Eddie Izzard: Everyone’s cup of tea

Eddie Izzard has mastered sketches about talking dogs, run multiple marathons and condensed a Dickens novel. But his next career move might be his most surreal yet – a move into politics

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When considering which contemporary British comedian might take the serious leap into a political career, Eddie Izzard would be unlikely to make it onto many people’s shortlist. Successful stand-ups who have been overtly political in their work, such as the two Marks (Thomas and Steel), Nish Kumar, Bridget Christie or the working-class Tory Geoff Norcott, could be envisaged knocking on your door hoping to rely on your vote, but Izzard has been resolutely non-political with his material.

“The simplistic politicians are trying to take us back to the 30s but humanity cannot work if we try that.”

But here he is, announcing that he’s about to put the brakes on a comedy career that has served him (and adoring audiences worldwide) very well since he was catapulted into the public consciousness in the early 1990s. Were that era’s claim for comedy as the new rock ’n’ roll to be accurate, then Newman and Baddiel were a roller-skating Lennon and McCartney, Rik Mayall had the spirit of Keith Moon coursing through him, and Bill Hicks quite simply wanted to be Jimi Hendrix. Izzard, then, was most likely stand-up’s Frank Zappa.

Endlessly inventive, wildly surreal and technically gifted, his playful shows such as Sexie, Force Majeure and Dress To Kill discussed everything from history to hymns and dogs to Daleks, but if you wanted to hear about the poll tax or poverty, Izzard was never your man. Yet offstage, he was lending support to the Labour Party, while his failed attempts in early 2018 to be elected onto the party’s ruling body haven’t blunted his ambitions to serve.

“Most people say that they’re not going into politics because it’s so harsh,” he says. “It’ll either be as an MP or as Mayor of London. Sadiq is going to go for a second term, I’m sure, but all I want is people from our team doing well, so good luck to him.”

You can probably guess the people who are decidedly not on his team. The world calls them “populist”, but he has other descriptions. “The simplistic politicians are trying to take us back to the 1930s, but humanity cannot work if we try that. They all have a minority vote so by definition that makes them the ‘unpopulists’. Actually, the ‘simplistics’ is better because they just hate a group of people or want to build a wall or leave Europe. I’m going to fight all that.”

Izzard has long identified himself as British and European (he campaigned in Edinburgh ahead of the referendum vote in 2014 urging Scots to stay within the Union, and in 2016 voted Remain), while his itinerant upbringing no doubt had a strong influence on his internationalist thinking. Born in Yemen in 1962, his family moved to Northern Ireland soon after and had relocated to Sussex just before the Troubles kicked off.

It’s quite possibly another reason why he has been so open to other languages. He has learnt French, German and Spanish to the point where he can perform in them in front of native speakers. “I’m going to do Arabic and Russian next. No language is inherently funny – it’s just the delivery. All swearwords in each language are bonkers, though, but I love them all. Nelson Mandela said that if you talk to a person in your language you talk to their mind; if you talk to them in their language, you talk to their heart. That’s a nice thought.”

It’s a stormy night in Edinburgh when me meet. Thunder and lightning have cut off some power supplies within Charlotte Square Gardens, the historic annual setting for the Edinburgh International Book Festival, and staff are yelling at festival-goers who have walked into areas that have become dangerously slippery shortly after the clouds dramatically opened. Izzard, though, is a paragon of calm. Dressed smartly in boots, skirt, top and suit jacket (all black), he scoffs at those “populists” like Trump who deny climate change, just as another thundercrack breaks the quiet.

We are here ostensibly to discuss Wunderbar, his possibly final stand-up tour. He’s playing a handful of work-in-progress shows in front of sold-out crowds in the Gilded Balloon’s biggest space, but he’s also in town working on another project that is dear to his heart. In 1962, Izzard was born on 7 February, a date he shares with two other comedy legends: his fellow surrealist Emo Philips and the social observer Chris Rock. But even more pertinently Izzard was born exactly 150 years after Charles Dickens. “I learned that because it’s very easy now to check out who else is born on your day. And it’s always a weird mix like a plumber, a rocket scientist and a banjo player.”

Izzard has long been a fan of Dickens’ work, and in 2018 recorded an audiobook of Great Expectations, which ran to a total of 20 hours and 18 minutes. Never one to shirk a challenge, the comedian has been working hard (with the aid of his older brother Mark, a linguist) on getting the novel down to around 75 minutes for a one-man stage performance in which he plays all the roles. As part of his Edinburgh Fringe appearances in August, he performed this work-in-progress show at the Assembly Rooms on George Street, the venue where Dickens last read his work out loud in Edinburgh in 1869 (yep, that’s right, 150 years ago to the month).

“It’s not everyone’s cup of tea,” admits Izzard. “Apart from the final section, I’m reading from the book, which is a bit Jackanory. Mark has abridged it, which was a tricky old beast, and we’ve cut about 90 per cent of it out. I’ve just co-written my first script, Six Minutes To Midnight, and that gave me a good sense about what scenes will work in something: ‘that one is useless, cut that, trim that, keep that, there’s nice wording there’. My brother translates all my shows into French, German and Spanish so he’s got all those skills already and he just dived in and said ‘here it is’. He’s done a really good job. Inevitably, you have to lose some characters, but it’s all fine as long as you keep the sense and tone of it, the wit and certain phrases.”

Time may be running out between the ultimate end of his Wunderbar tour and fully pursuing those political ambitions (in Wunderbar, he looks at his imaginary watch to remind himself that the next general election will happen in ‘oh, seven minutes’) but he’s determined to make something of Great Expectations.

“Long term, the plan is to have it on its feet on the West End and Broadway. Simon Callow and Patrick Stewart have done A Christmas Carol as solo shows, and I thought I’ll do this like that. You could do it with screens and noises and sound effects and props, but I’d like it just to be the way Dickens did it.”

Few have performed stand-up as long and successfully as Izzard. Once described by John Cleese as the “lost Python”, he has gone down his own surrealist path while managing to attract a huge mainstream following. When I go to see Wunderbar, it’s the opening date of five shows at a packed King’s Theatre in Glasgow. During the interval, a woman in the seat in front texts an acquaintance that “it’s not amazing”, yet the standing ovation that greets Izzard at the end suggests this view is in the minority.

Despite his upcoming shift in career, the direct political content of Wunderbar is minimal (“politics in comedy dates so quickly”). Brexit is mentioned twice. Trump gets namechecked three times. There are vast swathes of sections devoted to a classic Izzard trope: animals acting and talking like humans. Still, his encore is clearly a clarion call for the views of the unpopulists and simplistics to be rejected for a fairer politics and a kinder world, as he extols the virtues of caring for each of the planet’s 7.5 billion people. Soon, he will get the chance to practice what he’s been preaching on tour, but for now he’s as busy as ever.

He has run marathons for charity (43 in 52 days in 2009), made the often creaky move from comedian to actor with ease, learned all these foreign languages (despite being dyslexic), been politically active and maintained his spot in the higher echelons of the stand-up game. Seems unlikely, but does he ever find himself feeling a bit bored?

“It does look like I’m doing all these challenges all the time, but in fact I’m just trying to do five things. When you’re a kid or a teenager you often have five things on the boil and I just decided that I would play all those cards. There’s drama, politics, running, the transgender thing and comedy. I’d like to fly a plane but I’m scared of flying. I was last bored back at school, when time takes so long, whereas now it’s running like a train.”

Eddie Izzard’s tour includes: City Hall, Sheffield, 27 Oct; Liverpool Empire, 7 Nov; O2 Apollo, Manchester, 8-10 Nov (eddieizzard.com) 

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