2 Oct 2010

David Baddiel interview: "I think I am 100% atheist"

I interviewed David Baddiel a couple of months or so ago. We were talking about The Infidel, a film he wrote, in which Omid Djalili plays a Muslim man called Mahmud who discovers that he was adopted as a child and that he was actually born a Jew. Baddiel told me that the film ended up with a smaller budget than he'd expected (about £1m, not loads for a feature film), but by and large the finished product is "pretty close" to what he'd anticipated, albeit with smaller crowd scenes and fewer "bells and whistles". Because of the film's theme, we ended up talking about all kinds of things - politics, religion, ethnicity, multiculturalism. Here are some excerpts from our conversation.

SO'H: What inspired you to write the film?
David Baddiel: When I was young a lot of people thought I was Indian, loads of people. I actually got beaten up, once for being Jewish and once for being Pakistani, and then when I was on telly for the first time, loads of people used to write in saying 'you're the funniest Indian comedian I've ever seen', and I was always quite happy with that. So I always had around me a sense of people not quite knowing which ethnic box to put me in. And then when I saw Omid [Djalili], who was the first comedian to really kind of tackle race and religion as his main subject, not only was it interesting that he was doing that but also I didn't know, is he Muslim, he could be Jewish, whatever. He turned out to be Baha'i, which is a religion which believes that all religions are part of the same book, which made him perfect in a way. And so it was that really: it was a combination of the sense of ethnic confusion that hangs around me, and seeing Omid Djalili. It was always written with him in mind. Even though I'd had the idea for a while, I'd never really thought about doing it until I met Omid and he was up for it.

"There is a part of me that will be eternally grateful to this country" 

SO'H: You're on record as saying you're an atheist - can you ever be 100% atheist after your upbringing?
David Baddiel: I think I am 100% atheist. I mean I'm Jewish, there's no doubt I'm culturally Jewish, I think the tone of my comedy is pretty Jewish and the way I think is quite Jewish, and you know I'm neurotic and all that stuff, something of a hypochondriac and a depressive, I'm all those things because I'm Jewish, but I absolutely, totally, I don't just believe this, I know there is no god. I know it like I know that stone is hard. And for that reason I'm not that bothered about it… I quite like religion. I sometimes read Dawkins… Dawkins and people like that, because there's a tiny bit of them, like, he was brought up very religious, they seem to me to be shrill a little bit, because they're not relaxed with their atheism. I am so confident that god doesn't exist, I think religion's quite sweet and nice and got poetry and magic in it: it's fine, it's just completely wrong.

SO'H: How successfully do you think multiculturalism operates in Britain?
David Baddiel: Well one of the things I'm proud of about being British is that, for all the fact that obviously there are racial issues in Britain and there's BNP in Britain and whatever, I think that Britain has managed to be an incredibly tolerant country. I know this just because my mother is a holocaust survivor, my mother fought in Nazi Germany and she escaped with three weeks to go before the war started to come here where, you know, things were not easy to be honest, but she managed to build a life for herself, and her parents managed to build lives for themselves. And there is a part of me that will be eternally grateful to this country for that. And for all the fact that there are racists in this country, we've never had anything like... anything that looks like a fascist government in this country. We've never had real dangers like there still are in Europe, and parties that can create that. And yet we've got more races in this country than most other places. I mean, I spent some time in Belgium, for example, when I say some time I don't mean I was there for two years, I was there for three weeks in Belgium, doing a weird literary festival. And people would say to me, very kind of intellectual bohemian types, they would say 'we have to do something about the immigrants'. And I would say 'what immigrants?' and they would say 'haven't you seen them?' and I'd say 'I haven't seen any since I've been here'. They would mean the sort of four black people in Antwerp. And I'd say 'come to London, we're fine with that', you know. And I think that is a great thing about Britain, so even though there are problems, it's basically working alright.

SO'H: What would be your opinion on banning burkas?
David Baddiel: I wouldn't ban burkas obviously. I think it's an unbritish thing to do and also in terms of The Infidel, I think there is a way forward there with relaxation and comedy - the woman in the burka in that, who's Nina Anwar, who's a Muslim, you know, what I did with that was to make her not a frightening alien figure but to make her someone who talks about Grazia and fashion... and that is based on what Muslim people tell me is that lots of those women are like that. But she's still... what I didn't want was a moment like you've got in Sex and the City 2 where the women take off their burkas and they've got fantastic designer clothes underneath - I think that's shit in a way. What I think, it's a woman who's fine in a burka but is also not a stereotype either.

SO'H: What's your assessment of the coalition government?
David Baddiel: Well I voted Labour, but to be honest I'm not very interested in party politics. I voted Labour because Glenda Jackson's my MP and because she was great on The Morecambe & Wise Show in 1974. And that is the real reason why I can't not vote for Glenda, because of that. She once said on a radio show that she thought that was the high point of her career. And I love her for that. And in a way, that's more important to me than what her politics are. I was brought up in a very left-wing household, I will always have an emotional attachment to voting Labour, but to be honest, you know, I thought a lot of them were a shower of fools as well. So the coalition seems to be doing alright to me.

SO'H: You were doing your PhD when you had your big break in comedy - what would you have ended up doing without that break?
David Baddiel: I'd have been quite a bitter academic. I'd have stayed in academia, I'd have been quite bitter thinking that I should be a celebrity, and trying to have sex but being turned down by students.

The Infidel is out now on DVD.
You can read the original Leeds Guide article here.

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