Nasty? Me?

Well, yes, says Eddie Izzard, but only in a delicious sort of way. Nigel Farndale talks to the stand-up comedian about his new film, his new 'world-ish' tour and his old trousers

TRANSPARENT and inflatable, Eddie Izzard's sofa is not so much a piece of household furniture as a plaything in a crêche . It's a bouncy sofa. A comedy sofa. One that makes rubbery squeaking noises whenever you move. I've been invited to sit on it by the enigmatic blonde who answered the door, explained that "Eddie is running late" and then left.

As I'm waiting, I try to work out a technique for rising from the sofa with dignity. There isn't one - you're either pitched violently towards the floor or wobbled sideways - so I move to the inflatable armchair opposite. It envelopes me. And with arms forced up and forward, looking like a no-necked sleepwalker, I take in the interior with eye movements only. The walls are painted silver. The phone is in the shape of a pair of red Mae West lips. There is a guitar, a packet of Rizla papers, and a curtain of colourful beads on strings hanging from the doorway through to the kitchen. All pretty much as you'd expect, really.

Inky afternoon rain is sluicing down in Soho and Eddie Izzard, the 35-year-old comedian who looks 25 and acts 15, emerges from it bedraggled and drenched. He has a few days' stubble on his face but no make up. His normally tousled and fluffy Meg Ryan haircut is lying flat and lank against his scalp, roots defiantly exposed. While I'm still struggling to rise, he slips off his leather trenchcoat, gives it a shake and lopes across the room to proffer a hand in greeting.

You have to be careful how you press flesh with Izzard. He hates - no, hates is too strong a word for this amiable fellow - he isn't particularly fond of those crusher handshakes, the ones you're never expecting and that etiquette dictates you're not allowed to react to. Izzard thinks that the world's hand-crushers should be taught a lesson - whenever you encounter one, you should either scream or collapse silently to the floor, getting a friend to point out to the horrified crusher that you suffer from "hand-squeezy death".

Apparently satisfied that my shake is equidistant between firm and limp, Izzard flops on the sofa, dangles his black high-heeled boots over the end and talks about what the LA Times has described as the "deliciously nasty" performance he gives as the Russian diplomat Vladimir in a new film of Joseph Conrad's novel The Secret Agent. He was able to pull this off, he says, because there is a direct correlation between comic actors and deliciously nasty baddies: "Look at Woody Harrelson, who went from playing the dumbo barman in Cheers to a psychotic villain in Natural Born Killers. It's to do with the way audiences are affected by extremes of personality." That said, he adds, he also wanted to try serious screen acting because if you make it too big in comedy you get stuck, and audiences who want their hit of laughter are reluctant to accept you in anything else.

Too big? Short of having his own television show - the repeated offers for which he always rejects for fear of becoming packaged, over-exposed and formulaic - it's hard to imagine how Izzard could get any bigger as a comedian in this country. He's the only stand-up who can comfortably sell-out a West End theatre for a ten-week run. And to the devoted fans who follow him around the country on tour, he is more like a cult leader than an entertainer. The two videos of his stage shows - which, cannily, he has made a fortune from by producing himself - sold in their hundreds of thousands, and have become ritual late-night viewing for those passing around the post-pub spliff. Glorious, the video of his new tour, is bound to do the same. The man is so confident about his popularity, he can even afford to turn down a cameo role in the much-hyped Spice Girls movie (they had to make do with Elton John). And when Tony Blair threw a party at Number 10 this summer for his coolest, grooviest supporters, Izzard, the heppest pussy-cat with the shiniest PVC trousers of them all, was there. And to prove it, the next day, the Telegraph ran a picture of him arriving. The deliriously terse caption under it read, Transvestite: Izzard. And, human nature being what it is, one can only assume that this haiku-like summary of a complicated life will appear on his gravestone as well.

That there is more to Izzard than his transvesticism - and his gift for reducing his clucking audiences to jelly - is the point he's trying to make by taking on more serious roles (having already played three on stage, Edward II among them). Then again, even as he tells you this, you can't help but smile. "Yeah. Well," he says, languorously contorting his vowels, "I can do both comedy and serious. I've got spare energy. It's some sort of 'I'll show you' thing. Not wanting to be pigeonholed. Because then you become a pigeon. And even pigeons don't want to be all put in the same hole. They want to be, er, um..." He pursues this feathery theme for perhaps 20 seconds, grinds to one of his familiar "mumble, rumble, scrumble" halts and then grins impishly.

"Hey!" he blurts, as if just struck by an Archimedean revelation. "Don't you think these sofas are great? You can just sort of slide off them." He just sort of slides off the sofa, springs back up on his stacked heels, sits and just sort of slides off it again.

Watching this performance - the uninhibited, hyperactive child at play - reassures you that, for all his aspirations as a serious actor, Izzard means it when he says he will never be able to give up live comedy. Apart from anything else, he clearly derives far too much pleasure from making himself laugh. And, for us as well as him, the real appeal of his surreal observational comedy lies not in the subtlety and sophistication of his allusions but in its exuberant, sniggering puerility; his cheerful cartoon land of talking animals and pre-teenage innocence; his ability to talk to the child in us all when he says that, for instance, people who consume too much calcium should tell their doctors they feel "all cheesey-bony".

But what might otherwise be just endearingly childish flights of fancy are rendered irresistible by Izzard's appearance: with his footballer's legs, sturdy body and square head he looks like a giant toddler, or a seven-year-old who has been experimenting with steroids. As it happens, the comedian remembers his wild, seven-year-old self vividly. "He was a very bad loser," Izzard says with a thoughtful scratch of his stubbly chin. "Always throwing tantrums. Tennis rackets through windows. Ridiculously competitive. But my dad was a live-and-let-live kind of guy and I suppose eventually I got on board with that."

Izzard was brought up in Bexhill-on-Sea which, he admits, doesn't sound all that exotic but - as he was born in the Yemen, is descended from Huguenots in the French Pyrenees, has one grandfather who was a shepherd, another who was a bus driver, and a German grandmother - he sort of feels that exotic has been taken care of. His father aspired to a "middle-class sort of thing" and became an accountant with British Petroleum, sending Eddie and his brother to a minor provincial boarding school where pupils were taught to vote Tory. Although his father gave him "space to take risks", he also impressed upon his son the motto "be happy, but preferably as an accountant". The young Izzard flew various flags of convenience, such as Civil Engineering and Accountancy but, eventually, after dropping out of a degree in Maths and Financial Accounting at Sheffield University, he came clean with his father and spent the second half of the Eighties as a street performer in London and Edinburgh.

Upon reflection, the comedian sees his father's reluctance to put pressure on him to get a proper job as having a lot to do with the bond the two struck when Eddie's mother, a nurse, died of cancer. He was six and he says he cried continually until he was 11, and after that he never really cried again. The fact that he was sent off to boarding school may well have had something to do with it.

"The only way to survive being a boarder is to get rid of your emotions, basically," he says with a shrug. "The whole atmosphere is geared towards convincing you you have to be a captain of industry. That you have to run things. They don't say, 'You've all got to go away and become transvestites.' They wouldn't even say the word. People never say the word. They would say instead, 'He's one of those.'"

Remembering the legend Transvestite: Izzard, I have been trying to avoid the subject. But it's not just because it pigeonholes him, it's because, well, it feels like we've just heard a little too much from Eddie Izzard over the years on his right to express himself through his clothing. That Izzard feels the need to bring it up himself, though - and in such an abrupt and clumsy way - seems to point to some lack of resolution in his own feelings towards being "one of those". And judging by the way he equates his being a transvestite - rather than his being a comedian - with other people's sense of themselves as lawyers, doctors or teachers, his urge to cross-dress seems to have become the skeleton on which he has fleshed out his whole sense of self-identity.

Although he may describe himself as being two lesbians

trapped - but cohabiting happily - in a man's body, Izzard actually takes his heterosexual brand of tranvestitism very seriously. At one point there was rumour of a steady girlfriend, Vanessa Jones, the beautiful daughter of the Bishop of Sodor and Man, but at the moment Izzard says, "I'm kinda loose. Which is fun. At some point I'll settle down, but not tonight."

He wears lipstick and skirts, he says, because it makes him feel comfortable. "I don't choose to look this way. It's a built-in thing that tells me to head down this direction." And he isn't particulary fond of the expression "women's clothes" because, he says, they are his clothes. He has bought them, not borrowed them.

Even when he talks about being "TV" - his preferred expression - as part of his stand-up routine, he does so only to make a serious underlying point. The "dick-head men" on the building sites who shout out "bloke in a dress!" when they see him coming, and continue shouting it as he walks past, should, he believes, show more respect for other people's inclinations. They should, as his father taught him, live and let live. Does it follow, then, that Izzard should also show some tolerance for those people, even the dick-head men, who simply find it odd that a bloke should want to wear a dress?

"Oh yeah," he says, with a slurring, public-school delivery.

"I totally understand it. Perhaps they feel threatened by it. Perhaps they are suppressing a desire to do the same. But I think basically there are those people who hate themselves and those who feel good about themselves. If you feel good about yourself, you have to take the risk of giving out positive energy in the hope that people who hate themselves will give something positive back. I wanted to like myself. I didn't want to be a coward. I wanted to be able to walk down the street as a TV and, if I got beaten up, I wanted to be able to stay on my feet and afterwards take them to court. I wanted to be the person who wasn't scared."

Earlier this year, Izzard did get into a fight, in Cambridge. And he did stand his ground and, for the first time since he was 12, he did exchange blows. Afterwards he went to court and the man who fought him was fined 370. Like many people who have taken strength from facing their fears, though, Izzard seems to have become addicted to the scary challenges he sets himself. Almost masochistically, he defies his fear of drying up on stage by improvising much of his material (when I ask him how much, he gives me the sort of look you would give a village idiot and says, "Er, exactly 72 per cent").

But he takes his therapy further, to a point well beyond the realms of safe and healthy eccentricity. He does gigs in Reykjavik just to see if his sense of humour can cross cultural barriers. He is a passionate ro-European who speaks French and German (and Latin) but not fluently. That doesn't stop him testing his courage, though, by doing his Paris gigs in French. And, though he can fill London theatres almost indefinitely, he likes to do gigs in Bexhill-on-Sea, scene of his most humiliating and painful adolescent moment, because, he says, it helps him put a large ghost in pink lipstick to rest.

When he was 15, he got caught stealing make-up from the Bexhill-on-Sea branch of Boots. Thinking he might get asked awkward questions if he bought some lipstick, he hid it under a loaf of brown sliced bread instead and walked out. That way, he says, no one would know - apart from the police and the judiciary system. He was let off with a warning from the chief constable which, in his fevered imagination, became: "That eye-shadow is never going to work with that lipstick. You want more russet colours. That's light blue, that is. A death colour for an eye shadow. No one could get away with wearing that..."

That Izzard keeps stressing the "whatever else I might be, a coward I am not" point is telling. It's a very manly aspiration. And he reinforces it constantly by slipping into the high-testosterone language of the rugged, outdoor type. He will tell you, for instance, that he was a fanatical footballer at school: "You know. First 11. Right half. Played 13. Won one. Lost one. My main thing was football. And make-up." Then, talking over his shoulder a few minutes later as he makes some fresh coffee, it's: "I wanted to be in the Army, you know. I really did. The only reason I was put off is that they always eat potatoes. Remember those films? 'Stephens! You're on potato duty! Peel those potatoes!' But I love the climbing trees and jumping over rocks side of soldiering. Invading countries and the shooting people dead stuff I sort of skip over."

He pauses for a second to emit a thoughtful, sighing "Yeah" sound and then he's off again, telling you about his time in the Scouts, and giving vent to a deliriously juvenile stream of consciousness. "We had this Scout master who was sort of an incredibly energetic organised and listy type person, and he drove around in a MG and sort of came from Mars really. Or Kenya. We were 11 guinea-pig kids to him and we did everything. Going down waterfalls, and lead mines and potholes. Outward boundy-type things. Loved that. Want to get back into all that."

In fits and starts, Izzard chatters away on these masculine topics for a good 20 minutes. He does so charmingly, amusingly and largely unprompted, unspooling anecdotes in the same free-form style that he adopts on stage. He is dyslexic, which may account in part for his babblingly rhythmic speech patterns: padding out hesitations with "dum-di-dums" or "bingy-bongy, dingly-danglys" when he can't find the right phrase. Then again, it could be that, with all that febrile energy and those highly charged hormones, he is simply too impatient to wait until the right word comes along.

He doesn't agree, though, that he possesses any unconscious urge to prove that he has all the normal manly aspirations. "Do I find I need to mention them? Well, not really. Because it's not very hip to say you wanted to be in the Army." It is a refreshingly unpretentious answer to a pretentious question and it reminds you that Izzard's comic persona does not hide - as those of Tony Hancock, John Cleese and Stephen Fry did and do - an introspective, self-punishing and melancholic alter ego.

But that's not to say Izzard cannot relate to the comedic tradition of looking to childhood for certain blame associations. He talks, for instance, of the links between his craving for an audience's approval and his mother's death. "There really are," he says. "It's the strongest thing. I love that rush of endorphin off the audience. It's an affection fix, which I analyse back to my mother dying. A lot of people think the TV thing is linked to that, too. But it's not. I knew I was TV before she died. I haven't really sorted out my feelings toward my mother, though. Never had therapy. There's still emotion there."

What his transvestitism did give him, of course, was a ready explanation - an excuse - for the times when he felt unpopular. And he took this safety mechanism further with the theory that "people won't reject you if you appear not to give a damn whether they reject you or not". As his confidence in his own popularity has grown, however, his appearance has become more compromised and "acceptable". When, in the early Nineties, he first came out as a tranvestite on stage, his look was, by his own estimation, frumpy. Now he has acquired a much more sophisticated and androgynous look; shiny black PVC trousers, burnt orange velvet frockcoat, spiky stilettos and a swagger that reminds you of John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever. It suggests that what he has really come out as is not a cross-dresser but a narcissist.

"Oh yeah," he says. "But it depends how you define narcissism. I found by looking in the mirror that my posture was terrible. I was all bent over. Now I've corrected all that by doing Pilates and stuff." He demonstrates straightening his back. "Because I wasn't caring what I looked like - because comedy is a mind/speed thing and I thought it doesn't matter what you look like - but it's better if you get the whole visual thing working." Pause. Scrunching of eyes in attempt to pick up thread again. "What were we were talking about?"

The psychoanalyst Heinz Kohut says that for a healthy self to develop, to gain balance and cohesion, the infant needs to feel affirmed, recognised and appreciated, especially when he displays himself. If those needs are unsatisfied, mirror-gazing in adulthood is a belated attempt to obtain the reassurance that he's there, whole and in one piece.

We were talking about narcissism, Eddie.

"Yeah, narcissism," Izzard says. "I feel more confident when I look kicking. I started out in Jesus sandals and combat trousers. They had lots of pockets that I couldn't help stuffing full of things. It made me look like a weird hamster whose jaw had slipped. The Italians have the right idea. Lots of pockets. But sew them up because if you put things in them it will ruin the line of the suit." He stands up and runs his hands over his hips to demonstrate what he means by the line of a suit. The interview continued in this vein for three hours, filling up two C90 audio tapes. When, a few weeks later, I came to transcribe them, I discovered that one of the tapes, the first, had gone missing. I searched everywhere for it, accused everyone, but eventually consoled myself with a remark that Mother Teresa made to Sir Cliff Richard after he returned from recording an interview with her only to find the tape was blank: "God must have had a reason for not wanting the tape to be heard."

Perhaps I was going to misquote Izzard and he was going to sue the Telegraph for libel. Perhaps it was destiny. Karma. A Zen thing. And, come to think of it, these were some of the things Izzard talked about on the missing tape. He's a big believer in being "centred", he told me. It's something that practising yoga has taught him. It's what enables him to Flow rather than Struggle, to feel his way through one of his elastic, improvised stories on stage, rather than worry about where it is going or whether it is about to snap.

I suppose I could have asked Izzard to go over the areas covered in the missing tape. He is, after all, an extremely accommodating and friendly chap who loves to natter. In fact, such is his cheerfully helpful disposition, when Lynn Barber of the Observer's Life magazine asked him for an exclusive interview shortly after he had given the Telegraph this one, he insouciantly agreed. Spent a whole day with her, in fact. And probably used up about 15 tapes, of which, I bet, none went missing.

Was any mischief meant by this? It's hard to say. After all, it's entirely consistent with the vagueness and amateurism that underscores Izzard's singular brand of comedy. On stage he will meander from subject to subject, occasionally giggling at his own jokes. He will doodle and embroider with words, spinning shambolic webs around random thoughts and surreal juxtapositions. He will give you a rush of cerebral vertigo one moment and grind to a standstill the next. "I've forgotten what I was saying," he will say typically, with a smile of such innocence it must have been calculated to beguile.

His comedy washes over you, sweeps you along in its undercurrent and afterwards, when you come up for air, it leaves you feeling almost melancholic as you try to recall quite what it was he said that made you laugh so much. When I tried to describe this post-performance tristesse to Izzard, he gave me a hurt look. When the lights come on after a show, I said, digging myself deeper, you feel sort of deflated, leaden and unfunny. He described a figure of eight with his head, half nodding it and half shaking it in a pantomime of wounded confusion.

And that's the main reason you can't do justice to Izzard in a written profile. He's an inspired mime artist. He can conjure up a queue of murderers at a petrol station simply by walking backwards and giving occasional flicks of his hips and a shrugs of his shoulder. The British portion of what he calls his "world-ish" tour (also taking in New York and Paris) opens in London on 20 October. In preparation for it, he said, he had been polishing his technique. He demonstrated. If you have one imaginary character talking to another, you have to spin yourself a full 180 degrees to face them. As he swivelled back and forth, one character standing behind and above the other, his inflatable sofa squeaked against the seat of his black denim jeans.

Beneath all the garrulous vagueness there is a certain cunning, a certain technique. He produces his own videos. He gives exclusive interviews to rival papers. He stands in for Paul Merton on a whole series of Have I Got News for You and then insists that he never does television. Like a child who has learned how to get his own way with adults, Izzard is a skilled manipulator.

And, however random and rambling his routines may seem, they always come to a neat full circle. As the interview drew to a close, we found ourselves back on the subject of Bexhill-on-Sea. I asked if he thought the town would ever put up a statue to its most famous son.

"No," he said, widening his eyes. "You must never have that. Because pigeons will poo on it. Pigeons understand the vanity of humans. They say, 'Oh here's another trophy to a human ego.' And they never poo round statues, they poo on them. No matter how high the pedestal is. That's the pigeon's job in life . . . " And so on.

From the Electronic Telegraph (October 18, 1997)