provide more dementia friendly activities. Your show is partly about your father’s dementia so it’s great to get your insight on this. What else do we learn about your family from this show?

The show is principally about my mum, it’s really about how you remember people. It was inspired by going to my mum’s funeral and people telling me that my mother was wonderful and me thinking, well…you didn’t really know her. If you idealise people then you forget who they really are. The show is basically a celebratory washing of my family’s dirty linen, in public.

The reason I talk about my dad’s dementia is that when people get very ill, we also tend to treat them as if they’re not a real person anymore. But my dad very much is a real person and still very complicated. He has Pick’s Disease and the symptoms are that he’s very sweary and aggressive… but my dad was always like that! It’s more like Colin Baddiel Disease than it is Pick’s Disease. So the show talks about all sorts of things to do with family that most people are keen to brush under the carpet, but I want people to think it’s OK to talk about it and it’s OK to laugh about it.

As far as dementia goes, I’ve heard about what the Wyvern are doing and that’s great because my primary thing is, don’t not talk about it. We have to engage with those who do have it and those who are dealing with it, so yeah I think it’s great what you’re doing!

Death and dementia, two taboo subjects that we need to talk more openly about. How have audiences reacted to your honesty on these topics?

Well, I think. People come up to me after the show and tell me stuff that I don’t think they would tell most people. I talk about my mum’s affair with a golfing memorabilia salesman and while no one else has this same story, most people have had something in their childhood that they think “Oh, that’s a bit weird”. One bloke told me that he went on holiday with his mum and dad every year and this other bloke used to turn up, he thought it was his uncle but it turns out they were having a ménage a trois! They tell me because I’ve said it’s OK, it’s OK to have family secrets.

The amount of people who have told me stories about their relatives with dementia though, it’s a huge outpouring. One thing the show does is tell people it’s OK to talk about this and laugh about it if you want to.

Definitely, we’ve seen this from running our dementia friendly campaign. The statistics are quite shocking with someone developing a form of dementia every 3 minutes…

Yes, it’s a staggering epidemic and certainly a lot of people my age will be dealing with dementia in some way, whether it’s a parent or a grandparent or another relative. When my mum died, my brother and I, in our 50s, had to organise his care. He still lives at home and we employ carers to look after him. It’s a lot of work, but it’s also fine to talk about it and at times to make comedy out of it.

We host a monthly Memory Café, where people living with dementia can come along with their family or carers to just chat, eat cake and take part in relaxed activities. People seem to find a lot of respite in this.

That’s so true, I went and saw my dad 2 days ago but he’s not that talkative anymore. I probably spend most of my time talking to the carer who’s got a difficult job and it’s good that they get some company and some chat.

My dad is still very much alive though. I look for him to tell me to “F*ck off” and if he does that, I know it’s still him! He does still do that, and with a twinkle in his eye.

Do you take respite in your comedy?

Certainly yeah, it’s therapeutic for me. I don’t set out to make it that, I set out to write about things in my life but as life goes on, the sad truth is that is does get darker and more difficult and I think there’s only one thing that can combat that and that is laughter. The thing with this show is you get a lovely kind of laughter where people are laughing partly out of relief. One guy came to see the show 4 times, I asked why and he said “Because I live at home with my mother who’s had a stroke and I come here to feel alive”.

As well as the Memory Café, we’re also raising money for Alzheimer’s Society, who you’re an ambassador for. What have you worked on with the charity?

Yes, they’ve claimed me! Because of this show and the Channel 4 programme I did, ‘The Trouble with Dad’. I was also the voice of a Radio 4 appeal for them a few months ago. I’m not a campaigner but I will support them in whatever way I can. I’m always happy to see collections at the end of my shows.

It’s great that you’re bringing these difficult subjects to the forefront and in such a funny way. What other hot topics would you like to shine your comedic light on?

My next show will be all about trolls. Similarly to how my last show was called ‘Fame: Not The Musical’ and this one is ‘My Family: Not The Sitcom’, the next will be ‘Trolls: Not The Dolls’. I use a lot of audio visual stuff in my shows and I’ve got loads and loads of material to show people. I believe in feeding the trolls, bring them to the light and then humiliate them with comedy. It’s funny to make them look stupid!

As well as entertaining adults, with very adult topics, you also write children’s novels. How does this writing compare and how honest are you with your own children about the themes in your show?

In terms of my children’s books, I always want them to be as funny as anything else I would write. I won’t talk about sex or swear but everything else will be as funny as I can make it. I don’t think you should talk down to children in terms of comedy.

My daughter has now seen the show, she really liked it. My son hasn’t seen it, he’s too young, although he would really like it too. He’s 13 and to be honest with you I think he’d love it. It’s a pity now that I think about it, that he might not see it, but my wife wouldn’t be very keen!  But they know all about the themes within it.

Are there any plans to bring your children’s books to stage or screen?

Yes! There’s 2 planned. I’m writing the film of ‘The Parent Agency’ for FOX, we’re looking for a director right now in fact. Separate to that, a company called Story Pocket Theatre, who are a puppet company, have written a musical about ‘AniMalcolm’, which is about a boy who turns into various different animals. That will be touring next year I think, I hope it can come to Swindon!

The list of your peers who’ve enjoyed ‘My Family: Not The Sitcom’ is glittering, with Ricky Gervais, Russell Brand, Sue Perkins, Graham Norton and many more enjoying the show. If you could choose to perform this show to anyone, who would you put in the audience?

My Mum and Dad, alive and cognitive!

Is there anything you’d change about the show before sharing it with them?

That’s a very good question! I don’t know, I think my mum would have loved it, even though it’s very revealing about her. My dad, I’m not so sure, I think he would like some of it. I’m very glad that all these famous people have come to see it and loved it, but I don’t know if I’d like to have all of them in the audience at once!

Lastly, your show is all about memories and how we should remember people’s lives honestly. How do you want your life and career to be ‘honestly’ remembered?

The answer is…honestly! I think I’m a little bit on the spectrum about honesty. I’m not able to lie, I have a constant urge to tell the truth. I wouldn’t want my kids to just say “oh he was a nice person”, because life’s much more complicated than that.

David brings My Family: Not The Sitcom to the Wyvern Theatre from Fri 20 – Sun 22 April. Tickets are available at http://bit.ly/DavidBaddiel18.

You can find out more about our dementia campaign at http://bit.ly/SeasonOfVintage.

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