Ivor Baddiel (Class of 1980)
Ivor Baddiel is an author and television scriptwriter, who has written for many of the biggest shows of the last 20 years, including The X Factor, The National Television Awards and Dancing On Ice. He also devised the current ITV show Romeo and Duet and for many years, wrote for Stephen Fry in his role as host of the BAFTAs. Ivor’s latest children’s book is ‘Britain’s Smartest Kid… on Ice’ and his next one, ‘50 times football Changed the World’, written with Gary Lineker, comes out this autumn.
You weren’t always in show business, were you?
I used to be a primary school teacher. I taught at a fairly tough school in Seven Sisters. I was fairly hopeless. I was also a social worker in a residential care home for a time, which I loved. I was an assistant psychologist for a while.
I was a Senco at a school in Tufnell Park. I met my life partner there. She was a teacher. I was out of the door very promptly most days to get on with writing as I was trying to be a writer at the time. Teachers don’t really do that, so I feel a bit bad about it. After a year and a half, I made the plunge to being a full-time writer.
Did you expect to be doing those ‘proper’ jobs for your whole career?
Yes, in some respects. Weirdly from 11 or 12, I knew I wanted to be a psychologist. I wanted to be the new Sigmund Freud. I was fascinated by people and behaviour from a very early age. It was a bit vague at 12 maybe but I remember a couple of years later, finding out that you could study Behavioural Science at University and it kind of blew my mind. So I studied Psychology at Manchester Poly and I was headed towards Educational Psychology as a career.
All the social work and teaching I did was going towards that - to be an educational psychologist you needed at least two years’ teaching experience.
But then two things happened. I shadowed an Ed Psych for a week or two and I found that it was quite boring and not for me. At the same time, my brother David started his comedy career and I was spending a lot of time in comedy clubs watching him and I really liked that world. I wasn't going to be a performer but I thought I’d have a go at writing.
I had a friend who did want to be a stand-up comedian and I worked on material with her. And when she first did our material at the Comedy Cafe in Old Street, people laughed occasionally and I was encouraged. So, for a time, I had a part-time teaching job and at the same time I was writing comedy and writing for magazines.
Going from teaching - where you know what you're getting paid and when and you get holiday pay and sick pay - to working for yourself full-time is terrifying, especially for the first few years. But I just about managed to hang on in there, always thinking, 'Surely I won't be doing this in five years time'.
What was the moment you realised you had your foot in the door of showbiz?
My first job in TV was Light Lunch, the Channel 4 show with Mel and Sue. I remember a sort-of interview with the exec producer. She offered me the job then told me how much I'd be earning and I fell off the chair! That was the moment.
Do you still feel guilty about leaving your original career behind for something more frivolous - or is bringing joy to millions a higher calling?
I'm not for one minute comparing what I do to being a teacher or social worker, but there is merit in entertainment. It gives me so much joy when a line I have written makes people laugh; it does happen occasionally. It's transitory and ephemeral but it brings a little bit of joy to a lot of people. At its peak, The X Factor had an audience of 14 million. It’s not a comedy show but we managed to slip in the odd gag when Dermot [O’Leary] was introducing the judges or whatever. People need that. If they can sit down on a Saturday night and have a bit of a laugh, then there's merit in that.
Who is your comedy benchmark?
Derek and Clive. [Semi-secret sweary side project by Peter Cook and Dudley Moore]. I discovered them when I was 14. Absolutely blew my mind. I love that the reins are completely off. I mean, it would be seen as being very offensive now. But it’s two of the funniest people in the world, completely uncensored. Dudley Moore is my comedy hero. Peter Cook is a very intellectual comedian and Dudley Moore is the clown, which I love.
What’s the process when you write for someone like Stephen Fry?
The first time I wrote for him as host of the Baftas, I was really nervous. There are so many layers of approval your script goes through even before it gets to him. Obviously, he could write the script himself standing on his head. But it's easier to have me negotiate a script through all the approvals of the BBC and Bafta and then have him come in and make his changes, which sometimes - after all that - are edgier than I was allowed. The first time I thought I'd be overjoyed if he kept any of my gags in but he actually kept quite a lot in.
It was scary for the first couple of years but by the end I absolutely loved it. Stephen is a proper comedian, properly funny so it gives you a lot of scope as a writer.
Because his on-stage persona is so distinct, it's quite easy to write for his voice. Writing for a comedian is generally quite do-able, because good comedians are playing a particular persona that’s possible to pick up. Someone like Jack Dee is not the same in real life as he is on stage, for instance.
A presenter like Dermot O'Leary is maybe playing less of a distinct role, so it can take longer to pick up his rhythms and stage character.
There’s a different challenge on a show like Lucky Stars – the celebrity version of Tipping Point. I’ve worked on it since 2013 and I love it. A couple of us write the intros the celebs give themselves. You need to find a central theme for them. So, a judge on the British Sewing Bee has something set you can work with quite easily. Soap actors can be harder. I’ve done a lot of jokes about soap already. So I can end up on Wikipedia, looking up plotlines from soaps I don’t watch, trying to find a starting-point!
When did you come up with the idea for Romeo and Duet?
It was 2009. It was called Serenade Me at that point. I hawked it around with David. We worked on it a bit but the fundamental idea of being attracted to someone because of their voice, and listening from a balcony was there from the start. Nobody was interested. Then a friend of mine started a production company during lockdown and I dusted down some old ideas. ITV ordered a mini-pilot in April 2021, then a full pilot in August and then in September they said, 'Yes' to a series. For that kind of show, that was relatively quick.
Have you had similar ideas that didn't make it?
I’ve had 100 ideas that DID make it but done by someone else! I had an idea called Drag Race years ago, which was taken by a friend of mine to America and pitched there. I’m not saying Ru Paul's Drag Race nicked the idea…
It sounds like they nicked it…
Well, I can't prove it. But there was a show called The Bubble, with David Mitchell. It didn't do very well. I didn't know about it but a friend called me and said, 'That’s your idea'. The idea was to keep people away from the news for a weekend and then test them on whether they believe certain news stories had really happened.
I have taken legal action over this sort of thing before…
What’s something civilians don't realise about show business and TV?
I'm going to go down a soppy route with this one: 99 per cent of the people I’ve worked with work incredibly hard and are very nice. It takes so many people to do big live shows like the X Factor. Seeing the effort that goes in to one of those shows is what's surprising. People on Twitter slagging off a show don't understand how much goes into it. You might still get it wrong but no-one sets out to make bad show.
What personal qualities have helped you rise through the business, apart from the basic ability to write a funny line?
You know the [Woody Allen film] Zelig? I think I’m like that. A human chameleon. I think I’m quite empathetic and quite aware of what a certain person or situation needs from me. I let a new person show their hand first and then adapt to what they like or what makes them laugh. Writing for other people, I think I can get into their voice, not easily, but I can certainly do it.
It’s about listening and fitting in?
Yeah. I'm genuinely interested in people. I want to fit in. I'm not the greatest writer in the world but if you're up for a job, all things being equal, they'll pick a guy who's easy to get on with rather than someone who's hard work. Which sounds cynical! But it’s not! I am a nice bloke and I do a good job and I'm easy to get on with and if that gets me work over someone who's not so nice, then great.
Who else would you like to write for?
I must say Richard Ayoade's speech at the TV Baftas was great. I mean, I think he will have maybe written all, or most, of that himself but I would love to write for him. Even though he doesn't really need it.
How did you come to be at City of London School?
I really don’t know. I have to say, I didn't enjoy school at all. It wasn’t entirely to do with the school. It didn't suit the person I was. My parents shouldn't have sent me there.
To me, in the 70s, it was quite a harsh environment. I have to say a very good friend of mine is now a long-serving teacher at the school and I know it is a very different place in 2022.
But I’d come from a small north London school, North West London Jewish Day School where my mum took me every day. Then six weeks later, I was thrown into the chaos of the London Underground, schlepped to Blackfriars, to a school full of people calling me by my surname, making me wear a tie and if you didn't tie the knot right up to the top, they took it very badly.
In the first week, we were all alone in the class and we took to banging the desk lids down, and just as they banged into the desk we made a gun symbol with our hands. We were all doing it. In walks Dr Whitmore, the most ferocious teacher in the school as it turns out, screaming, ‘What’s going on’. Silence. He points at me, asks me who was making all that noise. I say we were all doing it. So then he points at another boy and asks him if he was doing it. Of course that boy said no. So now Dr Whitmore says I’ve lied to him and I have to go to the Deputy Head's office. So quite a bad start…
It's a shame. I was only mentioned once in assembly by the headmaster. I played for the football team for the first time and we lost 20-0 at Sevenoaks…
20-0. I scored an own goal. It was a school record. I wasn’t mentioned directly. My other dealing with the head was in the lower 6th. I was called in to talk to him and he told me my A-Level predictions weren't so good and I should pull my socks up.
I was taking Chemistry, Physics and Maths which I should never have been doing but my father was a doctor of chemistry and I was trying to please him.
So, for a couple of weeks, I thought I really had pulled my socks up. Then, one day in Mr Stigley’s class, there was a couple of us messing about, and he looked at me and said quietly, ‘I’m so fed up with you, Baddiel’. I absolutely plummeted. I told my parents I wanted to leave. They were very unsympathetic. I went back, and did end up getting two Ds and an E.
In hindsight, the school felt very Oxford- and Cambridge-oriented at that time. So, falling short of that, I was lost. I went off to America for a few months, had a blast in California and came back and somehow got into Manchester Polytechnic.
Was there any upside to your schooldays?
Well, in my new book, ‘Britain’s Smartest Kid… On Ice’, the main character is named Marsham, after one of my best friends who I first met at City of London. He's a successful surgeon in Swansea now. There was a little gang of us. Danny Kersh, Joe Brookes. I knew them from Jewish Youth Group before we went to City. There were people I liked but the culture of the school did not suit the sort of person I was. I mean… the CCF. I hated the idea of anything militaristic. Why would you want to hold a gun?! I did the community service option which was seen as the soft option. I went to visit old people. It was a much warmer thing. Although my friend Danny went into the RAF cadets and got to fly a plane, which was quite cool.
As the sort of person I am now, I am surprised that none of the adults noticed how unhappy I was. Maybe I hid it well. But the Jewish youth group was my saviour. There were girls there. There was warmth. It was friendlier.
I think Mr Abernethy was the only teacher who called me by my first name and sometimes sat me down and asked me how I was getting on. So he was my favourite teacher, looking back.
Maybe you weren't good at being 14?
I think it was tough being that age. I had a difficult relationship with my father. I spent a lot of time trying to please him. I learned the trumpet at City to please him and I was hopeless at it. I was in the school orchestra when we did the 1812 Overture and I just mimed. Thankfully, there were three or four others who could play it. But my parents came along and were quite proud!
I’m trying to think of something more positive about my schooldays! In the sixth form, I used to enjoy going for walks along the Embankment at lunchtime with my friend, Joe Brookes.
So, what is the overall message here: even if you don’t like school you can go on and be successful and enjoy your life?
Yes - I am very happy now! I have two lovely kids and I’m very happy with my other half! I love writing and doing what I do as my career. I think finding the right thing for you, the right job, the right crowd, most of the people you meet within that are going to be nice people. And when you get to a certain age, you are more single-minded and confident in your priorities and finding the right balance between work and family life. I do feel I have been through the mill a bit to get to where I am. But now I’m here, I wouldn’t have had it any other way.
Top: (c) Thomas Skovsende
Middle: U14 Football, Ivor second from right, back row.
Bottom: Form 5B2, Ivor Back row, last pupil, right-hand side.