Francis Beckett finds poignancy, connection and laughs in this explicit exposure of family secrets, while admiring David Baddiel's ability to draw the line between performance and real life consequences.
My Family: Not The Sitcom
By David Baddiel
At the end of this riotous romp through David Baddiel’s parents’ most intimate secrets, he asked for questions, and a woman in the audience started to tell us how much she empathised: She too had one demented parent and one voraciously priapic parent. She too found that… but the performer stopped her there. This sometimes happens, he said, it starts to turn into a therapy session - and didn’t the person on the other side of the auditorium have a question?
He was right, of course. However much you might be tempted to treat the evening as a bit of soul-baring, a man grieving for his dead mother and his demented father in the best way he can and making laughter to avoid making tears, it was at its heart a performance - a virtuoso performance, a performance composed of genius and hard work in equal measure. A performance that worked so long as he could keep us laughing and just a bit nervous, but a performance.
The woman’s story, heartfelt though it might be, was obviously not going to be, well, funny. In this context, secrets and sadness lost their value if they were not funny.
So I resisted the temptation to put up my hand and talk about my own parents and childhood, even though many would say I have a grimmer and sadder story even than Baddiel’s, and have just finished a book about it, published by Routledge in the summer under the title Fascist In The Family.
The fascist was my father, and Baddiel’s Jewish grandparents, whose sexual shenanigans get a brief look-in during this performance, would have known his name, for he was one of the three best known anti-Semites in Britain in the thirties. Baddiel’s grandparents would never have forgiven him, nor should they.
As Baddiel must have examined his motives, I have examined mine for writing about my parents. Is it therapy? Is this my journalist’s instinct that I have a good story under my nose, so let’s not waste it? Why do I choose the most sensational stories to tell? Am I trying to do justice to my parents or to distinguish myself from them? Why have I chosen to write this book, when there are many others I could have used the time to write?
I think I loved my parents. I think Baddiel loved his, but I am not quite sure. His mother, as he describes her, was desperately attention-seeking, sexually voracious to the point of being, as Baddiel puts it, “a bit of a slut”, and insensitive to the feelings of others.
His father Colin seems to have been incapable of giving or receiving affection, and may – or so Baddiel implies – not be the biological father of all his sons. (I wish I had asked the obvious question.)
Baddiel says: “When family members die, or are lost to dementia, all we tend to say about them is that they were wonderful. But if that is all you can say about them, you may as well say nothing: to truly remember our loved ones, you have to call up their weirdnesses, their madnesses, their flaws.”
Of course he’s right, but I was not sure that, in the interests of a wonderful show, he might not have overdone it just a little.
Never mind. It is a wonderful show. Great, brave, startling lines – this of his grandfather, Holocaust survivor who later in his life frequented Soho sex shops: “Straight out of Dachau into Berwick Street.” Of his father, who has Pick’s Disease, a form of dementia whose symptoms include breaches of etiquette, vulgar language, and tactlessness: “I wanted to ask the doctor, does he have an illness, or have you just met him?”
My Family: Not The Sitcom is just David Baddiel, on stage, talking, with a screen on which occasional pictures and videos are shown. It’s a two hour stand-up comedy set. There are very few people in the world who can make that work, but Baddiel is one of them. For a wonderfully funny, rather disturbing evening, a green light to rush to the Menier Chocolate Factory.