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David Baddiel: 'Now dad's become quieter and can just about remember who I am'

Ahead of taking part in an Q&A at an International Conference on Palliative Dementia Care in Belfast this Thursday, comedian David Baddiel talks to Linda Stewart about coping with his father's illness, tweeting about NI's politicians and why he didn't watch that footage of anti-Semitism in a Londonderry bar

David Baddiel with his brother Ivor and father Colin
David Baddiel with his brother Ivor and father Colin
David Baddiel with his brother Ivor and father Colin
David Baddiel and his wife Morwenna Banks and their two children, Dolly and Ezra
Frank Skinner (left) and David Baddiel
David Baddiel

By Linda Stewart

Most people call it Pick's Disease, but in the Baddiel family it's known as Colin Baddiel disease - a form of dementia that makes you a bit more sweary and disinhibited than normal.

Comedian David Baddiel (54) has spoken widely about the dementia that has changed his father and the way it transformed him into an exaggerated version of himself. Lately, though, he admits that the progression of the illness has entered a new and more subdued phase.

Now 84, Colin Baddiel was in his early 70s when his family started to notice the signs of Pick's Disease, a frontal lobe dementia that affects personality, although there was a period of denial for everyone.

"It's something that would have been noticeable in his early 70s, and he was diagnosed when he was about 75," David explains. "It was memory loss first of all, and then it became more about disinhibition. He was always quite disinhibited - he was always very sweary and irritable and liable to be moody.

"We'd say he got Colin Baddiel disease - he got a disease that made him a bigger version of himself.

"The disease is still definitely that, but he has become quieter and more withdrawn. He has short-term memory loss - he can just about remember who I am. I would say that he presents more now as a standard idea of what a person with dementia is."

David's experience of caring for a parent with dementia will be familiar to anyone who saw the Channel Four documentary The Trouble With Dad which examined the disease and the impact his father's illness has had on the Baddiel family.

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He has also explored dementia in his stand-up show My Family: Not The Sitcom, and on Thursday he will be coming to Northern Ireland to share his experiences at the 2019 International Conference on Palliative Dementia Care at the Europa Hotel.

Northern Ireland Hospice ambassador and former BBC news presenter Sir Martyn Lewis will interview him about his experience of caring for a loved one with dementia in an after-dinner Q&A at the conference's Social Supper.

The former Fantasy Football League star describes how his dad changed: "For a while it was kind of glorious in a dark way. He was like a bull in a china shop - you never knew what he was going to come out with.

"It was kind of terrifying and funny and extraordinary, and it was very much about him growing in personality in a weird way. He was like a cartoon version of himself."

David was born in New York but brought up in London, one of three sons. Dad Colin was a scientist who had gone to the US to work and his mum Sarah had been a refugee who was brought from Nazi Germany to the UK as a child after her father was stripped of his assets.

"My dad is Welsh - we went to Swansea every year for our summer holidays. It confuses people a bit because he's Jewish - they say how can he be Jewish and Welsh?" David says.

"Mum was a refugee from Nazi Germany, and on dad's side they were fleeing pogroms in Russia and Latvia - his family arrived here in the 1870s so he was very Welsh by the time he came to be, and still is. He sounds very Welsh and he supports Wales when they play.

"My dad was a very Seventies dad. He was very representative of the type of Seventies parents that you had at a time when parenting didn't exist. Unlike now, they didn't stop their lives for their children in any way - they carried on doing what they had done before, which in my dad's case was working, being quite sweary, drinking and vaguely noticing that we had been born.

"Everything was aggravating to him. I still don't know anyone who got as angry as my dad did when the phone rang. He would always go 'f***ing hell' whenever the phone rang.

"He wasn't a bad dad in many ways - he was angry, but never violent, and he loved us in a very, very male way. I had two brothers, so I grew up in a very male household."

It won't be any great surprise to learn that David's dad was passionate about football and that his way of showing affection for his sons was to insult them.

Much of that backdrop was explored in David's 2017 stand-up show My Family: Not The Sitcom, which was the second in a planned trilogy of shows.

The first half of the show explored his late mum's obsession with golf as a result of a long affair with a golf merchandise businessman, while the second half was devoted to his dad.

"I've always done that in my comedy, write about what's happening in my life, and I talked about it because it had become a big issue in my life," David says.

"The process has always been to talk about what was worrying me in my life and my dad's dementia was that."

David stresses that he was just doing his job as a storyteller and wasn't talking about dementia for any social purpose, but he was amazed by the public response.

"Continually, people would come back night after night to tell me their own family secrets or to tell funny stories of relatives of theirs who had dementia," he says.

"People who had dementia would come to the shows as well - people with early onset dementia - and I thought that was brilliant. I was doing a date in the West End and I used to do a Q&A, and this guy had put up his hand to ask a question and he said he had seen the show three times. I asked why and he said he lived with his mother who had dementia and he was the carer - he said 'I come to this show to feel alive'."

David's dad deteriorated noticeably after the death of his mother but when the brothers tried to organise residential care, no home would take him.

"He was too mad, too anarchic. They thought he was going to be too challenging," he says.

Colin still lives in his home, looked after by 24-hour carers employed by the family. "They are the people who do the proper work and we are in charge of his care. For a child… suddenly you are looking after your parents," David says.

"I think the dementia has changed our relationship in ways. It made me think more carefully about what my relationship with my father was. I grew up as a man who does talk about his emotions but I hadn't really thought about my relationship with my dad that much. When he wanted to show affection he would call me a t***."

There is a touching moment in the Channel Four programme when the documentary maker asks the brothers if their dad has ever told him he loves them, and David says 'No', joking that it's because he doesn't.

"Your son's just said that you never loved them," the filmmaker says to Colin, who responds: 'That's a load of b*******." David is slightly taken aback at that moment.

Telling the story now, David adds: "What's incredible is that that is the nearest my dad will ever get to telling me he loves me - with a swear word and a negative. But it was kind of moving, I think."

The forthcoming conference will bring together two core disciplines from a caring perspective to advocate for a palliative care approach in caring for people with end stage dementia.

"We do have a tendency in our culture to write people off very quickly who have dementia," David says. "But my experience is that even if that dementia involves big character changes, you can still see the person in there. Everyone gets dementia in their own way. It's important to see dementia as a dark rainbow with different experiences, it's not just people sitting in an old people's home with a tartan blanket on their knee."

David says last year he dined at The Restaurant That Makes Mistakes, a month-long Bristol initiative run by chefs and waiting staff who had all been diagnosed with dementia.

"What I realised was that, having only dealt with my dad, I was looking at the people and they are all still individuals with dementia. They're different characters who all happen to have the same disease. We're talking in the wrong way about dementia and I think it's changing," he says.

David is just about to release his fifth children's book, Head Kid, in paperwork this May and his first children's book, The Parent Agency, is to be made into a film next year.

He's also eyeing the third in his trilogy of stand-up shows - Trolls: Not The Dolls - and is considering bringing it to Belfast. "It's about the various spats I've got into on social media," he says.

One of those spats blew up very recently when he posted a tweet criticising how DUP leader Arlene Foster clapped at the funeral of Lyra McKee, resulting in much excoriating online criticism of the comedian, including responses from friends of the murdered journalist saying that his comments were not what she would wish to see.

David says now: "It was commenting on how uncomfortable she looked, not knowing whether to clap or not. What I would say is I am a satirist and it's interesting to watch what she did. I noticed something that was worthy of satire and I will always continue to do that."

On wider issues, he describes the Brexit situation as an "incredible mess", adding: "The one thing I think is that in England during the whole lead-up I hardly remember Ireland and the border being mentioned at all."

As for the anti-Semitism caught on camera in a Londonderry bar by Jewish filmmaker Tuvia Tenenbom after he asked locals why there were so many Palestinian flags in the area, David admits he didn't watch it because it looked horrible, but stresses that anti-Semitism can be found everywhere.

Asked about the anti-Semitism rows within the Labour Party, he points out that these have to do with competing political positions, with Labour's move to the left seen as affording a safe space for anti-Zionist discussion.

But Jews tend to be left out of identification politics, he says, adding: "People don't see anti-Semitism as being the same as racism. It's not quite seen as an ethnic minority, or an ethnic minority worth fighting for."

Football fans will be relieved to hear that David hasn't ruled out ever bringing back a version of the hugely successful Fantasy Football League with fellow comedian Frank Skinner, a show that paved the way for a new generation of shows focusing on irreverent fandom rather than po-faced sports commentary.

"I'm proud that we did that, and I'm still proud of Three Lions," he says. "We talk a lot about doing it again at some stage, but we're getting to the point where we are very old, so if we did it, we would need to do it before we die!"

The pair now live in the same street in London, David says. "He's always done this, Frank. When I first met him, he was kind of homeless because he had been kicked out by his girlfriend, so I gave him a room in my flat and we lived together for six years," he says.

When David moved out to buy a house, Frank moved in a couple of doors down - and now they are living in the same street in Hampstead.

"He lives in a house now about 20 doors down from me," David laughs. "Everywhere I go, he follows me - it's a very expensive form of stalking!"

David is taking part in an after-dinner Q&A during the Social Supper at the 2019 International Conference on Palliative Dementia Care at the Europa Hotel this Thursday, May 9. It is hosted by NI Hospice Ambassador Sir Martyn Lewis. For more details visit www.icpdc.org/

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