The Jewish Chronicle
Ivor Baddiel My book about a big ego comic
Ivor Baddiel’s new book for children goes behind the scenes of a TV talent show, he tells Keren David
BEFORE WE start —full disclosure. I’ve known Ivor Baddiel, subject of this interview, for a few years, ever since he and his family moved temporarily to the house next door while they had building work done at their home. Ivor spotted our mezuzah and came and introduced himself within hours of arrival. By the time they moved out, a few months later, we were friends, swapping texts speculating about the plot of Line of Duty, and going together to the local Chabad rabbi’s baby naming party (and picking the same present for that baby).
And what’s more, we are both children’s authors, and both have new books out with the same publisher — Scholastic — which both feature non identical twins. So our chat — on a bench in the sunshine in our local park, hurray for the easing of Covid restrictions — starts with an off-the-record gossip about our editors.
On the way to our bench we’d waved to Ivor’s wife Sophie, at work in a classroom at the primary school right next to the park. And a few minutes in we’re interrupted by my husband, on his way to buy coffee from the park’s takeaway kiosk. He and Ivor catch up on the fortunes of their football teams. “Chelsea means even more to Ivor than Manchester United does to me,” my husband reflects later, which is — believe me — quite a statement.
Ivor’s book Britain’s Biggest Star…is Dad? is one of those ideas that makes other kids’ book writers jealous — a comedic whodunnit, set behind the scenes of a TV talent show. And (even though I have shot my credibility to pieces with these personal links) I can tell you that it is a rollicking good read, both hilarious and with a mystery that is hard to crack.
It’s not Ivor’s first book — in fact it’s about his 18th — but it’s his first novel under his own name. The others take in everything from children’s nonfiction and a picture book, Cock a Doodle, Quack Quack written with Sophie, to a comedy version of the Highway Code and a spoof football hooligan book which, alas,“no one bought, a shame because it was very funny.”
Britain’s Biggest Star…is Dad? came about after Ivor was a judge at JW3’s Jewish comedian of the year competition. In the audience was Miriam Farbey, who had commissioned his first book and is now a big cheese at Scholastic. She invited him in for a brainstorming session, he turned up with many ideas and from that came this book, in which the twins team up with a bungling spy, persuade their dad, a retired comedian with “an ego the size of Jupiter” to enter a TV talent show not unlike Britain’s Got Talent, and work against the clock to foil a plot to scupper the show.
It draws on his 25 years working as a writer in the world of television, a career which at first he juggled alongside being a teacher. Among the shows he has written scripts for are X Factor, The Voice, Dancing on Ice, The Greatest Dancer, and the I’m a Celebrity spin off show. For the latter he was flown out to Australia, and put up in an apartment with the series producer. He would work all night. “At midnight I’d be taken into the jungle, and as the sun rose I’d be in my office, writing away.” It was a “great experience”, and he was asked to go back, but he didn’t because when he returned to England his son Art, now a teenager but then just one year old, “almost didn’t recognise me,” after five weeks away.
For X Factor, Ivor writes the scripts for presenter Dermot O’Leary, and in fact he is Dermot’s voice for most things that he does. He’s also written scripts for Stephen Fry, and enjoyed nailing his very distinct way of speaking. Ivor is the most modest of men, but will admit that he is good at getting people’s voices. “I’m a bit of a Zelig,” he says, “sometimes I’m jealous of people who are who they are.”
The strict boundaries of TV scripts meant writing this book at times felt like “freefalling” he says. “It was scary at first, but I really liked it.” It’s not quite without boundaries, as it is written for children, but that’s no bad thing, he says, really great children’s content like The Simpsons, appeals to everyone and is something to aspire to as a writer.
Why are we so keen on talent shows like the one in the book? It’s easy for people in a “nice middle class enclave” to forget how impossible it is for others to break into the media, he says (this is a pretty good description of the scene from our park bench, to be honest, Crouch End being a place where many TV people live). Talent shows “give people hope,” he says, although now that hope is tempered with an understanding of the pitfalls of fame.
Speaking of which, Ivor has, of course, a more famous brother, the comedian and writer David Baddiel, currently in the news for his polemic Jews Don’t Count. He has given his brother a cover quote: “Annoyingly good”.
‘Annoying’ might be a natural sibling reaction to having such a high profile brother, but Ivor plumps for “proud” , says his brother “gives me naches” and points out that he would never have wanted to be a performer like David.
He’s particularly proud of Jews Don’t Count, which is “very brave”. In the book, there’s a story about watching Chelsea play, hearing another fan abuse the “yiddos”
I’m a bit of a Zelig, sometimes I’m jealous of people who are who they are
of Tottenham, and Ivor confronting him. This shocked me when I read it, because, knowing Ivor, I realised just how strongly he must have felt. “I hate aggression,” he agrees, “but sometimes you just crack.” The man did shut up afterwards,and the brothers went on to make The Y word a film campaigning against the use of the word.
We talk about David’s stage show about their parents, which includes a frank, moving and very funny account of his mother’s infidelity. “She would have loved it,” he says, “she was not shy and retiring.” He was touched that David was nervous about his reaction on the first night, and points out that every family contains many different truths. “My experience is not his, and we have another brother who has yet another experience.”
The park is filling up with children, so it’s time to finish up. It has felt slightly odd, interviewing a friend. And Ivor has spent a whole career keeping out of the spotlight, so promoting his book feels a little strange. “The whole social media thing — ‘look at me’ — that’s just not me. All I try and do is be funny.” Well, with this book, he’s certainly succeeded.