The documentary The Trouble with Dad that I’ve made with my brother Ivor and SunDog Productions stars…my dad. That seems clear to me, when I watch it. The star of this film is Colin Brian Baddiel. My dad is the star of the film not just in the sense that it’s about him, and tells his story, but because he, in most of the scenes he’s in, dominates the room. He’s funny and sparky and wild and putting everyone else down and winding everyone up, and the viewer, I would suggest, just wants to see more of him. I don’t know if he fits the old Hollywood male formula of “women want to sleep with him, men want to be him” – probably not quite – but he is the star.
Why am I going on about this? I know showbiz people are obsessed with billing, but this is ridiculous… you may be thinking.
The reason is that when we started this film I wanted to show another side of dementia – a different version of it. My dad has Pick’s disease, a frontal lobe dementia, and it’s a very different form of brain disorder to Alzheimer’s. Although short-term memory loss is part of it, the main symptoms are anti-social behaviours – swearing, aggressiveness, inappropriateness, mood swings etc etc. For me and my family, this was weird, as my dad had always been like that. So what happened when he got Pick’s Disease was a kind of cartooning of self, an exaggeration of who he’d always been.
And, to some extent, this was why I thought it was OK to put him on film. Because he’s not the empty object of pity that documentaries and movies about people with dementia can sometimes make them out to be. He’s not just sitting in a wheelchair covered in a tartan blanket staring into space. He’s not only vulnerable. Quite the opposite, for much of the time. My dad is more likely to be dictating everything, making the conversation entirely about him and his (normally extremely off-colour) banter. He is what people schooled in improvisation technically call high-status. He is anarchically powerful: a whirling dervish, a bull in the china shop of our everyday restraint and politeness.
This doesn’t make him easy. It doesn’t make the tragedy of an intelligent man having dementia any less. But it does, at least, change the narrative. And it makes him present, rather than absent, him, rather than a lost man. It makes him a star.
The Trouble with Dad airs on Channel 4 from 9pm on Monday, 20 February.