A lot of people really obviously hate David Baddiel. He seems to attract a strange kind of derision. Ask people why they dislike him, and there's usually no specific reason - it's his attitude, they say. Obnoxious. One woman I spoke to before interviewing him, who remembered him from his Cambridge days, explained that just seeing him "showing off" in the college common room made her feel sick. At the acme of his stand-up career three years ago, when Robert Newman and he did their unprecedented "rock 'n' roll" bust-up gig at Wembley Arena, he was hailed as mediocrity writ large, one of the worst things ever to have happened to popular culture. "A nasty, talentless little nerd," wrote one reviewer. Since then, he has had ample opportunity to give annoyance. He has become the reluctant icon of new laddism, seemingly reaping fame and fortune without lifting a finger. Fantasy Football League, which he co-hosted with fellow comedian and flatmate Frank Skinner, raised sitting on a sofa swilling lager and talking about football to the level of cultural phenomenon. This summer, their No 1 single ("Three Lions") could be heard in every pub in the land, willing our lads on to Euro '96 glory, their shellshocked faces capturing the mood of a nation defeated.
In the flesh, David Baddiel, 32, looks every inch a Bloke. There is the famous dishevelled black hair, the casual array of stubble, a hint of double-chin. He is wearing faded grey jeans, a dark grey jersey, a black leather jacket. He balances back on two legs of a chair, his sneakers resting on one of his agent's conference tables and scrutinises me, affably enough. I am fully prepared to offer my condolences about the reviews, but Baddiel doesn't want them. He is content with the reception of novel Number One. "It's so much less than the criticism I've received in the past," he says. Roddy Doyle liked it, he reminds me. The critics, he explains, dwelt on the stand-up tone, the subject matter (anal sex, porn, frogs covered in tandoori) and the connections between himself and the central character, Gabriel Jacoby. Jacoby is a insomniac north London middle-class Jew with a penchant for crude, occasionally witty, observation who has a football fanatical flatmate and an eccentric mother. "They didn't really look at what I was doing with the subject-matter," he sighs. "A lot of people think it's just me talking about my life in great detail. It isn't. It's also dealing with the reality of living in a proper relationship as opposed to an obsessive, infatuated one."
The reality of living in a proper relationship is, it turns out, something that Baddiel dwells on a lot. "I think that monogamy is not a natural state - my affections are drawn to monogamy, but my groin isn't." This would presumably be cause for alarm on the part of his current partner, Sarah Bowden, a 22-year-old TV producer, were it not for the fact that he is about to end "that blokey flatsharing thing and face up to the prospect [deadpan] of living with my girlfriend". Fantasy Football League, has, for the time being, run its course and, in real life, Skinner and Baddiel are getting their own sofas. "She always says, 'I'll be sad to split you and Frank up', but the real reason is that I'm getting bored of Hampstead and if I move, it feels a bit weird to be taking him with me." Which leaves one wondering, whatever next? Fantasy Monogamy? He's currently working on a screenplay called Forsaking all Others, a comedy about surviving a long-term monogamous relationship. Apart from that he seems at a loss.
"I don't have a life plan," he says, sarcastically, when I ask. "I might do some stand-up next year, but I think I should move on. I don't really have anything concrete I do now. The Hollywood thing could fall through at any stage. It might be a function of getting older, or having done quite a lot of stuff, but your drive starts to lessen. There is the nagging feeling that I should do something, which presumably means that the shreds of that drive are still there, if you can have shreds of drive." He laughs. "I don't see why I should worry too much about metaphors just because I'm suddenly a novelist." He has had a go at a follow-up, set in the 1920s ("a reaction to being worried about the fact that this book is so obviously in my voice"), but found he couldn't write from a "different point of view". And his own "rather unfortunate confessional drive", which has pushed him on to stage, small screen, into newsprint and novel over the last 10 years, would seem to put a short shelf-life on the David Baddiel point of view.
Talking to him, you get an extraordinary sense of someone who knows how every word he utters will sound (because he has probably uttered it before at some stage). The conversation is full of I-shouldn't-say-this-because- I-know-it-will-look-tossy parentheses. He is self-consciously honest about his honesty. "Frank and I are both robust. We like saying things that are hurtful or that are against the sort of bullshit you come across the whole time in showbusiness." He pauses, then announces: "That was a crap sentence. I wish I hadn't said that."
The roots of Baddiel's robustness were nourished on the dreary inner London slopes of Maida Vale and Dollis Hill. "My theory as to why I first became a comedian is that my mother was always keenest on my younger brother, Dan. It doesn't bother me now, but it did then and the way I compensated for that was to publicise myself as myself - to tell people who I was in 100 per cent detail, going into every crevice of my life." This took the form of trying to shock as much as get noticed. At school, the shy, swotty Baddiel "got loads of cred" thanks to an end-of-year revue sketch that lampooned the teachers. His aptitude for "I hesitate to use the words 'toilet humour' " made him take his comedy career at Cambridge seriously, despite being groomed for academia (he got a double-first in English). Using his (unfinished) PhD on the Cult of the Little Girl in Victorian Britain to subsidise his anti-PC stints on the London comedy circuit in the mid-80s, he teamed up with Robert Newman, while contributing to Radio 4's Week Ending. The Radio 1 sketch show The Mary Whitehouse Experience put them on the road to television, touring, money-spinning merchandise and, of course, Wembley. In return, they gave the world the History Today professors and the playground catchphrase of the Nineties ("You see that, that's you that is"). Plus plenty of japes about knobs, vaginas, pubic hair, the fat, and the elderly. Teenage girls loved them.
Every time we touch upon the subject of new laddism, Baddiel wrinkles up his nose. It's a meaningless stereotype, he insists; journalistic laziness. He didn't cash in on the football renaissance and he's not interested in learning the Guinness Book of FA Cup Facts and Figures by heart to prove that he "has a penis". But then, he doesn't need to, because he helped propagate the stereotypes about new lads in the first place. A memorable routine he performed back in 1992 started with a complaint about how obsessed with women's problems daytime TV programmes were. That they were presented by men was embarrassing. One day, he suggested, the masculinity "will just burst out. 'Right, 11.30, it's football. 11.45, it's birds and at 12 o' clock, I'm breaking into Gateway and fucking nicking a whole crate of Newcy Brown." The future for David Baddiel's brand of masculinity has to be more subtle than that, but will anyone buy it? Perhaps in a few years, that daytime TV sofa won't seem so uncomfortable after all.Reuse content