Eddie Izzard interview: Stripped and revealed, 2009
17th November 2009
As his Stripped tour continues, comedian Eddie Izzard discusses running marathons and siding with Gordon Brown. First published in the Daily Telegraph, 17 Nov 2009.
There’s an awful moment in a swanky hotel lounge in Amsterdam when it suddenly looks as if Eddie Izzard is about to suffer a nasty case of concussion – and it is, indirectly, my fault.
I’ve been firing questions at him – demanding to know the gruelling details of his recent epic run around the UK, asking for clarifications about his Labour-supporting politics, probing his childhood, inspecting his stand-up comedy career – when – ouch! – as he leads us off in the direction of another lounge to continue the conversation, he walks straight into an internal glass-door, smashing his head.
That sounds dumb of him but it’s a glass-door so sleek and shiny and five-star that it just looks like air. So there we all are: shell-shocked hotel-staff, one of Britain’s best-loved comedians clutching his head and me, feeling somehow guilty as hell. But then Izzard straightens up, grimaces, and, mustering his best sang-froid, says in that calling-card posh drawl of his: ‘It’s OK. I’m fine. You really should think about putting a sign on that door.’ It’s as if he has decided to kill the pain through a superhuman act of will.
The incident is emblematic of Izzard’s whole mind-over-matter shebang at the moment. Are men of 47 supposed to embark on a 1,100-mile marathon involving 43 runs in 51 days with hardly any training? Surely not. Few would have bet on a fairytale outcome for his charity fund-raiser but he made it, without ever being stretchered away in humiliation.
The lunatic ambition of that escapade is of a piece with his live comedy, which not only darts off in all kinds of daring surrealistic directions but is currentlyendeavouring to give us a whistle-stop, Wikipedia-inspired tour of the Earth’s entire history.Izzard deliberately uses universal rather than local references in his act, a big-tent policy designed to maximise potential audiences.
The aim of the Amsterdam dates – a stop-off for his latest vehicle, Stripped – has been to give Dutch audiences a taste of arena-sized stand-up for the first time, and embolden Eddie to ‘crack’ the European market. This coming decade, he won’t just settle for Paris, which he has wooed in the past: he wants Berlin, Helsinki and Moscow too. He’ll try and learn the languages, if he can, he tells me, not just trot out his English material, as he has done in Holland. It’s harder to do stand-up than master a new tongue, he reckons.
To ask him about his cartilage-crunching marathon-run – and how on earth he thought he could succeed – is the same as inquiring why he approaches comedy with a ‘could do bigger’ philosophy. He had no contingency plan for an injury sustained on the road, he reveals. Giving up simply wasn’t an option. ‘And that’s the way I work. I need to impress myself. I set things up so I can’t back out of them. If I had got injured, I would still have got myself round it somehow. What you do is burn your bridges backwards and then the path of least resistance is forward!’ He grins.
Though at times it was agony, the run appears to have left him on an almighty high. He does half-marathons before breakfast, here in Amsterdam, without even thinking about it. Maybe one day he’ll just run from venue to venue, country to country, like an Olympic torch-bearer. In the meantime there’s the Eddie-mobile, a customised coach that puts one in mind of an election campaign battle-bus. Behind-the-scenes he has an entourage of 45 people. Seven lorries transport the deluxe set and technical necessaries for his £2m show. And all this for a comedian who hasn’t built up his audience using the conventional broadcast channels. Izzard is the TV comedian you won’t see performing comedy on the small-screen.
At one point, after the gig, which was duly met with a standing ovation, Izzard thumbs through his iPhone to show me the latest Tweets of his million-strong army of Twitter followers. I half-jokingly suggest that he wants to become the first world-comedian. He runs with the suggestion in all seriousness: ‘I want to be a world-comedian? That’s it, absolutely!’ A child-like eagerness, never far from his stage-act, seizes him. Whatever the Rolling Stones or U2 can do, he wants to do too. Think big. Play hard.
‘Why not? I was an ambitious kid. It’s in all the school reports, “He really does seem to be a determined little child’’. That’s my way. I’ve always felt we have a post-empire view of ambition which is that we tried it but it meant we stole other people’s countries – as if there’s no other form of ambition. I really hate that.’ He likes to call himself ‘an action-transvestite’, although on this tour he’s not doing falsies and skirts, just a playful range of bloke clothing.
It would be easy to characterise Izzard as having evolved from a cuddly eccentric into a ruthlessly steely showman as time has worn on. When he dolls-up in drag – a proclivity part-attributable to his mother’s death when he was just six – he can look, well, slightly scary. Yet such a view rewrites the history of his success because being scatty and unfocused in the 80s, when he tried street-acts and the Edinburgh fringe, got him nowhere fast. ‘I found it helped me to have a game-plan,’ he says, affable and open about it. ‘Some people have this “everything just comes to me’’ attitude. That’s fine but I’ve noticed that with me, it doesn’t. So it’s better to have this endless grind.’
It’s not all about ‘me, me, me’ – even if it might seem that way. Izzard’s line is that he’s just showing us what we’re capable of achieving. ‘We can do way more than we think we can,’ he enthuses, ‘perhaps five times more’ . His big thing at the moment is getting people excited about the Olympics: ‘I want to encourage the entire country to go out and do something they used to enjoy doing as kids, whether it’s cycling or running or rowing – whatever the hell it is. It’s under a thousand days away. We should grab the opportunity – and go for it!’
In the meantime, he may be undertaking his most foolhardy mission yet: coming out fighting in support of Gordon Brown. He rallied round the Labour candidate Willie Bain ahead of last week’s Glasgow North East by-election, and is delighted by the ensuing victory. And he’s prepared to side with the deeply unpopular PM. ‘When the times get tough, you stand up to be counted,’ he says. ‘I still believe the Labour party cares about the many rather than the few. Have they made mistakes? Yes. Gordon Brown may not be the most relaxed person but he has strengths as well as weakness. If you get outside Westminster, you realise, as we’ve just seen in Glasgow, that not everyone wants the Tories back in. After 12 years in power, it’s right that there should be a fight but we will see what happens at the election.’ Given Brown’s hazardous position in the polls, it’s possible that Izzard – who describes himself as ‘a radical moderate’ – will wind up alienating his fans, but if it all backfires horribly that may only hasten his own entry into politics, a career-move he has been contemplating for a while. He could still return to stand-up at a later date, he reasons.
Needless to say, he has got it all mapped out. ‘When does your political career end? Say about 75? Well, we can live to 100 these days, so I could go back into comedy later. Groucho Marx played Carnegie Hall aged 82. I see that and think – that’s it! That’s the way to do it!’