[from the Times Online]
The death of Eddie Izzard’s mother when he was aged 5 haunts him. He reveals why it still drives him
We’re four rows from the front of the MEN Arena, Manchester. With 13,000 people sitting behind us, these are pretty much the best seats in the house — yet, still: we can’t see Eddie Izzard’s eyes.
Well, more specifically, there’s no time to look at Eddie Izzard’s eyes while he’s humming and buzzing across the stage, like some super-bright sunshine kid in full-on “delight” mode. You have time only to register his grin — like a predatory Cheshire cat — as the characters fall out of his one-man phantasmagorical ensemble pieces.
Here comes a traumatised squirrel from Brooklyn; a raptor in a pork-pie hat being pulled over for speeding; a Persian soldier very slowly impaling himself on Spartan spears at Thermopylae. Caring sharks. An entire swarm of bees.
You simply presume that Izzard’s eyes are twinkly, warm, Father Christmas-style eyes. You know what I mean. Tom Hanksy. Like the dog you loved the most from your childhood.
So the jolt when you meet him in the flesh is all the more intense.
“Hello,” he says, at the aftershow, appearing at your shoulder — and, up close, the eyes are glittery, hard; like a silver clockwork owl. The thumb-smeared kohl and eyeliner — sigils of glamour and possibly decadence — merely underline how ferociously present he is. He has eyes like guns.
This contrast between ostensible glamour and decadence, and the true purpose beneath, is echoed in the room we’re standing in. Somewhere in the intestines of the MEN, a room has been swagged to look like a harem. But who is here? It’s not the usual line-up of hangers-on, surly local scenesters, dealers and birds. Instead, it’s just Eddie’s cousin-in-law, Johnny Vegas’s manager, and the heavily pregnant Lucy Powell — Labour parliamentary candidate for Manchester Withington.
I’ve been interviewing Eddie Izzard for 16 years now. Not continuously, obviously — that would be weird. No, I just pop in every couple of years and see how he’s getting on; plug his new thing. As an invention — a boy in heels as charming as a robin and as remorseless as gravity — I think Izzard is amazing. I like watching what he does.
Nearly every time I meet him, however, I make a total arse of myself. At a wedding we both went to in 1997, I offered him a cigarette — and then another, with the words “If one is cool, then surely two at the same time would be even cooler. It’s like a . . . circle of coolness.” Ten seconds later — after he’d walked away, looking bemused — I realised that was pretty much word-for-word a routine he was famous for doing at the time. I think I even did it in his voice, a bit. But then, most people who meet Izzard come away reporting that they end up talking to him in his voice — going all “Um” and “Ah” and “Yeah but”. His speech-pattern is insanely catchy. There’s practically a Survivors Support Group of people who have done an impression of Eddie Izzard to Eddie Izzard, then cringed themselves into next Christmas at the memory.
Today, at the Manchester aftershow, I had been amusing myself by showing my sister a trick I learnt off Audrey Horne on Twin Peaks. In a pivotal scene in the drama, she gains employment in a local brothel by displaying how she can tie a cherry-stalk into a knot, using only her mouth. Prompted by my sister’s goading that I couldn’t, yet stymied by the lack of cherry stalks in the room, at the point where Eddie finally comes over to say “Hello”, I have just tied a strip of frisée lettuce into a knot in my mouth, and triumphantly spat it out into my palm. It is covered in saliva.
“Hello,” Eddie says, all pewter-pupils.
I explain to him what I have done.
“And is that . . . useful?” Izzard asks, looking bemused. I am so mortified I make my excuses and drag my sister away from the aftershow.Leaving the aftershow, for a taxi, we go through the arena’s loading-bay. There — lined up like the start of a dinosaur Derby — are six, huge, articulated lorries. Each has the official “Stripped” tour shot of Eddie on the side: Izzard in a dinner-suit, torn open to the waist. His eyes are smudged with glitter and he’s sexily kissing his fingers. As a convoy, the trucks must look pretty spectacular whenever they hit the M6. This immense, “sexy truck”, European and US tour will eventually play to 380,000 people — including 20,000 at Madison Square Gardens alone. He really has not wasted the past 16 years at all.
It’s become beyond a cliché to refer to comedy as a “serious business”. Clearly, the business here is huge — even at an Izzard-stipulated non-screw-over £35-maximum a ticket, Eddie isn’t heading back to Covent Garden — where he spent the 1980s performing on a unicycle, for pocket-change — any time soon.
But the seriousness is the interesting thing. In a year in which he’s conducted a massive technologically innovative sell-out arena-tour, marketed as the thinking-woman’s pin-up, Izzard also ran 43 marathons in 51 days, and then — on the last day of running, at a reception in Downing Street — announced that he suspects his eventual future is in politics. He will stand — presumably for Labour, to whom he is a major donor — in either two or three elections’ time. When, the next day over breakfast, he talks admiringly about Barack Obama’s technique with large crowds — “He does this . . . big intimacy” — it’s not only as a showman admiring the chops. It’s as a future statesman studying the form. His ambition is inexorable and amazing.
“I’ll have to kill my career for it. But sometimes, you just have to . . . stand up and be counted,” he says, shrugging in an excitingly determined manner. “Because if you don’t do it — who will?”
In the documentary Believe: The Eddie Izzard Story — which has just done the international film festival circuit, and gets a limited theatre release here from December 11 onwards — there is a key “Oh! now everything makes sense!” moment.
Over the past 15 years, Izzard has scarcely been reticent about discussing what a big impact the death of his mother, when he was 5, had on him. Aside from mentioning her onstage and in interview, he named his production company Ella after her. We know about the young Eddie Izzard losing his mother in the same way that we know about Madonna losing hers.
In the documentary, however, the director Sarah Townsend — Izzard’s ex-girlfriend — keeps pushing Izzard on why he seems so driven: taking 15 years of rejection before becoming a successful stand-up; then learning French so he could gig in French; then relocating to America to pursue a film career. In response to her questioning, Izzard finally says, in an uncharacteristically desperate burst: “I keep thinking that if I do all these things, and keep going and going, then . . . she’ll come back.”
And then he starts crying.
Today Izzard recalls the shooting of that scene. “I didn’t know I was going to say that, because . . . I didn’t know I thought it. That’s why it’s weird. That’s why I start crying.”
Breakfast is black coffee, Special K and toast. Izzard is in a rather beautiful blue borderline-Mod suit, and wearing glasses, which he’s needed since the beginning of the year. “Shall I show you a picture of my mum?” he asks. He gets his iPhone out and starts scrolling through the pictures. When he finds the shot, he holds up the phone: it shows a blithe woman with a chatty, wonky-looking mouth and soft dark curls in a cotton-print dress.
“She’s pregnant with me, there,” Izzard says. There’s a pause. We look at the picture. He continues, with immense gentleness: “She was a singer. She sang with amateur opera groups. There aren’t many pictures of her. I’m trying to find them all. Last year, a Swedish family contacted us with footage of the entire family just sitting there, having a holiday. That was . . . amazing.” Izzard scrolls through the few pictures he has — his mother and his brother in Yemen, sitting in the garden of their house. His mother on stage, dressed as a ballerina in tiny, tiny shoes. “I have small feet, too, like her,” Izzard says. “Six and a half.”
He looks at the photograph again. It’s an odd sensation — looking at a photograph of someone’s mother, with someone who knows not a huge amount more about her than you do.
“Most of the memories I have are from the cine-film and photos,” Izzard says, still looking at the picture. You see that the awful thing about losing a parent at such a young age is not that the memories unsettle you, but that there are no memories at all.
In Believe there’s a moment when Izzard finds a letter his mother wrote, where she refers to him as “Edward”. Until that point, he hadn’t even known what she called him. It reminds me of something that occurred to me the night before, as I watched Izzard onstage: that his material and demeanour — slightly woozy retellings of history, science and Nature — is that of a bright primary-school child coming home, and telling his mother a phantasmogorical version of what he learnt that day; just to delight her.
Izzard is scrolling through the rest of his pictures. “This is me in my football team!” he says, “when I was 12. I’ve just started playing again — because you should reclaim all the things you enjoyed from your childhood. I really believe that. I’m training to be a striker, because — I’m a striker in everything else I do. I like to attack things and push, push, push. Because anyone can do anything, can’t they? World War Two showed us that. Bankers were made into commandos. Women were taken from Cheltenham Ladies’ College and put on anti-aircraft batteries. Everyone can do way more than they think.”
Izzard loves the Second World War. As things stand, he is still the only person to play two speeches by Churchill on prime-time Radio One.
A fan comes over to get her breakfast menu signed — she is shaking with nerves. Izzard gives her his big T-Rex beam and scrawls away.
Breakfast finished, we wander round the back of the hotel, to Izzard’s tour bus — “And there it is!” Izzard says, triumphantly, pointing at a skip. Next to the skip is a massive, sky-blue tour bus. Inside, Izzard cruises through the lounge area, past a healthy dish of roast seeds and then stiffens when he sees a plateful of Milky Ways and Love Hearts next to them.
“Where did they come from?” he asks, almost peevishly, pointing.
“Someone left them here,” Sarah, his tour manager, says vaguely.
Izzard sighs, as if burdened.
“Is it a problem?” I ask.
“Weeeell,” he says, already looking pre-defeated by them. “If I could, I would just sit down and spend the rest of my life with a straw stuck in a 15kg bag of sugar, sucking. They just . . . mmmm.”
“Is that why you ran 43 marathons?” I ask. “So you’d have an excuse to kick back and stuff your face with Haribo every evening?”
“I ran 43 marathons,” Izzard says, pertly, “so I’d have an excuse to live to 183. I’m thinking of my peak fitness age as being 90. Do you want to try one of my gels?”
We go through to his bedroom, at the back of the van, and sit on the bed. It’s unbelievably tidy. Not a single item has been left out. It looks like either borderline compulsive behaviour, or that he just removed everything before the journalist turned up, to prevent prying. Personally, I favour the compulsiveness theory — when he sees that I’m holding a small piece of rubbish, he holds his hand out for it, silently, to put it in the bin. He also seems mildly distressed about shoes on the bed.
Izzard brings a bag of energy-gels out of a cupboard and we sit there sucking them. They taste like orange spaff. I gag on mine. Izzard knocks his back in one, like a tequila-shot. Izzard survived on these during his still-unlikely sounding 43 marathons in 51 days, for Sports Relief. As a country, I think we’re still in denial that these marathons ever happened. David Walliams swam the Channel — once — and we didn’t hear the end of it. Izzard, on the other hand, spent the whole summer holidays running a 26-mile marathon pretty much every day and everyone kind of went, “Er, yeah, um . . .” and changed the subject.
“It was a bit surreal,” Izzard admits. “I think it was like saying I’d eaten a car. ‘I’ve just eaten a car. I’ve eaten a whole car.’ People just wouldn’t believe me.”
Izzard would pass the time imagining the history in the places he was running through — at the Battle of Nazeby, he tried to work out just who was fighting on behalf of the Royalists, “since the Parliamentarians were, like, the people”. He would get sudden, unexpected company on sections of the run — one woman who appeared at his side had driven all the way from Slovakia, just to lope along next to him.
“I feel like I own the road now,” he says, “in the same way I feel like I own the stage. In that visceral sense. I can turn it up, turn it down. I get it.”
Two days after the last marathon, Izzard was booked to appear on Tonight with Jonathan Ross. He ran all the way from Piccadilly to the BBC studios. “It was nothing.”
For all his talk of “killing his career” for politics, he’s still got at least a decade of comedy left in him yet: not least his recent idea for a comedy festival — a big one, like Glastonbury, or Glyndebourne.
“Rain and comedy don’t work, so we’d have to work out how to cover it. And we’ve got to nail the sound — if you miss a word in comedy, that could be a whole build-up screwed. Maybe headphones or a drive-in thing, where you could sit in your car. But then we can’t hear the laughter and we need the laughter. Perhaps people could flash their headlights, for a small chuckle . . .” he muses. “Or we could mike the car park and people could wind down their windows and laugh in a designated direction . . .”
But he’s still restless — a restlessness that it’s borderline disconcerting to be around, when you consider the weekends off, and non-marathons, and quiet compromises of your own life.
“The thing about the realisation in Believe,” I say, “is that if you really are, ultimately, doing all this to bring your mother back, there is, obviously, no end to it all. It is infinite. There is no . . . satisfaction.”
“I don’t want to be satisfied. I don’t want to get there,” Izzard says, reasonably. “Do you know what I mean? You’ve got to be four steps ahead — because if you’re just one step ahead, that’s very close to standing still. Or even going backwards. You stop for a week and . . .” he splays his hands.
And he goes to put his trainers on, and run the seven miles to that night’s gig, where 13,000 people have paid to watch him think.