Jew or Pakistani? The bullies don't care

A background of ethnic ambiguity inspired David Baddiel's new film, <i>The Infidel</i>
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The Independent Culture

David Baddiel has spent his life falling between stools. He was beaten up as a teenager for being Jewish (which he is) and also for being Pakistani (which he isn't). He doesn't consider himself posh but went to an expensive private school and was vice-president of Cambridge Footlights. When he started at Cambridge, being in the Footlights provided a smooth path into television. By the time he left, alternative comedy had rewritten the rules and he "had to start again" – and keep quiet about the Footlights. He's an atheist, but has a lot of time for religion.

It's an identity crisis that finds its way into the writer and comedian's first foray into film-making. The Infidel, starring the Iranian comedian Omid Djalili, released this week, is about a Muslim Everyman who discovers – to his horror – that he's actually Jewish.

"I was beaten up twice in the 1970s and then bullied at school separately by people who thought I was Pakistani," he says. "I was beaten up once in Pimlico by people shouting Sieg heil! – that was for being Jewish – and once in Wembley by a bloke who called me a Paki over and over again. I thought about saying I'm Jewish, but it wouldn't have helped – he was a racist. When I was first on TV, people used to come up to me in the street, Indians or Pakistanis, and say: 'You're the best Indian comedian I've ever seen.' It's because I'm dark-skinned and I've got a slightly weird name and not that many people really know about Jews. I had this unconscious awareness of my own ethnic ambiguity my whole life and then, when I saw Omid, I thought, 'Hang on, what is he? Is he a Muslim or a Jew?' It turns out he's Baha'i."

This was what inspired him to write The Infidel which takes an intelligent swipe at the idiocies of fundamentalism and pokes fun at religion and race in a way that is refreshing and long overdue. Baddiel likens Djalili's character to Homer Simpson – "a family man who's a bit of a klutz".

There are only two white characters in the film: Richard Schiff, best know for his role in The West Wing – plays a dour cab driver who gives Djalili lessons in Jewishness, and Miranda Hart who cameos as an officious social services tigress.

"I thought this subject – religion and comedy and race and culture – is something that's been left alone a bit," Baddiel says. "Not just because we're worried about being shot, but more importantly because, since Jim Davidson stopped being on our screens, people have assumed that making jokes about religion or race must mean you're a racist. Political correctness to some extent strangled people's ability to make jokes about ethnicity, and I think that's wrong. There's been a long Jewish tradition of doing that and, actually, now there is a Muslim tradition of doing that."

Djalili's personality was the key to writing the film as well as inspiring it, he says. Initially, the main character was going to be a fundamentalist. "I thought, it's not going to work because if he's a violent extremist he's not going to be a sympathetic character, and we've got Omid and I want him to play real, I want to use all the natural sympathy and lovability that character's got. Omid doesn't realise, in a brilliant way, that you're not supposed to make jokes about people's accents. He does it in a very friendly way. If you watch old clips of Omid, you can tell that no one's ever said to him, 'You're not really allowed to do that Nigerian accent'. If he was white, he'd get into terrible trouble about it. But it doesn't make sense that just because he's Iranian he can do those jokes. So I think that we're confused about what is allowable."

Baddiel was born in north London in 1964 to a mother who was a refugee from the Nazis and a father who sold Dinky toys. He was educated at the independent Haberdashers' Aske's Boys' School before going to Cambridge. After leaving in 1986, he spent five years on the comedy circuit, initially finding that he was considered too posh for The Comedy Store. "I'd phone up and they'd say, 'Have you done any comedy before?', and I'd say, 'Oh yes, I was vice-president of Cambridge Footlights', and they'd put the phone down – literally put the phone down. People hated you. I'd have to pretend I hadn't done anything, then I'd get an open spot."

He was eventually asked to compère The Comedy Store – "one of the happiest moments in my life" – before winding up in the hugely successful Mary Whitehouse Experience. His now defunct partnership with Rob Newman saw them become the first comedians to sell out Wembley Arena. He then teamed up with fellow comic Frank Skinner for shows such as Fantasy Football League and Baddiel and Skinner Unplanned. They remain good friends.

Baddiel, never been far from controversy, has been accused of "everything from misogyny to laddism". He claims, however, that is just people once again misunderstanding who he is. "When I started, people had an impression of me that wasn't right. They thought I was more of a cunt than I am. But now I think that's less so. I came across more arrogant than I am.

"What's weird about all that stuff is that, as a performer, I feel I've tried, when on television, to get closer to what one is really like. It takes 20 years to be on stage or TV and be like what you are like. The first thing people do when they go on stage is create a persona. They're frightened really – and I was myself – about letting people know who they are."