Filthy, rich, going to pieces: Much to the surprise of their detractors, Robert Newman and David Baddiel have become the hottest property in British comedy. Unfortunately, they seem to have fallen out in the process

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The Independent Culture
ON FRIDAY, Rob Newman and David Baddiel will become the first comedy act to play Wembley Arena, a 12,000-capacity venue normally associated with rock concerts and the Horse of the Year Show. Laughs don't come any louder than this; but, unfortunately, right now neither Newman nor Baddiel seems to be seeing the funny side.

At the Scottish Exhibition Centre in Glasgow, waiting in the wings for the lights to go down, Newman suddenly asks Baddiel: 'Have you ever done the car alarm joke here?' Baddiel says: 'It's on the video.' 'Is it?' says Newman, 'I didn't realise.' 'That's because you never watch my set,' says Baddiel. And then they go on.

'Me and Rob don't have a cosy relationship as a double act,' Baddiel had said, sitting in his hotel in Glasgow, three hours before the show. 'Wembley Arena is the last thing we'll do together,' Newman would say, much later that night, sitting in his hotel, 13 miles away.

EVERY night on their current, 25-date national tour, Newman and Baddiel leave their separate dressing rooms, comfortable in the knowledge that for much of the evening they will be on the stage individually. Baddiel - short and lippy - does gags about pornography and 'shagging' and deploys arcana dredged from schoolboy memories (eg, the attempt to make rude words appear in the display on your pocket calculator). Newman - tall and languid - talks about paranoia, bad times and independent rock music and does an impression of Bez from the Happy Mondays.

Their greatest moment involves them both, though, performing, under grey wigs, the 'History Today' skit, in which two doddery professors abuse each other like nine-year-olds. Its catchphrase, 'That's you, that is', is now embedded in the language. 'It's the Parrot Sketch of its time,' maintains Baddiel, immodestly but probably accurately.

This material goes down best with late-teenagers, many of them girls who will occasionally scream at the duo on sight. But one of Newman and Baddiel's biggest fans is the Sun's television reviewer Garry Bushell, who describes them as 'laugh-out-loud funny'. And author Tony Parsons says they are 'Hancocks for the Nineties'. Detractors will tell you that their comedy is an unhappy mix of the puerile and the pretentious and that their stand-up routines have a childishly restricted range and tone. On a recent Spitting Image, a puppet of Baddiel was seen in heaven, complaining that everything was 'crap'. Then it was sent to hell, where everything was 'crap', too.

'We get real animosity,' says Baddiel, who talks fast in a voice which has, according to one of his contemporaries, lost several shades of refinement since his days at public school. 'We don't have any of the get-out clauses. We're not Northern, we're not really very working class, we went to Cambridge, we're not women - we're all the things that the modern comedy establishment hates.'

The old school doesn't think much of them either. Jim Bowen, a television quiz-show compere who takes his own scurrilous stand-up routine round the comedy circuit, says: 'Forget 'alternative'. Either you're funny or you're not. And Newman and Baddiel are not.'

Then again, either you are getting paid to fill Wembley Arena or you are not. And Jim Bowen is not.

NEWMAN and Baddiel are both 29. Comedy tours, video sales and television work are making them wealthy. They are said to have earned pounds 300,000 each last year. Both live in flats in the expensive part of Hampstead, where Baddiel's balcony is visible from Newman's roof garden. But Newman thinks he may soon move downmarket, if only as far as Camden: 'I quite like the fact that I'm the hardest person in Hampstead. It's between me and Margaret Drabble, and even if she came up behind me with a car tool, I'd still win. But as a writer, you feel it's culpable to be that out of touch. That's why the autobiographical stuff in my act is from when I was 16 or 17 and knew what was happening in the world.'

Newman's background is working class. He was brought up in a village in Hertfordshire and went to a comprehensive school. Baddiel grew up in north-west London in what he calls a 'thoroughly middle-class, thoroughly ordinary' home. His father was a scientist and he was sent to public school. Newman, who never played in a band, claims he was afflicted by the desire to be a pop star 'only every waking moment of my life'. Baddiel came quite close: he once made music with David Gavurin, who later formed a successful group called the Sundays. But in the end, and quite against the odds, it was comedy that got Newman and Baddiel to Wembley. They never acted together at Cambridge and, in fact, barely knew each other there. Both studied English. Newman 'hated' the place and had a miserable time, 'possibly the worst years of my life', though he still keeps in touch with his tutor. Baddiel appears to have enjoyed himself. 'I was a goth at Cambridge. Wore a dress and chopsticks in my hair, all sorts of ridiculous stuff.'

When he left Cambridge in 1986 with a double first, Baddiel enrolled to do a PhD at London University - 'mainly to get a grant so that I could survive and carry on doing comedy' - and for the next two and a half years he wrote six chapters of a doctoral thesis on 'the cult of the little girl in the 19th century'. He still thinks he might complete it. 'Sometimes I yearn for it, when I'm being attacked from all sides. I am the most critically attacked comic of our time and sometimes I'd rather be in the British Library.'

In 1987, Baddiel was writing gags for the radio programme Weekending when Newman turned up at an uncommissioned writers' meeting. 'He started having some very funny ideas and I started writing with him.' Someone who knows them both says: 'Their relationship has always been 'work first'. They are clearly stimulated by antagonism.'

Commissioned in 1988, with Steve Punt and Hugh Dennis, to write a comedy show suitable for broadcast on Radio 1, they came up with The Mary Whitehouse Experience, which transferred to television. The second series attracted five million viewers, but Newman and Baddiel refused to record a third. (There was never an official break from the other members of the team; Baddiel says he has recently apologised to them for this.) It was 1992, and they had just completed a national tour as a duo, filling London's Hammersmith Odeon four times and selling more than 100,000 copies of a spin-off video called, inevitably, History Today. The BBC handed them a series of their own, Newman and Baddiel in Pieces, which was watched this autumn by four million. And now here they are: the most successful live comedy act in Britain.

Some argue that it is easier for them to sell out Wembley Arena because this is the only south-eastern date on their tour. Baddiel says: 'Actually, we would have been better off playing more in the south, because the thing which sells out gigs is word of mouth.' He is more concerned that, at pounds 17.50 (the sort of price you would pay to see Prince), the tickets may not shift. 'We were not consulted on prices,' he says. (Wembley box office this week said the tickets were 'a bit sluggish to begin with, but they're starting to go.')

Some have looked at this new way of creating laughter, with its 15-man crew, its flashy lights and smoke effects and its fixated audience, and declared comedy the new rock'n'roll. Newman says he thinks that 'comedy might mean something in teenagers' bedrooms, the way a good Motown song could, if that doesn't sound too yucky.'

What is more certain is that in the rock arena, in contrast to the comedy theatre, dissent is rarely heard. 'Heckling like I was used to at the Comedy Store - which is all about hate and wanting to see you die - we don't get any more,' Baddiel says. 'People shout out nonsense or catchphrases, but it's all very up.' No headlining act has been booed off the Wembley stage in decades. Unquestioning audience participation and the affirmation of pre-established values are givens at the big rock shows. So in some ways, Newman and Baddiel's removal to the big stage, though seemingly an act of almost foolhardy bravery, actually eliminates for them comedy's essential risk. As Baddiel says: 'I would never want to play a gig in front of 12,000 people who were all out for a night of comedy. But 12,000 people who are all Newman and Baddiel fans seems to me manageable.'

IT WAS Newman's idea to book the touring party into small, country hotels wherever possible. For the Blackpool date, they put up at a 16th-century Grade II listed house in Singleton. For Dublin they checked into an 18th-

century castle in Killiney. Instead of staying in Wolverhampton, they stayed in the Old Vicarage, Worfield. In Glasgow, Baddiel and Sean Lock, the show's guest comedian, finally rebelled and moved into the centre of town in search of some life.

On Saturday afternoon, Baddiel and Lock sit in Baddiel's hotel room, watching the rugby. Baddiel is wearing the same clothes in which he will later walk on to the stage - velvety black trousers, Doc Martens, a suede jerkin with a shirt hanging out below. 'Smug is a word which has haunted me,' he says. 'Ned Sherrin on Loose Ends asked me - claiming that it was a fan who had asked him to ask me - why I was so unbearably smug. And I said, I can't

believe that you, Ned Sherrin, are asking me about smugness.'

Baddiel went to Haberdashers' Aske's school in south London. A fellow pupil describes him as 'a very obvious kind of rebel then, the kind that wore their ties half-way down their necks'. An end-of-term revue he helped write - which was vigorously abusive about selected teachers and pupils - caused a ban on drama for a while. According to his contemporary, 'The revue would not have been half so vicious, had it not been for

David Baddiel.'

Oddly, Baddiel has continued to mention old, bullied school acquaintances by name in his professional, public routines. One comes up in a passage written by Baddiel for The Mary Whitehouse Experience Encyclopaedia, a spin- off joke book from the television series. An asterisk refers you to a footnote: 'Former friend of D Baddiel, now a fucking cunt.' 'There's a lot of mindless brutality goes on at schools,' says his contemporary, 'and David Baddiel seems determined to keep it going.'

Baddiel says he now regrets this passage and that these days, when he trawls his past for material, he changes the names. 'I often get in this manic state of mind where integral to the comedy is the tone of that person's name. That's wrong, I think. I shouldn't do that. People have got upset about it.'

And meanwhile he himself has become upset about Newman. 'We'll certainly take a long break from each other. We had four or five arguments during the making of this show that were extremely hurtful and unpleasant and I think both of us have to balance our career aspirations and our own personal sanity. Because when we're writing together we can really tear each other apart. We're not so bad when we're on tour together . . .

'Actually, we do have rows even on tour. We argue about everything. I don't really want to go into it because it's not worth the problems it will cause between me and Rob. But Rob is very insecure and very depressive and very paranoid about everything, and comedy writing is a very divisive thing at the best of times. Rob is the opposite of laid-back or easy to get on with. He's also someone who is never happy with the thing he's just done. That can lead to some very hurtful arguments, if the thing in question is something that I'm proud of. He's a very 'burning bridges' kind of guy and that can get very depressing after a while.'

A FRIEND of Rob Newman says: 'He can be cocky in a youthful way, but he is naturally ambivalent about fame and success. Rob is in many ways less marketable, more oblique, less polished than David - although in the end, that may be what makes him more appealing. He will try stranger things, whereas you get what you pay for with David.'

Newman was an adopted child and his adoptive father died when he was nine. He got poor A-level results and was turned down by universities two years running until Cambridge picked him up on the strength of an essay he submitted about T S Eliot. Much of his conversation now is a beguiling rush of unfinished, tangential sentences, quite at odds with the assurance of his delivery on stage. He is serious about gags and will often phone stand-up clubs and ask if they can fit him in at the last minute so that he can try out new material.

One of his early club tricks involved using a long microphone lead to follow a member of the audience through into the lavatories and continue harassing him there. His monologues are considerably less abrasive than Baddiel's (at one point in the current show, he pauses to do a child's painting), but he can still antagonise the politically correct. He was once cut from a televised Amnesty International benefit for including a joke which started: 'I sent a letter to General Pinochet, and he wrote back, and we've become pen-pals . . .' More recently, the working classes were a target: 'What's the point of them? We've got machines instead of them now. Why don't they just fuck off and take their scaffolding

with them?'

'There's two types of comedy acting,' Newman says. 'There's when you are yourself, on tap, in any situation - Bob Hope's like that and David does that, he'll be David in all situations. Or there's acting roles, like Jarvis (the posh pervert, one of Newman's latest creations). I do enjoy being Jarvis. He's the opposite of me - he's totally at home with himself, sexually very confident, nothing fazes him.'

WHEN Baddiel's taxi arrives outside the SEC, three women rush up to the door. Baddiel assumes they want his autograph. In fact, they simply want his taxi. But one of them is Clare Grogan, who starred in the film Gregory's Girl and whom Baddiel now recognises. They exchange pleasantries in a slightly strained way. Baddiel later explains that Grogan auditioned for their television show, at his invitation, and didn't get the part.

Inside on the stage, Newman is filming some scenes for the television commercial which will promote the forthcoming Newman and Baddiel Live and in Pieces video. (A recording of the Wembley show will be turned around in time for Christmas.) He is dressed as Jarvis, and his line is 'Do you like to watch videos that can't be shown on television?' 'He's deep in character,' says Baddiel. 'He won't come out.'

Upstairs there is a room marked 'Robert's Dressing Room', and another marked 'David and Sean'. On tables in both are pots of tea and coffee, ham sandwiches under cellophane and packets of crisps. 'Crap rider,' says Baddiel. Next door, Newman has finally stopped being Jarvis and is canvassing opinions from anyone who passes: 'Do you think I can wear the clown hat over the Jarvis wig? Might work? What do you think?' Baddiel and Lock sit and talk about Chelsea, who have lost. With 35 minutes to show-time, Newman orders people from his dressing room in order to settle into his role, a process which will involve, he says, sinking a large quantity of white wine.

Out in the foyer there are videos and books and hats and silly plastic noses and items of clothing on sale. A woman at the stall talks me through what sells. 'The programmes, obviously. Then it's odds and sods. The Rob Newman and the Jarvis shirts sold well last night and the ones with the tour dates on. The David Baddiel T-shirts die.'

When the two of them hit the stage the noise in the hall is deafening. The black-out at the end of each sketch is greeted with a howl as if parts of the audience can't bear to see them leave. Newman, wearing a large hat and a long cloak, gets to drive a motorised skateboard up and down the aisles. Baddiel does his appalling impression of Brett Anderson from Suede. The show is like the old Saturday morning children's programme Tiswas, or its adult spin-off OTT, except without the slapstick. Nobody gets wet, nobody gets dumped in the gunk. Nobody surrenders their dignity for a laugh. Laughs are frequent, though moments of wit are rare; almost as rare as sentences without expletives. This is an audience that gets a basic thrill out of hearing the word 'fuck' lavished around.

'History Today' is tucked on to the end of the show, like an encore. Thunderous cheering greets the theme music and there is practically mayhem when the pair of them step out in the wigs. Some of the banter that follows is scripted, some is clearly thrown in off the cuff. 'See that person leaving there? That's your favourite fan, that is. That's the treasurer of your fan club.'

AFTER the show, we go hunting for autograph hunters. Baddiel has explained that, following performances, the pair always 'do a signing', which I have interpreted as a formal arrangement, involving tables and chairs and stewards. In fact, he means that either he, or Newman, or both, will briefly mingle with anyone who has bothered to hang about at the stage door. Unfortunately, at the Glasgow SEC, there is no such thing as a stage door. Undeterred, Baddiel crosses the empty arena, pushes through the entrance and stands outside the front until a small group of stragglers notices him and starts to gather round. They are mostly teenage girls who bite down on their lower lips with excitement. 'Fantastic show.' 'Really brilliant.' Baddiel says thank you and asks for their names before scribbling his own flamboyantly on their programmes and tickets. Two minutes later, we step back inside. 'Crap signing,' says Baddiel.

He then explains how, sometimes, very beautiful girls approach him, but that he is currently in a monogamous relationship with a student in Cambridge and so he resists them. On the last tour, though, he slept with six different women, 'which for me was very promiscuous. And a couple of them said: 'Am I just another groupie?' and I said no, which was true. But after five, that was obviously becoming a lie, and I have this thing about lying. Plus I'd fallen in love with one of them, so the promiscuity was all over.'

When the show is packed away, Baddiel decides that he will go and investigate a rave taking place in the adjacent warehouse space. 'You won't like it there,' Newman teases. 'You'll be there five minutes. You'll say there's no tea, there's no coffee and that'll be that.'

NEWMAN and Baddiel have already recorded their Christmas special for BBC 2. They claim it will mark the last appearance of the 'History Today' professors. Both of them say they will spend next year writing novels. Of course, if comedy really was the new rock'n'roll, they would be forced into endless, lacklustre, money-spinning reunions. But luckily this is not the case.

'Did you see that television documentary about comedy double acts recently?' asks Newman. 'It occurred to me that one of them always looks like an ex-wife and one of them looks like an ex-husband; one of them looks fucked over, fat and alcoholic, and one of them looks quite happy. I'm glad that won't happen to us.' -

(Photograph omitted)