The podcaster, comic and radio host has made a career out of his insecurities. But uncovering a family secret has helped him find peace
This is the third time I’ve met Adam Buxton, but the first time I’ve met him on his own. Our first encounter was in 2001, alongside his childhood best friend and frequent comedy partner, Joe Cornish. Back then, they were making the Channel 4 comedy series The Adam And Joe Show, in which the two of them brilliantly, and with often astonishing prescience, satirised pop culture: in a segment titled The 1980s House, they sent up a then-nascent obsession with nostalgia TV (“Early mornings on television in the 80s were very different from today: there were only three and a half channels, all showing popular comedy rodents”); they recreated revered films and sitcoms with stuffed animals (Toytanic! Furends!). It was silly, smart and superbly of its time, and for a certain demographic – ie mine – The Adam And Joe Show remains some of the greatest TV comedy ever made.
I next met him 12 years later, this time with his father, Nigel. A former travel editor for the Sunday Telegraph, Nigel was also regular guest BaaadDad on The Adam And Joe Show, where Buxton and Cornish riffed on Nigel’s conservative persona, getting him to review, witheringly, the Prodigy singles and Tribal Gathering. BaaadDad was beloved by fans, but by the time we met he was a frail 89-year-old, his son now protecting him rather than directing him, gently helping him up steps and prompting his memory. As for Buxton, he seemed a little lost, with Cornish now pursuing a film career (he wrote and directed the sci-fi comedy Attack The Block, and co-wrote The Adventures Of Tintin: The Secret Of The Unicorn). I worried Buxton would be condemned to that graveyard for comedians, a panel show career.
Which brings us to today, when, for the first time, I am meeting Buxton on his own. Except he’s not on his own at all, in his lovely house in Norfolk, drinking tea in his picture-perfect kitchen with his wife, Sarah, and their three delightful children. He asks me to keep details of his home and family “vague”, so let’s just say that any enemies are definitely unvindicated: Buxton, 51, has a very nice life. His dark beard is now striped with white like a badger’s back, but he seems otherwise unchanged, except, perhaps a little more calm, a little more content.
Instead of entering panel show hell, in 2015 Buxton launched a podcast which he runs from the converted barn next to his house, interviewing guests such as Chris Morris, Malcolm Gladwell and Zadie Smith in his gentle but prodding style (he calls it “having a ramble chat”). These conversations are the opposite of Twitter: kind and curious. (Buxton, unsurprisingly, loathes Twitter and recently left it, partly because he couldn’t bear the comments: 99% of people were lovely, but he can quote the 1% who weren’t. Seeing how people interacted on it “used to ruin my day”.)
We are talking in the flat attached to Buxton’s recording studio, which is filled with his father’s furniture. Nigel died in 2015, several months after he came to live with Buxton and his family. Something of a hoarder, his oldest son, who “definitely shares that tendency”, can’t bear to throw away his father’s things. So, on a lovely summer’s day, the two of us sit in what is undeniably an old person’s flat, my feet on a needlepoint footrest. Behind Buxton is a bookcase filled with his father’s books. All around us are photos of Nigel. “I thought, well, this could be a cool place for my children to hang out,” he says, but then adds, “I’m worried it’s slightly mad that I’m building this weird museum in here.”
It is a bit mad. But Buxton’s new memoir, Ramble Book, does a lot to explain it. He had been approached to write books before, but always jokey high-concept books. After Nigel died, he decided this was something he could write about “from the heart, and hopefully make it funny”. Even so, he initially avoided what he describes as the “dead Dad” part, sending his editor comedy lists and standalone pieces about train journeys. “Just finding ways not to bare my soul,” he explains. But his editor pushed for more soul, and the best sections of the book are the ones about his father.
Nigel was an older dad and had a very old-school way of dealing with the world,” says Cornish, who has known Buxton since he was 13. “The way he flirted with waitresses, the way he talked about wine – it was really funny. Then he would fly off the handle, and that was funnier to me than it was to Adam.”
Nigel had always said his father, Gordon, was “an estate overseer”. But after he died, Buxton discovered Gordon was a servant and Nigel a self-made man. Thanks to Gordon’s employer, Nigel was sent to grammar school, “where he got on his social mobility scooter”, moving on to a boarding school and later Oxford. “It wasn’t that he was a phoney,” Buxton says, “he definitely became the person he was. But he was embarrassed by his background.”
Though Nigel played the part of the posh toff well, the edifice supporting it was shaky, not least because he insisted on sending all three children to boarding school. When he lost his job at the Sunday Telegraph, the scaffolding came crashing down. One of the most painful moments in the book is when Buxton finds a snooty letter from the Telegraph to Nigel, rebuking him for not paying back a loan they’d given him (“paying for private school is laudable… but frankly it would seem a folly looking at your figures”). Even more poignant is the copy of a letter his father sent to one of his most cherished friends, David Cornwell, better known as John le Carré. Nigel knew Cornwell from university and, at 66, begged his friend for a £40,000 loan. Cornwell sent a “kind, well-worded refusal”, and Nigel later took his youngest son, David, out of his public school, Haileybury.
“That was the thing that really crushed him. I found his notebook after he died and it was semi-coded, and the code he had for feeling depressed or like a failure was ‘Haileyburyitis’. I felt terrible for him because, really, Dave’s totally fine,” Buxton says.
The letters had been carefully preserved in an envelope on which Nigel had written: “Financial crisis, of interest to anyone should they come to write my life story.” “I think he had that journalist’s mindset: keep notes, keep everything,” Buxton says. “But really, I think he was preserving his own legend, as I do, too.” The discovery made him re-evaluate their relationship: “I always thought he was disappointed that I was letting the side down.” It turned out to be more complicated.
Buxton went to Westminster school in London, but was never especially academic, botching his A-levels, retaking them and getting into Warwick University, only to drop out and go to art school. When he started out in TV, he avoided any reference to private school in interviews, and squirms a bit even now. “After Dad died, I thought about how hard that must have been for him, when I didn’t do especially well academically, how important all that had been to him…” He trails off. All around us is the paraphernalia his father kept to project an image of educated poshness. This was what Nigel wanted to bestow on his children, and his eldest son first rejected and now preserved it.
If Nigel’s money troubles didn’t bite until after Buxton left school, they lurked in the background. Cornish remembers that Buxton used to “get a bit angry… And I think that was probably because of the disparity between the very privileged world around him, and what was happening with his dad.” Louis Theroux, another of Buxton’s schoolfriends, recalls the same tension. “Adam was never into weed, but Joe and I were and we’d be all mellow. Adam would drink beer and he’d get all grrrr.”
Neither is surprised he’s written a memoir. “He was always interested in making sense of his inner life. At school, he loved what he called ‘deepies’,” Theroux says, referring to Buxton’s then-word for deep conversations.
“He’s kept every video, every bit of ephemera, every scrapbook,” Cornish agrees. But even this doesn’t prepare me for his archive. When he shows me into his studio-barn, the first thing I notice is a stack of drawers, each carefully labelled with the names of his schools, his art college, his friends, all dated. There are not just reports and essays, but old travel cards and birthday cards. Huge bookcases contain thousands of CDs and cassettes, including the kind most of us threw out in 1997 (“Dance Mix 17!”). Multiple shelves are set aside for recordings taken from baby monitors when his children were little, each one carefully labelled. I haven’t even mentioned the piles of diaries and old invites. Why keep all this stuff?
“Partly self-importance and vanity. Also, it became this party trick, because every time people came round I could go, ‘Remember this?!’ It was like having a pocket time machine,” he says. Plus, he says, “I’m just frightened of not having anything to show for it all at the end.”
Buxton’s parents had a fractious relationship. “It was uncomfortable sometimes to see how harsh my dad could be with my mum,” he says. They split up soon after their youngest child left home. Nigel occasionally half-joked about coming to live with him, and Buxton would “shudder at the thought”. But when he was diagnosed with cancer, Buxton moved him in, thinking it might be a chance to get to know his father. But Nigel was not really a man for deepies and Buxton ended up being his carer, checking he took his pills, helping him when he became incontinent.
“The baby care I didn’t mind, because you feel as if you’re of some practical use,” he says. “Also, he was so obnoxious [with outsiders] that I almost preferred doing it. But it was tricky when he started zoning out.” He remembers his father looking anxious and asking him if he was scared. “No,” Nigel said. “What are you fretting about, then?” Buxton asked. “So many things,” he replied.
Buxton took in his mother, Valerie, earlier this year. By that point, her memory was starting to go, but one phrase she repeated was, “You did such a great thing, taking in Daddy, because he’s a difficult man, you know.” She died this spring. She had been “totally fine” with Buxton writing a book about his father, he says, but when he rereads it now, “I realise it was Mum who was always my ally. That’s one of those things about families: the people you have the trickier relationship with are the ones who make the bigger impression. The ones who really love you, you end up taking for granted.”
He had already finished his book when his mother started to get ill. But he talked about her death in a moving episode of his podcast this summer, and the person he invited on was Cornish. After some banter about the TV they’d been watching in lockdown, Cornish asked how Buxton was doing. “Not that good,” Buxton replied, and the two embarked on a proper deepie. Recalling his mother’s last day with them, Buxton cried. Cornish knew when to offer reassurance, when to stay quiet and when to start making jokes again; it was the sound of someone getting their best friend through their worst time.
While Buxton and Cornish have both found success individually, for a certain kind of fan (me), the real joy comes from listening to them talk to one another, as on their former XFM and 6 Music shows. They have the kind of joyful, natural conversational style that only comes from a 40-year friendship between two people on the same wavelength. They started making films together when they were teenagers – including my personal favourite, one of Buxton, Cornish and Theroux dancing to Groove Is In The Heart when they were about 20.
Channel 4 gave them their own show when they were only 27, after Buxton entered some of their videos into a talent competition. But making it put some strain on the friendship; Buxton would agonise over tiny details, for example spending days making curtains the viewers would hardly see. “There were sometimes whole sections of the show that were left blank, even just a week before transmission, because it was a bit Adam had to do, and he would get furious if you mentioned it,” Cornish says. “And then he’d deliver it and it would be amazing. That’s why the podcast is so perfect for him – he can control everything.”
They quarrelled occasionally; there were, Buxton says, some “uncomfortable conversations in wobbly voices”. More painful was when Cornish decided to stop co-hosting their 6 Music show, to focus on film-making. “All my insecurities were tweaked,” Buxton says. Did they ever properly fall out? He is horrified: “We preferred to manage our resentments in private rather than confront them. We always got on when we met up, and within three minutes we’d be laughing about some bad film we’d seen. Then we’d not see each other for a while, because I was in Norfolk and he was between London and Quentin Tarantino’s pool house and Steven fucking Spielberg’s bouncy castle.” He adds: “In case it’s not clear, that was mock envy with a very tiny pinch of truth.”
He has always been “Mr Emotional”, as he puts it, whereas Cornish is more teasing, and at times on the radio you could hear Buxton’s hurt bafflement at his friend’s blunter comments. Buxton recalls that soon after they left school he asked Cornish if they’d still be friends in 10 years. “I don’t know, man, probably not,” he casually replied. Thirty years later, the comment burned enough for Buxton to put it in his book.
At the end of the audio version of Ramble Book, there is a conversation between the pair in which Cornish brings up that comment, which he had long forgotten: “I think I was probably looking for the most provocative answer. My brain issues the true standard answer and then thinks, well, that’s a bit boring, what would be more interesting?” You can hear Buxton gasp, re-evaluating 40 years of casual banter. “I think the relationship worked creatively because we are very different, but I never understood that,” he says now, smiling.
Buxton’s emotional openness is surely partly a reaction against his father; despite being sent to boarding school when he was nine, I have rarely met a man less afraid to show his vulnerabilities. Another reaction against his father is Buxton’s marriage. He and Sarah have been married for 19 years, after meeting through another school friend. “She looked like Sean Young in Blade Runner, and we were both a little oversensitive, so we bonded. Also, she’s tall. Joe’s tall, Louis’s tall, I do seem to be attracted to tall people because I’m short.” It was Sarah who forced him to look at how harsh his father could be to his mother. “At first I was defensive, but then I understood that she just doesn’t want me to turn out like that,” Buxton says.
Our interview has very much turned into a ramble chat. When I first arrived at his house, I worried that Buxton was weighed down by the past. But now it feels more that he simply surrounds himself with happy memories; he loved his parents, he loves his friends – why shouldn’t he keep mementoes from them?
Plus, there are clear benefits to being able to relive the past. Buxton always knew his father was baffled by his interests – that was the whole joke of BaaadDad. Recently, he has been watching old outtakes from The Adam And Joe Show. “We shot absolute hours of stuff with my dad, making him go to places that he hated, and he was always game. It was heroic. I used to think, ‘Why isn’t he more proud of me?’ But he was proud. I can see that now.”