“I don’t even know what the sitcom is, son!” Those were my dad’s words when I surprised him with tickets for David Baddiel’s latest one man show in London for his birthday a couple of months ago. I had to explain that it wasn’t a sitcom we were going to see – hence the title – but that it would hopefully deliver with the same punch as a really good sitcom. Pa MacGregor wasn’t at all sure, but was up for it regardless. I will confess that booking for me and my dad to see David’s new show was sort of a deliberate ruse for me to see it.
When I sat down to write this review, I realised that, comedy wise, he has been an inspiration of mine for longer than I thought. I’m sure for others older than myself reading this, that their first encounter with him was as part of the satiricial sketch show The Mary Whitehouse Experience, or Newman and Baddiel in Pieces, his double act show with Rob Newman that ran until 1993.
My first encounter of him was with the man I widely regarded as his partner in crime, Frank Skinner, in the mid-late 90s. When World Cup fever was at its height in the summer of 1998 (yes readers, even non-footie loving 9 year old me got swept up in the mania of it all), I remember watching their hilarious Fantasy Football series for ITV – specifically the notorious episode with Brigitte Nielsen, that has to be seen to be believed – and buying, on cassette from Woolies, a re-released version of the classic footie anthem Three Lions with Britpop upstarts The Lightning Seeds, that held the top of the UK charts for three weeks until, of course, England were knocked out by Argentina on penalties.
Which thus brings us to the present day. For one reason or another, I didn’t get round to seeing David’s first critically acclaimed one man show, Fame: Not the Musical in 2013. My Family: Not the Sitcom, its follow-up, had a sold out run at the Chocolate Factory last year (the theatre, not Willy Wonka’s business. Ooh. Satire), and was midway through its second run in the West End when me and Pa Mac went to see it a month ago.
Though the show was titled as it was (and Mr Baddiel himself advised me of this on Twitter when I mentioned I was coming to see it), and whilst he talks about his dad, Colin, who suffers from Pick’s disease, a form of dementia (more on whom in a bit), it is, for the most part, his own eulogy of sorts to his mum, Sarah, who passed away in 2014. He opened the show explaining his reasoning for this, when he was at her funeral. Chiefly, the idea that, when someone dies, the common or garden line used by loved ones and friends will be “They were a truly wonderful person”.
David flips this theory entirely on its head, but in a way that’s surprising yet side splittingly funny. He reveals that his mum – who as a young German Jew, escaped Nazi rule with her parents as WWII broke out – proudly embarked on an extra-marital affair for the best part of two decades with golfer David White (proudly, she asserted, as it made her more glamorous than a housewife), that continued for some years as she built up a golfing obsession/shrine in the family home, all to the relative non-chalance of her husband and much to David’s mild irritation/borderline horror.
I don’t want to give too much away for those yet to see the show, but suffice to say, his uncovering of emails and letters spanning the course of his mum’s affair with David White were a great source of much of the show’s humour. Chiefly, her use of inverted commas in steamy poetry sent to her lover, and also an interesting choice of pseudonym when she attempted to muddy her lover’s name in the golfing world following a brief tiff they had. But I also got the sense of her being a larger than life character through more anecdotal observations.
One of these, was through several clips extracted from David’s appearance on Who Do You Think You Are, the BBC history show where celebrities trace their family tree, including one clip where a cake she’d got him for his 40th birthday set alight from having, well, 40 candles on it – “she’d got me a reenactment of the battle of Dresden for my 40th”. And another, from a stand up show he’d done where he’d downed a pint after a dare from a couple of guys in the audience, prompting her to make the most motherly of heckles and enquire if he’d eaten something before downing said pint.
He makes the point though, that the show is about memory, and keeping memories alive after people have gone or have lost their own memory, through humour. When talking about his dad’s Dementia, for instance, David recounts asking, upon being informed of his dad’s diagnosis of Pick’s, as to whether or not nurses were describing his dad’s condition or just his dad’s notoriously sweary and eager to shock personality (growing up, David and his brothers, Dan and Ivor, were referred to as “w***ers” by their dad, as his own term of endearment) – something that became amplified at the wake for his mum’s death, where his dad made a shocking preposition to a mourner paying their respects.
The idea of memory, certainly comes in to play at the life affirming endpoint of the show, when another archive clip is shown of him and his dad backstage following his final show with Rob Newman at Wembley Arena in 1994, in a rare moment of warmth that is unexpectedly touching. But after opening up to audience questions, he also recounted two final anecdotes.
One from a friend of his, whose own relative suffering from dementia forgot they only had one leg following a fall at the care home they were at. The other, from Ruth Langsford, co-host of ITV daytime favourite This Morning which he appeared on last year to promote the show, whose own dad answered to the question “Who is the current prime minister?” at his GP assessment for dementia in 1997 the name “Blair”. Followed five seconds later by “Lionel”.
Reading my programme with my dad on the train home that evening, David stated that there’s one memory he wanted the audience to take away from seeing the show: “That was a good show. I must remember to recommend it to my friends.” And that, dear readers of this blog, is what I’ve remembered to do for you now.
David Baddiel’s “My Family: Not the Sitcom” is on at the Playhouse Theatre in London until 3rd June. He will tour the show nationwide in 2018 from 29th January – full dates and tickets are available here. Twitter: @Baddiel