“I was like: ‘What the f*** am I doing here?'” David Baddiel on why he is confronting Holocaust deniers

David Baddiel is Jewish. His grandparents fled the Nazis in 1939 but lost people they loved to the gas chambers. So it’s no wonder he felt disgust at having to shake the hand of a man who insists the murder of millions of people never happened. “I wanted to be very up-front about how much I didn’t want to meet a Holocaust-denier,” says the writer and comedian, who accepted the greeting in order to film an interview for a new BBC documentary but was visibly disturbed by it. “There were a lot of emotions in meeting him. I was very angry at bits of that interview and very exhausted after talking to him for a long time, three hours or more, with him saying unbelievably offensive things. I was like: ‘What the f*** am I doing here? What am I doing to my mental health?’”

The answer to the first question is that this witty, versatile man who has been making us laugh and think for 30 years with his stand-up, radio and television shows has now made a powerful and timely film. Confronting Holocaust Denial With David Baddiel takes him to the former death camps and to meet a survivor, but it also puts him face-to-face with one of the rising number of campaigners who say – despite all the evidence – that the Holocaust is a hoax.

Such people have some pretty extreme followers, don’t they” Oh yes. I know that now. Actually, I have had various chats with security people about it all. I think this programme will certainly lead to a lot of online abuse. One can only hope it will not lead to anyone actually being threatening towards me in real life,” says Baddiel. “The programme is an exploratory essay about where we are, it doesn’t offer actual answers. What can I say? I am very much hoping that no-one kills me as a result of it.”

He laughs, but sounds nervous. Is he taking the danger seriously? “Yeah. Someone was killed, by the way. It’s in the programme. A security guard at the Holocaust museum in Washington was killed by an 87-year-old man. The guard was trying to help him inside, but then the old man just shot him. He was a Holocaust denier. It’s so extraordinary. He was so furious that there was a museum to the Holocaust.”

Still, he’s not about to back down. “I am someone who is going to say what I want to say. I am very privileged to have a platform. Everyone is frightened. Everyone is frightened of the pile-on. Everyone is frightened on Twitter of being told that they’ve got it wrong. That is a different type of fear to this, which is: ‘Are you going to be killed by a lunatic?’ Yeah, I do take it seriously. It is in the mix of my fears; but so far I have not let it stop me saying stuff.”

Baddiel’s comedy has always been thought provoking, even when he was being daft alongside Rob Newman and then Frank Skinner in the Nineties. Lately he has written some hugely popular children’s books including The Parent Agency and Birthday Boy, as well as the hit film The Infidel starring Omid Djalili and Miranda Hart. But his work took a more personal, reflective turn with My Family: Not The Sitcom, a live show exploring his own history and his father Colin’s slide into dementia. And now comes this documentary, at a time when anti-semitic abuse is on the rise.

Baddiel lives in North London with his wife Morwenna Banks and their children, aged 15 and 18. Late last year came the alarming sight of anti-Jewish graffiti sprayed on a synagogue and shopfronts in Hampstead and Belsize Park. “I tweeted about how it was reminiscent of things my grandparents ran away from in their neighbourhood in Germany before the war. I know of specific images of the Star of David and the word Jude being painted like that on shops in Berlin or wherever back then.”

Baddiel has an unusual, one-word profile on Twitter that just says: “Jew.” He has 650,000 followers and is both funny and outspoken, sometimes breathtakingly so. Baddiel can be brutal if he feels it’s deserved, like calling the rapper TI the c-word for saying he subjects his teenage daughter to a check on her virginity every birthday. “The directness and the honesty is me and sometimes people like it, but not always. Sometimes it can be too much.” When Richard Dawkins’ mother died he tweeted to his fellow atheist: “Sorry to hear that Richard. She is of course not in a better place.” Now he wonders if he went too far. It still raises a laugh in his very funny new live show called Trolls: Not The Dolls, which turns the online abuse he gets into comedy.

We’re talking at the Arts Depot in Finchley, where Baddiel is preparing for a warm-up show before taking the show on tour, dressed in his usual jeans, t-shirt and sweater with heavy, black-rimmed glasses and a silvery beard. He’s jokily confrontational with the audience, including fellow performer Clive Anderson, warning them he’ll be trying out new jokes and might mess up: “I think you knew the risks when you saw the price was only twelve quid. I’m a f****** national treasure!”

He makes merciless fun of his online opponents, so have any of them ever challenged him in real life? “I’ve met a lot of people who follow me on Twitter but I’ve never met anyone who has trolled me. I think it is quite hard to be as angry and abusive face-to-face as it is online, because you have to deal with a real person. But my fear is that as we get more and more normalised to abuse online, it will start spreading away from the screen. People will be angrier and more violent and more horrible to each other in real life, which is happening now.”

Where does his compulsion to speak out come from? “I have an issue, which is that I am on-the-spectrum honest. I know that sounds self-aggrandising but I don’t mean it that way. I find it very difficult to lie. I am very uncomfortable with any kind of lying. I also very rarely monitor what I am saying before I say it. Which is very weird and unusual for a public figure. I control that better now, but on Twitter sometimes I don’t. Most of what I say I can justify, but not all of it.”

I can’t help but think of his Dad, whose natural plain-speaking has been magnified by dementia. “Yeah, it comes from my Dad. He is a much more aggressive person than me. Actually, there is a bit in the Trolls show about my son. He is is not aggressive exactly, but he is f****** male, my son. Much more male than me and I am quite male.”

What does that mean? “That thing I see in my Dad which is a no-nonsense, robust attitude to life, is also in my son. Morwenna’s brothers are quite like that, so there’s quite a lot of testosterone lying around the family that I didn’t realise was there before. He is also a giant: he’s 15 and he’s got size twelve feet. He’s brilliant, my son – he’s unbelievably funny – but he is very male, like my Dad.”

How is his father doing these days? “He is still with us. Only just, really. He’s not great. The other day, as part of his not-greatness, one of his eyes started to droop. It’s not a stroke, it’s not a palsy, we don’t really know what it is. Possibly related to the fact that he has diabetes now, as well. So the carer took him to hospital. While he was there a junior doctor was tapping away at the eye and asked him: ‘Is that painful?’ My Dad said: ‘If you carry on it will be!’”

I laugh and he says: “Right? I think that’s amazing, because there are only shreds of him left, but what is left of my Dad is this really, f***-off, blokey banter thing, which is so him.”

The two of them are also very different though, he says. “My Dad was never self-exploratory. Never self-doubting, wondering about stuff. He just did it. I have the same immediacy but I then have a more neurotic uncertainty about what I’ve done. I think: ‘Oh, is that okay?’”

There’s a moment in the new stand-up show where he recalls his wife Morwenna asking him: “Is there any chance you could say the SECOND thing that comes into your mind?”

Morwenna is a comedian and voice-over artist best known for being Mummy Pig in the hugely successful cartoon Peppa Pig. “I have very often done the joke: ‘My wife is Mummy Pig. That’s complicated, for a Jewish bloke.’ It always gets a laugh. But I wonder: ‘What does it actually mean? Why is it complicated?’ I also post pictures all the time of the full English breakfasts that I eat on tour. I imagine that if I was actually married to Mummy Pig it would be really complicated, because that would involve a lot of muddy puddles and you know, going up that weird hill to that house of hers. But being married to Morwenna Banks is absolutely brilliant. She’s fantastic.”

Is she more famous than him now? “Mummy Pig is definitely more famous than me. She’s a global phenomenon. I don’t know if Morwenna as the voice of Mummy Pig is.” Is it true she can be persuaded to leave voice messages for their friends’ young kids by name, as the character? “Yes, she does. It is a really sweet thing to do, although she gets asked to do it quite a lot. I ask her to do it occasionally for friends of mine with young children. If I say this, will she be inundated? The effect it has on the children is amazing. They just can’t believe it, but they absolutely believe it. They do believe that Mummy Pig has called them up, but they can’t believe that is happening.”

That is lovely. “The interesting thing l is that Morwenna’s Mummy Pig voice is quite close to her real voice. Slightly posher but very recognisable. Morwenna can do any accent. She is an unbelievable voice artist. She is very different from me in many ways. Notably, she is utterly private and doesn’t really like me talking about her, which I am doing now. She sort of won’t acknowledge that we are married most of the time!”

He smiles, having been with her for more than 20 years. Family is obviously really important to him in his mid-fifties but as social media amplifies the fears and confusion of the world, where else does he find his own identity and security in life? “Well, there is a good answer and a disturbed answer. The good answer is that I am very me. I am a limited performer. I sometimes watch other comedians and think: ‘Oh, blimey they can do loads of accents and their physical ability is amazing.’ I can basically do one thing, which is to be me on stage, which is actually quite a gift. Sometimes when I watch younger comedians I think they haven’t found their voice yet. They don’t know quite who they are, whereas I am relentlessly, wearily me. I find it deeply disturbing to move an iota away from myself. That allows me to feel naturally very grounded in a world that is shifting all the time.”

And what’s the “disturbed” answer? “The disturbed version is that no, I sometimes feel very anxious and worried and: ‘What the f***’s going on?’ I used to be more certain of how we as a species were progressing, generally very slowly upwards, but now I don’t think that at all.”

When he first became famous in the Nineties there was a great spirit of optimism around, finding a theme tune in the song he and Frank Sinner wrote for the Euro 96 tournament Three Lions, with the refrain: “Football’s coming home.” But those heady days seem a long way off now to Baddiel, with his eye on the global picture. “People who lived through the Nineties after the Berlin wall came down thought: ‘We’ve done it. We’ve got through the absolute shit of all that war and all that terror.’ Then we created technology that made everyone hate each other and not know what truth is.”

He’s talking about the internet but smiles to himself. “The weird thing about that is that I am addicted to it. It feeds a narcissistic need in me to have an audience at all times. You do a joke, you get lots of likes, lots of re-tweets, lots of people joining in with the joke. So that’s brilliant and that’s nice, generally.” It’s not just about the jokes, though. “The narcissism is also about me wanting to say things that I think: ‘I’ve got something important to say.’ So all that is fed by social media and not always in a good way.”

Twitter can also be uplifting at times, he says, and his new show celebrates that. There’s a very funny joke tweeted in response to him by Hugh Grant – “Yes, THAT Hugh Grant!” – that can’t be repeated here. As another example, Baddiel recently appealed to followers to send messages of support to his brother Dan, who he said was struggling in life. The flood of goodwill that followed included inspiring thoughts, playlists and simple encouragement like that of his fellow comedian Mark Watson who said: “Keep going, Dan. Things change.” Baddiel says: “The show does have upbeat stuff too. It does find community and comfort in social media as well as awful things.”

But he also uses it to point things out. When Jeremy Corbyn mispronounced the name of Prince Andrew’s friend, the convicted abuser Jeffrey Epstein, during the general election leadership campaign last year, Baddiel tweeted: “Every Jew noticed that.”

The Labour leader was already being accused of anti-semitism. “I got trolled enormously by the Left but a very prominent Jewish journalist on telly direct-messaged me immediately and said: ‘Absolutely, why doesn’t he just say ——.’ They inserted something very obviously unsuitable for this conversation, but the point was the amplification of his Jewishness by saying ‘Ep-schhh-teen’. That absolutely may not have been what Jeremy Corbyn meant. I am totally behind the idea that was not at the front of his mind, but everybody noticed it.”

Does he think Corbyn is anti-semitic? “No, I don’t think Jeremy Corbyn is anti-Semitic. I think an anti-Semite is someone who believes Jews are evil, that Jews control the world and that they are also vermin. He doesn’t think those things at all. But he is part of a discourse which – at a time of intense identity politics – has not included Jews in the protections that the Left offers. That has an anti-Semitic effect.”

Where does that leave the Labour Party as it seeks a new leader? “I think whoever gets will make a real effort to say: ‘We are getting rid of the anti-Semites.’ They need to do that. They need to say: ‘This is bad. These people are out.’”

I have to ask one very big question to this comedian making a documentary about one of the most difficult subjects of all: is it possible to joke about the Holocaust? “You can make a joke about anything,” insists Baddiel, who has even done so in a tweet: “[The author] Devorah Baum told a joke about how a survivor dies, goes to heaven, tells God a Holocaust joke. God says: that’s not funny. The survivor says: Ah, well – I guess you had to be there.”

That’s bleak. Baddiel also added a comment straight from his atheist heart: “That’s a beautiful joke. Because, of course, He wasn’t.”

There’s no doubting that this is personal. “My grandparents didn’t talk that much about the war but I once asked Grandma if she had any brothers or sisters. She mentioned my Uncle Joe, who I knew, but then said: ‘I had another brother, but you will have to ask Mr Hitler what happened to him.’ I remember thinking: ‘What, that bloke they sing about in Dad’s Army?’” Young David only knew the name from the theme song, Who Do You Think You Are Kidding, Mr Hitler?” My point is that those events felt very distant to me, but it was only 19 years after 1945.” He shakes his head in wonder. “Nineteen years ago I was doing [the TV show] Baddiel and Skinner Unplanned. That feels like yesterday. So now I understand that for them it was totally not the distant past, it was totally like: ‘Yesterday we were driven out of our country and all our relatives were murdered.’”

That’s in his mind when he takes on Facebook in his documentary for not always deleting cartoons or comments that suggest the murders didn’t happen.“Facebook aren’t living by their own logic. If you say you don’t allow active hate speech on your platform, you should not allow Holocaust denial. This is active hate speech.”

Some campaigners have urged him not to give Holocaust-deniers publicity by taking them on, but he says they already get plenty through the internet. “Great lies have power and they spread quicker than ever. It’s out of control. I don’t know whether confronting it is going to work. No doubt you change very few of those deniers’ minds. But I do think there are a lot of people who just don’t know much about the Holocaust or this culture of denial and I would rather they were forewarned: ‘Here’s the truth and here’s the lies.’”

And any doubts about whether he was doing the right thing faded away, he says, when he met the survivor Rachel Levy. She was 14 when the Nazis transported her to Auschwitz with her family. Tears flowed as she told him how her mother and her little siblings aged ten, eight and two were taken away immediately to be killed in the gas chamber.

“I really loved meeting Rachel. It was really important to be able to speak to someone who is crystal clear. She talks about these incredible things as if they were yesterday. I don’t know how any holocaust denier could watch that and say: ‘She’s lying.’ It just seems so unimaginable to me.”

You can joke about anything, says David Baddiel, but some truths are not negotiable. “I feel the truth of the Holocaust in my bones.”

I interviewed the comedian David Baddiel ahead of his BBC documentary David Baddiel: Confronting The Holocaust Deniers. This piece originally appeared in Event, the magazine of the Mail on Sunday, as you can read here.

Published by Cole Moreton

Award-winning interviewer, writer and broadcaster.

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