Sunday Times, 05 June 2016
Eddie Izzard and I are stuck in a traffic jam in Bristol. “If,” he says, “Napoleon had met Wellington before the Battle of Waterloo and said, ‘Wellington, in 200 years there’s going to be a French kid doing stuff in English and an English kid doing stuff in French, that’ll be cool’… ‘It will take 200 years, though,’ says Wellington. ‘Yeah, maybe, but that’s the speed of the world, man.’”
Izzard is revelling in the fact that he is a British comedian who is mending European history. He does multilingual gigs around Europe, and tonight, in Bristol, he will be doing a three-part show in German, French and English. He’s planning to add Russian and Arabic to his repertoire. “Me performing in different languages is beautiful, utterly, utterly beautiful. The French are now performing in English, the Germans are performing in English, the Russians are performing in English — never before in the history of the world has that happened.”
Meanwhile, he might have a baby, or not. (It’s a plan, he says, but he’s not actively planning it; also, it might be adopted, depending on his relationship status.) He’ll definitely become a Labour parliamentary candidate in 2020, and may, if elected, become a member of the party’s National Executive Committee in July. “Anti-Corbyn candidate?” I ask, all faux innocence.
“I’ve chatted with Jeremy. He’s voting in, I’m voting in. We’ve got to be a broad church…”
I don’t know if he gets this, but broad church in the present climate translates as at least a bit anti-Corbyn. Though he doesn’t have a constituency yet, and must go through the selection process, he seems confident he will be an MP. He says his comedy career will “hibernate’ while he is in the job, but he’s confident it will be resuscitated.
“When I started stand-up, I worked out I could go on for ever. I heard that Groucho Marx did Carnegie Hall when he was 82. I’m practical and realistic.”
This is all on the assumption that he won’t have total organ failure while running another marathon of marathons (he came close once), or, indeed, while lecturing at 31 universities — and doing a number of comedy gigs — in 31 days on the necessity of voting Remain in the referendum. Oh, and he thinks he’s cracked the acting thing. He’s evidently pleased with his performance as Captain Wagget in a new film version of Whisky Galore, due out later this year. He’s got to keep going because, in Napoleon’s words: “It’s the speed of the world, man.”
And on Wednesday, he will receive the South Bank Sky Arts award for Outstanding Achievement in the Arts, the first comedian to be so honoured. That means, I say, comedy is now officially an art. “I would agree, and I think that’s beautiful. The alternative comedians helped that forward. The Goons started it — I think Spike Milligan started turning it into an art form — and the Pythons took it further. You’ve got to put content in, as well as the silliness.”
He is, in fact, shyly pleased at the idea that he can call himself an artist. As we part company at his hotel, he turns back to look at me and says: “So I’m an artist now.” There’s also the slight oddity of getting what sounds like a retrospective award when he is only 54 and, total organ failures notwith-standing, in youthful condition. He does something called HIT — high-intensity training — which lasts only 20 minutes, but is evidently effective. He is, in his own terms, just getting going. “I think life begins at 50, and if the Queen is 90, that means we’re all going to live to 100. And I’ve got stuff to do now. I’ve got into the position where the train is on the track and I can start to do some work.
“I’d like to get up and make a speech [when he gets the award], and say, well, it’s great…” He tails off. “I’m actually running too fast in my head. It’s nice of them to give it to me. I think I’ve done some interesting things…”
A crucial way into Izzard’s art is those tailing-off sentences. They appear repeatedly in his act and his conversation and, ultimately, they refer back to one cataclysmic event: the death of his mother when he was six. He doesn’t quite put it like that.
“I do know I’m doing it, and I’ve been trying to stop it. I think it comes from my teenage years, when I was trying to get attention at home. I would try to do comic stories and I wasn’t able to grab anybody’s attention, so I’d just drift off…
“Comedically, you can just go into witterings. If I have a good mike, you can hear the witterings going off into the distance.”
He says he was crying continuously between the ages of six and 11. This may not have been just about his mother. Since he was four, he seems to have known that he was drawn to women’s clothes, and that may have made him more awkward. Or the trans thing and the loss of his mother are related. Who knows? He insists it’s genetic, but we know enough now to understand that almost nothing is that clear cut.
At 11, he switched off the tears and shut down his feelings until he was 19. These were the years when he was trying and failing to get attention, and his sentences tailed off. Then he saw a cat run over by a car. He picked up the cat and found himself wondering why he felt nothing. “I knew I liked animals, why did I not give a damn?” He turned his feelings back on, seemingly by an act of will — “I forced myself to feel something” — and they’ve been flowing fast and free ever since.
The artistic point of those sentences is their openness. He seems to drift off into his own imagination, leaving the audience either wondering where he’s gone or making up their own endings. It’s the opposite of traditional comedy, where the punchline provides closure. He is giving the audience permission to use their imaginations. “That’s the key word!” he cries. “Permission!”
And, of course, he gives himself permission to wander off script, which is why he talks of his “molten material”. “Like the Lord’s Prayer, where people say it and don’t think about what they are saying because they’ve said it so often. The words are set in concrete, there’s no life in it, the concrete locks it in. I want to keep the concrete molten.” That is a definition of stand-up comedy at its best — an art in which no two performances are quite the same. I tell him Mark Rylance says something similar about theatre, and he just about resists the urge to bask.
Izzard is no basker when flattered — he is far too sweet-natured. He can, however, be quite censorious. He is in “girl mode” today, wearing moderately high heels, black leggings, a Remain T-shirt, a black jacket, heavy make-up and a hot pink beret with two badges, one the Union flag, the other the EU flag.
My first comment about this rig goes down well. “Two badges — that’s like Montgomery’s beret.” He reaches out to shake my hand. “You’re the first! You’re the first person to get it was Montgomery!” My second comment — not so much. I ask him if he’ll go into the House of Commons dressed like that.
“Dressed like that! What, you mean wearing clothes? What did you just say there? Girl mode, yeah, but women go in girl mode. Is that wrong? Is that wrong for them? Have they got to be in boy mode? I pick up on that because I am just expressing my genetics. I’ve been honest about it for 31 years, I’m allowed to wear all kinds of clothes. Women are allowed to wear clothes that are considered men’s clothes. Women can wear whatever they want, and so can men.”
There are clear trigger points for Censorious Eddie. Any suggestion of a distinctive national identity is one. I make the obvious observation that the comic tradition that made him is very English and goes back to the Victorian whimsy of Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll. He agrees with the latter — Alice Through the Looking Glass was his first and favourite book. But he denies that any of this is especially English, and reels off the way the Pythons weren’t entirely English either. He wants to believe that all such divisions of identity will gradually dissolve.
“Look at the German comedian Henning Wehn. Germans are supposed to have no sense of humour. It doesn’t have to be national and…” He gets a bit weird here: “Why not talk about spoons, or say the walls here are weird or the wheels are great here, look at that painting. It doesn’t have to be national.”
He does, however, allow Britain the credit for the modern stand-up wave. “We have the biggest comedy circuit in the world, 60 to 80 clubs! What Hamburg was for the Beatles, London was for me and my contemporaries. We did so many gigs, we just went round and round and became battle-hardened ninjas of comedy.”
This is evidently where the comedy segues into the politics, and the combination of the two turns Izzard into this hyperenergetic guy who wants to improve the world in any way he can — by almost marathoning himself to death for charity, or by exhausting himself to get the young registered and voting for remaining in the EU. He is, he says, “a determined bastard”.
I see his talk at the University of the West of England. It offers few laughs, but a lot of inspiring calls to arms. Sorry, he’d hate that — votes. The audience is drowning in the sincerity of the man, and not one question comes from even a mild Brexiteer. Afterwards, the line for selfies is long, and he talks to every one of them. He is loved.
Talking about this to him, I call him one of the “nice” comedians, Bill Bailey being another. This also turns out to be a bit of a trigger.
“I wouldn’t use that word — I’d say we’re not on the attack side. I say ‘Hitler was a murdering f***head’ in three languages. I don’t think those words are nice.”
Okay, “sweet” is a better word, and the one many apply to him. And yes, of course, he’s an artist, a very good one. How he’ll survive as a politician, I can’t imagine. His politics remind me of that great Jack Nicholson line in Mars Attacks! — “Why can’t we all just get along?” The Martians kill him.
After we part at the hotel, he zooms off to get something to eat from Sainsbury’s to fortify himself for the night’s shows. Through a window, I see him returning with a big orange bag. He’s still in full girl mode, and a man in the street stares at him in disbelief, bordering on disgust. He looks, to me, terribly vulnerable.
Never mind, if those Martian bastards in Westminster try to kill Eddie, our most treasurable asset, we’ve all got his back. Right? Right.