‘I was severely stalked and severely abused’: Richard Gadd on the true story behind Baby Reindeer

<span>‘Some of the scenes we re-enacted were really tough’ … Richard Gadd.</span><span>Photograph: Murdo MacLeod/The Guardian</span>
‘Some of the scenes we re-enacted were really tough’ … Richard Gadd.Photograph: Murdo MacLeod/The Guardian

When Richard Gadd wrote Monkey See Monkey Do for the Edinburgh fringe in 2016, he says, “it was pre-#MeToo; sexual assault wasn’t really in the public consciousness, and male sexual assault particularly wasn’t”. He was 27 and catastrophically anxious, and his flatmates were worried, asking him: “What are you doing? No, like, really what are you doing?”

The show – you’d struggle to call it standup, though it won the Edinburgh comedy award that year – is a personal and harrowing account of being raped by a manipulative older man he met earlier in his career. It’s extremely painful to watch, as Gadd’s nascent professional hopes and fantasies are traded on and exploited, leaving him isolated and hollowed out.

Were his friends worried that reliving it would destroy him? Or that an indifferent response from audiences would destroy his residual faith in other people? “I guess all of the above, but they were particularly worried because they didn’t think it was funny.”

Gadd is, on stage and screen (I spoke to him by video call), funny in a lot of ways, deadpan, effortless, penetrating … Most of all, you’d group it under: “It’s funny because it’s true.”

His TV miniseries Baby Reindeer landed on Netflix last Sunday, and was officially a global hit by the middle of this week, with 2.6 million viewers. It has been the streaming service’s No 1 TV show in both the US and the UK and, at the time of writing, boasted a rarely spotted Rotten Tomatoes score of 100%. The programme is technically a screen adaptation of Gadd’s show of the same name, which came three years after Monkey See Monkey Do, but it’s actually more of a meld of both.

“It’s clearly struck a chord,” he says. “I really did believe in it, but it’s taken off so quickly that I do feel a bit windswept.”

Audiences weren’t necessarily drawn in by the fact that this was based on a true story, since some have been astonished to find that out. Names and identifying details have been changed – Gadd plays the lead, but his character is called Donny – while chronology and some events have been “tweaked slightly to create dramatic climaxes”, he says. “It’s very emotionally true, obviously: I was severely stalked and severely abused. But we wanted it to exist in the sphere of art, as well as protect the people it’s based on.”

In 2015, a woman, who can’t be named but is called Martha in Baby Reindeer, began stalking Gadd. Somewhat older than him in the drama, two decades older in real life, Martha is a chilling presence from the outset. Donny works in a bar and cannot stop her sitting opposite him for hours on end, drinking a single Diet Coke and love-bombing him with eerily closely observed compliments. She gets hold of his email address and messages him hundreds of times a day. When she finds out he’s a comedian, she derails all his gigs, standing up in the audience and telling everyone she’s his girlfriend. It’s particularly piquant because Gadd’s comedy itself is studiedly awkward and confusing; you can see an audience being genuinely perplexed by this intense, besotted, unhinged participant. Is she part of the act? Or is the act about to disintegrate?

Martha is a fantasist about a lot of things. She says she’s a lawyer, whereas in fact she was struck off after a previous conviction for stalking her barrister boss. She says a lot of things, but most insistently she says she loves Donny and he loves her. Once she knows where he lives, she watches the house and harasses his ex-girlfriend both virtually and in person.

While stalking is much more common than one might realise – the most recent figures show that about 7 million people in England and Wales have been stalked – there is also something about Gadd’s story that speaks to universal anxieties, and may account for its overnight success, which he describes as “like lightning in a bottle”. So much happens between strangers online – overfamiliarity flipping into aggressive fantasy, sexual obsession shading into hatred and rage – and it’s never plain how seriously you’re supposed to take it. The best way to stay sane is to treat it as nothing, the wallpaper of modernity, like muzak in a lift. But there’s always this lingering question: what if it transferred to the physical world? And how, given the casual personal disclosures of the virtual world, would you ever escape from someone who had decided to pass from one to the other? The answer is: you can’t.

Gadd, 34, is incredibly hard on himself and his part in this nightmare dynamic; the plot really lingers on the times he might have shut the situation down. Did he lead Martha on by giving her a Diet Coke on the house? Was the real catastrophe that he took her for a cup of tea once? I personally doubt there was any path of righteous firmness that he could successfully have taken, since his stalker was miles from reality from the outset. But Gadd is resolute on his own part in this: “People are afraid to admit they made mistakes, and I think a lot of mistakes by humans are made through people-pleasing. You stay in a lie because it’s easier to circumvent the tension of a situation. I never wanted to upset someone who was vulnerable.”

I could almost cut a line, with a knife and fork, through my anxiety. I could feel it emanating from my body

A year in, the situation has worsened: Martha has forced Donny to move house, so she no longer knows where he lives, but has started harassing his parents. He is also at the end of his rope, having stayed silent about the sexual assault, just as Gadd himself was. “The silence was intolerable. To go through this thing, and have to go home for Christmas, and nobody knows … It is unbelievable, the pressure that puts on.” He’s on the comedy circuit, with Martha at all his gigs, falling flat most of the time. In the show, he’s a sort of terrible performer: daft props, kitsch sound effects and spangly onesies dragging partial, embarrassed laughs out of cranky audiences. It wasn’t quite that bad in real life, he says. “I don’t think I was a bad comedian,” he says tentatively, “and I actually don’t think Donny is a bad comedian – he’s just performing in the wrong way.”

It comes to a head when his agent tells him he should go to Edinburgh. This was always a high point for Gadd’s popularity: “I would go to the fringe, and I would have an amazing month. People love weird stuff up there. But then I’d perform on the comedy circuit 11 months out of the year, to silence, because people expect more stuff that they see on TV. Especially if they pay a high ticket price, they want to see dependable, seasoned, veteran comedians, and there’s this guy who’s taping ears to his nose, and they’re thinking: ‘This isn’t what I paid for.’”

By 2016, though, “I’d gone through these things, hugely tormenting experiences, and I was just thinking: ‘I can’t believe I’m about to put on a wig and false teeth again.’ The juxtaposition was impossible – I thought I couldn’t exist inside it any more.” He fell in love with a trans woman, played here by the luminous Nava Mau, and it fell apart as she became yet another focal point for his stalker’s toxic obsession. As he was preparing for Edinburgh, he recalls: “I could almost cut a line, with a knife and fork, through my anxiety. I could feel it emanating from my body.”

In the show, the story of his sexual assault pours out on stage, spontaneously. In real life, he wrote Monkey See Monkey Do and remembers the 45 minutes before its first performance, while he was trying to do the technical rehearsal. “I remember cracking up, because it was all going so badly, and the producer said, ‘What do you want from this, man?’ And I turned to him with tears in my eyes, and said, ‘I just want to make it out alive.’ Little did I know that it would provide a lifeline for me. The way people received that show, and received me, and accepted what happened to me: it saved my life. It’s mad that it happened that way.”

His stalker, however, became inflamed by his success after Monkey See Monkey Do. She cranked up her activity and threatened to start calling his parents again. Gadd grew up in Fife; his father worked in a lab in a university, while his mother had various jobs in schools. They weren’t a repressed or difficult family, but he hadn’t felt able to talk to them about being raped, nor about his confusion afterwards about his sexual identity. “You know, they’ve been lovely and supportive,” he says – but the scene in Baby Reindeer, where he’s racing up to Scotland to get to his parents and talk to them before Martha calls, is almost unbearably tense, like watching 24 but with meaning.

Gadd has worked with a charity called We Are Survivors. “I’ll always give them a shout out,” he says, “because they’ve helped me tremendously down the years, and they say breaking the silence is the first step. Sometimes I speak to male survivors, and I’m not an advice giver or a professional, but the first advice is: break the silence. Talk to someone, and if that’s too scary, just write it down, process it into something. Because I think the more you get it out, the smaller it becomes.

“I think this is changing a bit, with the generation below me,” he says. “But I certainly grew up with draconian ideas: the prince rescues the princess, to be a man is to have a stiff upper lip, don’t cry, shoulders back. Not that my dad was ever like that, but that’s the societal expectation and it really makes its way into your subconscious. When you go through something like sexual abuse, a lot of the disempowerment can come from these old ideas of what it means to be a man. Certainly when I shook off that idea, and realised that speaking out and saying ‘I’m struggling’ is a form of strength, sloughing off the idea that masculinity was the only form of survival – that was very healing.”

The show Gadd is writing now for the BBC, Lions, “is about two brothers, and explores the themes of masculinity, growing up”. While Baby Reindeer isn’t the first time he has acted – he was in the comedy-drama Code 404 between 2020 and 2022 – Gadd is a revelation on screen. Playing a comedian, he comes off much more actor than comedian. But that standup hinterland has made his writing credentials unassailable. Nobody expects or even lets actors write very often, while that’s half the job of comedy.

So far, he has been writing from life, “and I don’t have a limitless backstory of pain to go off – I’m not going to start walking through dodgy areas just to see what happens. I don’t want to be known as the guy that just plumbs the depths of his soul, but every writer writes from within. I almost think you could have ‘based on a true story’ before every show, because all the best shows come from a certain place within someone.”

He didn’t report his sexual assault to the police; and when he finally reports his stalker in Baby Reindeer, you see a lot of those expectations around masculinity in their institutional form, such as the way the police assume Donny couldn’t possibly be in physical peril from Martha (in fact, she is violent and often terrifying). That’s alongside more general inadequacies in the policing of stalking: for instance, that Donny is required to trawl through endless messages, written and verbal, looking for the smoking gun of explicit threat, which is traumatising of itself and ultimately unproductive.

Related: At 50, I had a flashback to a priest abusing me as a child. Then I decided to confront him

Gadd says: “I’d like to point out that I have met some good police officers in my time, that I did feel care and they did try their best.” Nevertheless, “it is almost common belief now that there is a systemic problem with the police. It is an institution which needs to change. I was always aware of the complete lack of resources available to them, the stress in their eyes and in their bodies – I could almost see it. Our public services are in complete disarray. I don’t want to get too political, but I think it’s shocking that things have been allowed to get to this point. I can think of so many examples where something’s been reported, ignored, reported, ignored, and gone on to have some very severe consequences. I did feel it when I was reporting stalking – I did feel the pinch, shall we say.”

In the stage version of Baby Reindeer, the stalker is represented by a stool. Monkey See Monkey Do was a one-man show. To have to re-enact these events with other actors – Martha is played by Jessica Gunning, in an absolutely stunning performance, and Darrien, the rapist, is played by Tom Goodman-Hill – has been “difficult”, Gadd says carefully. “It’s had triggering elements. But you hope that it builds to a catharsis, which doesn’t really come from revisiting it, but the positive response, the acceptance that people show you.

“Yes, some of the scenes we re-enacted on set were really tough – I could even see that some of the props department were choked up, even the lighting people – but we all knew that we were pushing towards something that was important. I hope the show has a certain degree of greater good, and that it was worth a certain degree of self-sacrifice.”

• Baby Reindeer is available to watch on Netflix now.

• In the UK, the National Stalking Helpline is on 0808 802 0300 or email via their inquiry form. In the US, resources are available at stalkingawareness.org.

• Information and support for anyone affected by rape or sexual abuse issues is available from the following organisations. In the UK, Rape Crisis offers support on 0808 500 2222 in England and Wales, 0808 801 0302 in Scotland, or 0800 0246 991 in Northern Ireland. In the US, Rainn offers support on 800-656-4673. In Australia, support is available at 1800Respect (1800 737 732). Other international helplines can be found at ibiblio.org/rcip/internl.html

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