David Baddiel is leaning forward, to emphasise his point. “It’s important to say that Colin had loads of friends who tell me he was great company when he was younger,” he smiles. “Men loved his rather brutal sense of humour. I saw one of his old mates recently who told me that was what he really loved about Colin.”
His words have more poignancy than is immediately apparent. The person he refers to habitually as Colin is his father, and while both Baddiel and his father’s old friend spoke in the past tense, Colin is still alive. Now 82, Colin Baddiel is one of 850,000 people in the UK with dementia, of whom 62 per cent have its most well-known strain, Alzheimer’s. Colin is among the less than five per cent of those with dementia who have Pick’s disease, where frontal lobe brain atrophy creates symptoms including incessant swearing, sexual disinhibition and extreme rudeness.
“But my father was always like that, anyway,” says Baddiel cheerfully. Those who have seen the comedian’s hugely successful stage show My Family: Not the Sitcom will be familiar with that line, as his father’s dementia and his late mother Sarah’s long-running affair provide the material for “my twisted love letter to my parents”. Now Baddiel and his two brothers have participated in a Channel 4 documentary focusing on the reality of their father’s condition.
My Family: Not the Sitcom
Dan Baddiel, 50, has been a New York taxi driver since the 1980s, so television scriptwriter Ivor, 54, and David, 52, bear principle responsibility for Colin, who lives a few miles from his sons in north London, with 24-hour care in his own home. He was diagnosed eight years ago, and the documentary captures what David calls “the dark rainbow” with great tenderness, evident love and unvarnished humour.
“We like that it’s quite funny and has unusual positive bits in it,” says Ivor, as David nods in agreement. They are sitting opposite one another at a table in Soho House, a London club where David is a member, as the steel-grey light of a winter’s afternoon begins to fade. “People think of someone with dementia sitting with a blanket over their knees, staring at a wall, when there are all sorts of other behaviours.”
David picks up the thread: “Both of us had reservations about the programme. I wouldn’t have wanted to put my dad on telly if he was pitiful. In fact he’s weirdly in control – high status, sparky and funny, all within having dementia. He wins.
“There is no situation where it is straightforwardly OK to put someone on camera who is not totally informed about it due to dementia, as is the case here. I’m perfectly happy if people want to say ‘That is not OK’, because maybe it isn’t. But the alternative is that nobody ever talks about this, and we must. It’s an epidemic – the largest killer of older people, bigger than cancer. We must bring that into the light.”
Ivor, Colin and David Baddiel
That meant also discussing on screen what life was like in the years before Pick’s came into their lives, and if there is any such thing as an ordinary childhood, the Baddiels’ was not it. Their parents came from harshly testing backgrounds – Colin emerged from grinding Welsh poverty to become a research chemist, while Sarah was a refugee from Nazi Germany. Despite his habitual anger and her affair with a collector of golf memorabilia, their idiosyncratic marriage endured until her sudden death two years ago from pneumonia.
“They were both only children, and hard to fit into adult stereotypes,” ponders David. Ivor adds, “But they stopped parenting us when we became teenagers. They just got on with their thing. I was the one who got David out of bed and fed.” As small boys, they addressed their parents as Daddy and Mummy but by their teens that had become Colin and Sarah. “It’s weird to think of them as Mum and Dad,” says Ivor. “If my son Art called me by my name because I didn’t fulfil the role of dad, it would break my heart.”
Asked how his upbringing influenced his own parenting style, David replies: “Only in reaction. Our generation spend loads of time wondering how our parenting is affecting our children. Our parents had no sense of that whatsoever. The word ‘parenting’ didn’t exist. They just lived out their mad lives, my mother with her long affair and my dad being angry most of the time.”
Colin’s lifelong hair-trigger rages became worse when he struggled to find another job after redundancy at 42, when David was 12. “He was terrifying,” he remembers. “I swear a lot and get very angry in the car, but I don’t have his constant default anger. If anything, I shy away from confrontation. I’m frightened of anger, because as a child I was pretty constantly frightened that Colin was about to get angry. It’s hard to describe the suddenness.” Ivor, his eyes on David, nods accord: “I can still feel that fear.”
Meet the Baddiels: Ivor, Colin, Sarah, Dan and David
Around a decade ago they noticed Colin was becoming increasingly forgetful, but any attempt to talk about it was stonewalled. “In the early days, doctors would say the word ‘dementia’, and he would respond with, ‘Don’t be silly’,” says Ivor. “He never has acknowledged it.”
The specifics of their father’s condition have a certain irony. “The comedy of the documentary is that he was always unbelievably rude, sweary, antisocial, impatient, moody and sexually disinhibited, so it was very difficult to understand it as a disease,” says David, who had to halt visits from his children – Dolly, now 15, and Ezra, 12 – to their grandfather when his language to Dolly became sexually inappropriate. After Sarah’s death, friends came to pay their respects at a shiva. To the family’s discomfort Colin requested sex with many of the female mourners. Latterly this particular disinhibition has eased somewhat, paving the way for a visit from Dolly and Ezra just before Christmas.
“Morwenna is always baking for Colin,” says Baddiel, of his partner, comedy actress Morwenna Banks. “He doesn’t understand who the kids are any more. He was never a cuddly grandpa. He doesn’t always know Ivor and me. He understands he has sons, and can recognise pictures of us from our teens, but he seems to think we should still look like that.
“We try to see him once a week. When I leave after a visit, I feel exhausted. He’s hard work. Sometimes he’s not too mad, but others he’s very thankless. He can be extremely exasperating, although of course the fact that we organise and pay for his care is clearly the right thing.”
Affording care is no small matter. To many families, Care Minister David Mowat’s recent instruction that Britons should assume greater responsibility for their ageing parents was hopelessly superfluous, as they have no option.
“Colin’s carers are marvellous, but it’s not easy for us,” says David. “I don’t know what we’d do if we couldn’t afford it. As it is, I feel guilty we didn’t take his care in hand earlier. One of the reasons Sarah is dead is that the stress of living with our father wasn’t good for her. She was looking after Colin not very happily and that really took its toll. I feel very badly about it now.”
Asked if they are glad he’s alive, Ivor replies strongly in the affirmative: “Very much so. I find it upsetting to consider him dying.” David is a shade more circumspect: “I am glad he’s alive. He’s not unhappy, although he’s becoming less Colin-ish. Despite how difficult he is, we still want him to be Colin, and he sort of is.”
Not all forms of dementia carry a suggested genetic link, but up to 40 per cent of Pick’s sufferers have a family history of the condition. It was reported that David genuinely fears he has it already, but Baddiel shakes his head resignedly. “That was a piece of observational humour that the Daily Mirror decided to take seriously. I was saying something that people of 52 think – a constant awareness that my memory isn’t as good as it used to be, spiraling into ‘Oh my god, I’ve got early-onset dementia’.
“There is comedy in my own anxiety about getting it. I’m not one of those stoics who would say, ‘I don’t want to be a burden to my kids’. I do. I would prefer them to care for me, if I get dementia. I’m happy to be a burden.” He is laughing wolfishly as he speaks, and laughs harder when Ivor says seriously, “One of the things you learn is that nobody else looks after you, despite having a load of friends.”
David is having none of it. “I’m hoping to take Ivor to Dignitas before that happens,” he grins, watching the smile spread across his brother’s face. “Just for a visit,” suggests Ivor brightly, “because I love Switzerland.”
And then the laughter takes both of them. It’s not that black humour is all that’s left. It’s that black humour was always the best kind, and still is. Some things are designed to save us all.
The Trouble with Dad is on tonight at 9pm on Channel 4