David Baddiel is talking to Weekend on the day his son Ezra turns 18. (Don’t worry, he’s at school – we haven’t gatecrashed his birthday party or anything.) With his daughter Dolly now 21, it means that one of Britain’s bestselling children’s authors – among many other things – is no longer a father to children himself. And with retreating childhood, goes a fertile source of story ideas.
“My first ever children’s book, The Parent Agency, came about because of Ezra asking ‘Why doesn’t Harry Potter just run away from the Dursleys and find some better parents?’” recalls David. “That gave me the idea for a world in which children can choose their parents. Now that he’s older, though, he has a slightly less innocent attitude to life. So his latest idea was quite a dark one, about Santa being a bit of a sleazebag, and getting involved in all sorts of terrible conspiracy theories. I thought, ‘that’s not really going to work for a kids’ book’. But it gave me an idea for a story in which Christmas had gone wrong, but in a very modern way.”
The result, Virtually Christmas – the 58-year-old comedian and author’s 14th novel, and his 10th for children – tells the story of Etta Baxter, a young girl in the near future who dreams of a traditional Christmas like the ones her late grandma used to tell her about. A world of snow and baubles and rubbish cracker jokes – as opposed to the world she actually lives in, where the entire festive season is controlled by tech giant WinterzoneTM, with its holographic ‘Santavatars’ and presents delivered by drones instead of reindeer. (Any resemblance to a real corporate online giant is, of course, entirely coincidental. Possibly. “I’m not saying which company I might be referring to,” smiles David. “Because they might sell a lot of my books.”)
As well being a funny, exciting and heartwarming festive romp for children, the book is clearly designed as a pointed satirical sideswipe at our increasingly digital lives. “At the heart of it is quite an old-fashioned idea about the commercialisation of Christmas,” says David. “But Christmas is also about community, so if everything becomes about screens and mechanisation, you risk losing that proper togetherness. It becomes a sort of illusion.”
But wait, all hope’s not lost: when a strangely familiar-looking delivery guy turns up at her door in a red uniform, Etta thinks she might have found her chance to rediscover the true meaning of Christmas. In real life, of course, cramming that particular genie back into the bottle might be a more difficult task…
“True – though the perfect version of Christmas probably never existed,” reflects David. “I hanker after the idea because I’m Jewish, so we didn’t celebrate Christmas when I was younger. I used to sit around on Christmas Day, thinking there’s clearly this fantastic party going on somewhere else that we’re not invited to. In a way, I had that idyllic Christmas presented to me, by Noel Edmonds or whoever on TV, and that’s what I imagined Christmas was. Whereas in real life, it was probably lots of people arguing with their relatives and falling asleep in front of the telly.”
As an adult, festive magic has sometimes proved elusive, too: in 2014, David’s mother died suddenly five days before Christmas, and the following year involved a dash to A&E after his wife, comedian and actress (and voice of Peppa Pig’s mum) Morwenna Banks, severed her finger.
But he’s still a fan of the season, which the family always spends in Morwenna’s native Cornwall. “Even now, with all the ways that Christmas doesn’t match up to the idea of Christmas, I still really like it,” he says. “I like the fact you get to down tools for a week, and no-one really knows what’s going on in the world. You essentially live in a cocoon, created by Christmas.”
And this year, there’s a strong chance he’ll be providing the soundtrack to all our Christmases, having teamed up with old pals Frank Skinner and Ian (Lightning Seeds) Broudie for a festive makeover of their terrace classic Three Lions, in honour of the winter World Cup.
“It was Ian who was pushing it most strongly,” explains David. “He said, ‘look, the World Cup’s at Christmas for the first – and probably only – time in our lives. Which is a bit weird, and there’s all sorts of not great reasons why it’s at Christmas. But Ian was very keen to see how he could make the song Christmassy, with sleigh bells and a kids’ choir, or whatever.
“So me and Frank decided, if we’re going to do this, we’re going to do it properly, and write new lyrics that are Christmassy. It begins with us celebrating the Lionesses’ win,” he explains, of that glorious moment this summer when football finally did come home, “but we’re worried about the blokes’ team. And then Frank has this inspiration that maybe it will be different, because it’s Christmas.”
A Christmas miracle? “Exactly. It’s quite sweet, and quite moving, actually, because it’s about football, but it’s also about survival, and time. Particularly the video, which suggests we’re still living in the same flat we were living in in 1996. The video’s exactly the same, except we’re much older in it. I could hardly watch it without welling up, because it feels to me like a song, and a film, about how me and Frank and Ian are still friends.”
Though David and Frank don’t still live together, they do still live in the same street in north London. “He could probably hear me now if I shout,” says David, who’s talking to us over Zoom from home. There’s something rather lovely about their enduring bromance, suggests Weekend. “Yeah,” smiles David. “I think there’s a part of the British public – and possibly a part of me and Frank – that likes to imagine us sharing a bed, like Morecambe and Wise.”
“I just don’t think I have an ability to present a different version of myself. And that’s been good and bad for me.”David Baddiel
The original Three Lions was spun out of the pair’s Fantasy Football League TV show, when they were in the vanguard of 90s ‘new lad’ comedy. But both men always had as much of an appreciation for Baudelaire as Beckenbauer: David, who has a double first in English from Cambridge, had already started writing novels, and Frank was a former English lecturer who later became president of the Samuel Johnson Society, and now presents a poetry podcast.
It’s a split personality that has served David well during a career that’s wandered all over the map from stand-up – in the early 90s, when comedy was famously “the new rock and roll”, he and then partner Rob Newman became the first comedians to play Wembley Arena – to books, screenplays, documentaries, TV talent shows and a number one single. And that’s to say nothing of the huge success of Jews Don’t Count, his acclaimed 2021 book about anti-Semitism.
“I think Jews Don’t Count has slightly shifted the dial on that conversation, which I wasn’t expecting at all,” says David, whose grandparents fled Nazi Germany in 1939 with his infant mother in their arms. “Not just because of my book, obviously, but I do see more energy around the idea that Jews shouldn’t be left out of the conversation [about racism]. Though unfortunately, something else is also happening, which is that anti-Semitism is rising at the same time.”
Last month, David presented a Channel 4 documentary based on Jews Don’t Count, and he’s currently working on a follow-up to his 2021 BBC film about anger and social media, during which his daughter Dolly discussed how platforms like Instagram had fuelled her teenage struggle with anorexia. To that end, the concerns underlying Virtually Christmas are clearly personal and heartfelt, but David – a prolific tweeter – has admitted he’s too addicted to kick the social media habit himself.
“Actually, I think I’m slightly more controlled with it than I was,” he says. “I don’t waste all my time engaging with trolls any more.” So he won’t be spending Christmas Day glued to his phone? “Well there’s very bad reception in Cornwall. I do try not to be too disengaged from the present.”
One thing David’s critics often bring up on Twitter is Fantasy Football League’s unflattering depiction of the black footballer Jason Lee, for which David wore blackface and a pineapple on his head. Lee himself has said he felt bullied by the running joke, and David has repeatedly apologised in the years since – but never to Jason Lee’s face. Until now. “In the new documentary, I go and meet Jason Lee, and apologise in person,” he says. “Because I think what’s missing in the conversation is the humanity. And for that there needs to be real human interaction.”
A theme that’s run through David’s stand-up comedy like a watermark over the years has been a kind of bracingly unfiltered honesty. His 2016 show My Family: Not the Sitcom, for example, probed his late mother’s infidelity and his ailing father’s dementia with gallows humour, including the story of how his childhood home in Dollis Hill, London, gradually filled up with golf memorabilia, because his mum was having an affair with a golf memorabilia salesman.
“There’s always been a weird thing with me, where if someone asks me a question, I just sort of respond immediately, without thinking about it,” he explains. “Sometimes as I’m saying it, to a journalist, for example, I’m thinking ‘I probably shouldn’t say this’, and I roll back on it. I don’t present a face. John Updike said fame is a mask that eats into the face, and there’s some truth in that, because there are versions of me out there that aren’t me.
“But I just don’t have an ability to really present a different version of myself,” he adds, with a shrug. “And that’s been a good and a bad thing for me.”
In the past, he’s put this no-filter approach down, in part at least, to being “psychotically comfortable” in his own skin. And yet he’s also had years of psychotherapy. Is there a contradiction there? “No,” he insists. “When I say I’m comfortable in my own skin, that suggests I’m just fine. But there have been many times in my life when I haven’t been fine – I’ve been depressed. But that wasn’t being unhappy with who I was – it was to do with things happening in my life that made me sad and stressed. Obviously you go into therapy a little bit to change how you think about your life, but I didn’t want to change who I was. I don’t think I can.”
One subject he’s been typically honest about is his slightly strained relationship with Rob Newman since they went their separate ways after that Wembley gig 30 years ago. How are things these days? “I don’t really see Rob, but when I do bump into him, it’s all very nice. I like seeing him. We met at a party a few years ago and I put the photo on Twitter saying we looked like two old prog rockers – comedy is the new prog rock!
“But Frank is much more of a close friend. I was friendly with Rob, but we came together to do stuff and then went our separate ways. Whereas Frank and I don’t actually work together much any more, but we see each other all the time.”
A self-styled Jewish atheist – he’s not religious, but will be celebrating Hanukkah later this month – David’s next career swerve is a book about faith (or lack of) in which he will style himself a cuddlier Richard Dawkins: his angle being that he’d dearly love to believe in a god, but just can’t.
“I don’t really ever set out to achieve anything,” he says of the many – largely accidental – strings he keeps adding to his bow. “Well, I guess the Three Lions Christmas song I’d like to be Christmas number one. But most of the time I just say yes to anything I think might be interesting, or fun, or important.
“There’s a lot of people, for example who say that famous people writing children’s books is a cash-in. But all I can tell you is that when Ezra said the thing about Harry Potter and the Dursleys, I thought, ‘oh, that’s a good idea for a book’. But also, since about 1979, when comedians stopped just telling old jokes in bow ties, they have mostly been writers. They’ve been storytellers. So it’s not that different a job, writing a children’s book or going on stage and making people laugh.”
Even so, there can’t be many people whose most recent bestsellers are a children’s Christmas story and an impassioned polemic about the intersection of anti-Semitism and identity politics? “Well, there certainly aren’t very people who will have written a polemic about anti-Semitism, a Christmas book about Santa and may have a Christmas number one about the World Cup,” he concedes.
And he takes some pride in that? “I do. I mean, other people would say ‘just focus on something and stop trying to do everything’. But I’ve reached a point in my life where I don’t really care what other people think.”
Virtually Christmas by David Baddiel (HarperCollins) is out now.
You’ve said you aspire to be a vegan…. I do, and I’m getting better with that. But I just like meat too much. I love sausages. Sausages? You’re married to Mummy Pig, David! I know. It is complicated for a Jewish bloke, living with Mummy Pig. Who is herself a vegetarian.
Who’s cooking Christmas dinner? We normally have about eight to 12 people round to the place where we stay in Cornwall, and everyone brings food, so we all cook it together. There’s quite an entrenched war about who’s better at cooking roast potatoes.
Favourite bit of the meal? I think a lot of the joy of Christmas dinner is to do with the trimmings. I’m also a big fan of Christmas pudding. I love how you can choose to steam them for three hours, or stick them in the microwave for a minute and a half. Who on earth is still steaming them?
An edited version of this article was published in Waitrose Weekend on 1 December, 2022 (c) Waitrose Weekend