Fears for a clown
Daily Express | May 6, 2000
FILM: He's a great comedian, but Eddie Izzard's latest foray into the movies, in Circus, doesn't do him justice, says Edward Docx
Eddie Izzard grew up in Eastbourne and is, as he says, "quite at home with the shabby Edwardian splendour of the south coast." He does not, however, seem quite so at ease playing Tony Cabrara, the gangster in the new Brit-Grit movie, Circus, set in Brighton and released this week.
"Actually I wanted the lead part," Izzard says, referring to the character of Leo Garfield (played by John Hannah). "I saw the script and loved it. But then I was offered the role of this hoodlum and I thought - OK, I can do this."
Thus far the critics have all slated the film. And, undeniably, Circus as a whole is somehow considerably weaker than the sum of its many well-intentioned parts. In particular (it has to be said), Izzard himself is far from convincing: his portrayal of "a real professional who would buy you a friendly drink in the evening and then call at your house in the middle of the night and cut your ear off because you owed him money and tell you that he was sorry but that business is business" is neither sufficiently comic nor sufficiently menacing but falls instead between two stools.
When I speak to Eddie Izzard he is in Melbourne, Australia, a couple of shows into the Antipodean leg of his stand-up tour. As he is (in my view) by far the best comic of his generation, I ask him why he is continually distracting himself with trying to be an actor.
"As soon as I had finished playing Lenny Bruce," he says, referring to his recent and successful West End portrayal of the great American stand-up genius, "the Circus script came up which was, I thought, very fortuitous. I saw Lenny as a cross-over role - a chance to do something on the stage which was appropriate but serious and demanding but which would also help people begin to think about me in a new light. Then there was this gangster character and, you know, it was different..." Essentially, Izzard has always wanted to be an actor. Indeed, it is rumoured that one of the reasons why he so studiously shunned television for so long was that he was worried that his small screen appearances would prevent him being taken seriously by the big screen casting chiefs.
Meanwhile, the Australian shows have been going well, although I cannot help but wonder how his very English and idiosyncratic sense of humour goes down in the land of Crocodile Dundee. "There's really not all that much difference between audiences because my material is deliberately nonspecific. I'm not going to introduce a load of wallaby and kangaroo gags just because I'm in Australia.
It doesn't work like that. It's a series of monologues and sketches which are as near as they can be to universal. In any case, my audience tend to be - broadly speaking - an 'alternative' crowd who know a little of what I do, if only by word of mouth, so they don't come in expecting it to be a series of topical one-liners." Fair enough. But how much of his material is occasioned by where he is?
How much is changed on the night, ad-libbed?
"Still only about 10 to 15 per cent," he says, "depending on how I am feeling. But really it is more likely to be stuff about elephant ski-schools than satirical exegesis on the Commonwealth. The same in the States. Which is not to say that the show isn't always evolving. You get new ideas in each place and the audience doesn't always react in the same way. " It's very hard to characterise Izzard's humour. He doesn't accept any of the labels that I try - scatological, absurdist, subversive, satirical - although it is all of these. Instead he likens himself to "a non-stop human search-engine surfing all available channels all the time." And his modesty isn't all false. "I explore as many disparate ideas as I can," he says, "from the human condition to complete c**p and all the way back again. It's just me really. Me and what comes into my head."
The principal pillars of his public persona are all still in place. First of all, he still likes to cross dress - "I am a male lesbian". Second, he remains fervently pro-Blair, pro-European: "National characteristics are really not as strong as people think. As a comic, going round the world, you find people laughing at the same things wherever you are." (Izzard, famously, gloriously, got away with doing his show in French in Paris and to widespread acclaim.) And third, he is still very private about his private life: "Yes I am still with my girlfriend, thank you."
Probably his greatest concern (at 38) is to take enough time out to develop a whole new show that is significantly different to the ones that have gone before. "There is a Woody Allen trap which you have to beware of," he says. "It's all very good but really you wonder, have we been here before?" Hopefully, as far as Brit-Grit movies go, he will never go there again.
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