QUESTION TIME

EDDIE Izzard is Britain's most famous transvestite. At least that is how he used to be described. More recently, his other attributes - astonishingly inventive humour, outspoken political views and successful film acting - have edged ahead of notes on his nail polish and mascara. So ask him to talk clothes and he greets the query with a pause, then a languid intake of breath. "OK," he says. "What I'm wearing is clothes, basically. General clothes. You know, cloth-based stuff. Some cotton, I think. And shoes. Yeah, I've got shoes on. The sort of shoes you'd wear on Question Time."

Now this tempts one towards Izzard-style speculation - the sort of surreal tangents which delight audiences as he wonders why the grim reaper has not updated his kit to include a Flymo, and what happens inside a toaster when it decides not to let go of the bread. So what might constitute suitable footwear for Question Time - brogues, perhaps, for the holes in the arguments or black patent to reflect the glint of majority opinion?

This is not to say Izzard is glib or blasť about his invitation to join this most ponderous of political debate programmes. He has already appeared on Newsnight and is delighted to tell anyone who will listen (and many who won't) just why the single currency is the best idea since Noah took up woodwork. "I was always political," he insists. "It's nothing new, but I'm stamping on about Europe because the British can be so incredibly small-minded. It's crazy. Europe is the biggest melting pot in the world and we have all these little Englanders just wishing it will all go away. Scotland is not quite so bad. In fact, the Scots can surely attest that you don't lose your character by going into a union. They never became English,
did they?"

One can tell Izzard is moving up a gear, about to cruise into a long speech on the benefits of mutual Euro-cuddles. So it's time to fire up the Flymo and do some grim reaping among his prize punditry blooms. Perhaps we could get back to frocks. Is it true that he cross-dresses less than he used to? He offers a long, long hmmm ... by way of response, then adds:

"It's not that it's less. It's that it is less of an issue. I just wear whatever clothes I want whenever I want. I don't think 'My God! More cross-dressing!' It's like it is for women. When you put on trousers, do bells ring and people scream and lean out of windows? Do monkeys nick your Biros because you're wearing flat shoes? There's a woman just walked past wearing trousers. Not bothered at all. Well, that's how it is for me."

This sunny at-peace-with-himself plateau has been hard won, however. Izzard had a  bleak childhood, even if he now amends this statement to "not as bleak as all that". His mother died of bowel cancer when he was six though this was not, he always explains patiently, the trigger for his transvestism. That had begun two years earlier. However, it did make female clothes rather harder to come by, he recalls wryly. His father was a high-flying accountant with BP, and so Eddie and his brother were immediately sent to boarding
school as there was no-one suitable who could look after them. It was a drab, authoritarian place where beatings and bullying were standard and the six-year-old Eddie cried solidly for a year. At 11, he stopped crying. He had discovered the philosopher's stone of psychological survival in hostile circumstances: "Switch off emotionally. If you switch off you can survive, and I majored in survival at school." But this emotional withdrawal did not mean that the pain and confusion of his mother's death had been eradicated,
merely sublimated.

So while studying management and accountancy at Sheffield
University, (solely, he now says, in order to take his embryonic one-man show to the Edinburgh Fringe) Izzard asked his doctor to refer him for therapy. "They bloody wouldn't give me a booking," he guffaws. "There I was, a student asking for help and they didn't bother their backsides. I went twice and asked, and it took me so much courage to do that in the first place that I think their response is criminal, looking back." It would not be the last time he grabbed the bull by its metaphoric horns. Izzard is famed for facing down the taunts and threats of louts who choose to turn their comments on his dress sense into blows. Last year he successfully prosecuted a man who had attacked him with the brave aid of four friends.


"It was madness on my part, but I won a moral victory when he was finally convicted. I've been in another situation where I had one guy trying to beat me up and another trying to get my autograph. One was yelling 'You gay twat' and his friend was saying 'Wow! you're Eddie Izzard.' And I'm saying. 'No. I'm not a gay twat. I'm a transvestite. Get your slander correct!' " He laughs.

But the distinction confuses more than casual hooligans. Izzard's
sexuality is puzzling, as he insists he is heterosexual but prefers women who do not like men. This would normally be listed either under M for masochist or C for celibate. Yet he has maintained long-term romantic relationships with women in the past, and large numbers of his audience (of both sexes) find him immensely appealing. "I'd be happy to be gay. It's just that I don't happen to fancy men." So why the frocks? "It isn't just an affectation or a whim. It's a real urge." Izzard kept his dressing up sessions secret till he was 21, when he worked up the courage to tell his girlfriend, who was supportive and undramatic. Two years later he told his
brother, who made no fuss either, and finally, after joining a transvestite group in London, he came out in public, though it was not until he was 29 that he finally confided in his father. A newspaper interview his father gave later quotes him as saying: "I can't say I was best pleased. But then, what was there to be displeased about? I looked at Eddie and realised, this is my son and I love him, and this is who he is. There are so many worse things he could be."

So courage was rewarded again, and Izzard remains appreciative of the lesson. "I don't want to think of myself as Captain Transvestite," he muses. "But yes, I suppose I do ballsy things and they scare the hell out of me. But I believe that something phenomenally positive comes out of facing down scary issues. It certainly works for me. It's like wartime, I suppose. Hellish conditions, but everyone is forced onto a different, higher level of ability." Among the "higher levels of ability" that Izzard has forced on himself is performing in French for a French audience, and expanding his essentially intimate repertoire to accommodate audiences of 10,000. "I just played to 8,500 in Docklands," he laughs. "And I know that some people prefer smaller spaces and what they'd call 'the old intimacy' , but I just persuaded myself this was intimacy on a grand scale. Phenomenal intimacy!" Irrepressible optimism which is rewarded by ever-widening sell-out tours.

At 35, Izzard is arguably Britain's best-known stand-up comedian, though without ever having done a television series.


"The more television you do, the more you get locked into it," he explains. "And I want to do films. I want to play more psychopathic shitheads  ..." This is a reference to three "baddie" roles he has filmed in the last year.   Conrad's The Secret Agent, The Velvet Goldmine, and The Avengers. "But I want to do more comedy as well," he adds hastily. "I never want to stop doing stand-up. It's just that I've got this endless energy and I keep wanting to do new things." Izzard once described himself as "a work in progress" and I wonder if he would still choose the epithet. He pauses for several seconds before replying. "Yeah. I'd still say that. I think it's a
good thing not to be set. Not to think you've arrived. That's the way
forward." But surely he couldn't pretend he has not arrived - at least at fame and acclaim ? "Oh, I know precisely where I have arrived," he laughs. "I've arrived at a place where I can say to journalists 'I'm a transvestite ' and they say 'That's boring. Tell us something new and weird.' "Now that, I think, is a very pleasant place to get to."