Eddie Izzard talks to Adam Sweeting about his new BBC drama Lost Christmas, and remaking Treasure Island Goodfellas-style.
The globe-trotting Eddie Izzard isn’t sure exactly where he’ll be for Christmas. It won’t be Australia, where he has just finished performing his Stripped tour. Maybe it will be somewhere in Europe, since despite all the current turmoil, Izzard’s belief in a Euro-Utopia burns undimmed. But wherever it is, he’s adamant that he won’t be doing any end-of-year comedy shows.
“I always have time off at Christmas,” he declares. “Some performers will work at Christmas or New Year, because people pay good money, especially on New Year’s Eve. But they’re awful gigs. Terrible! I refuse to do them.”
To compensate, Izzard is starring in BBC One’s Lost Christmas, a mystical fable of redemption set in a snowy Manchester on Christmas Eve. Izzard plays the enigmatic Anthony, who materialises in a weird flash of light and sets about reuniting the various characters with things that have gone missing in their lives – dogs, wives, bracelets, parents or children. It sounds a little bit Dickensian?
“It might look like that because it’s a fairytale,” Izzard muses. “But I think it also has a feel of It’s A Wonderful Life, which is a classic beyond classics. It’s a little sentimental but it has a nice edge to it, and I’m going to make my family sit down together and watch it.”
He co-stars alongside Jason Flemyng, Geoffrey Palmer and Steven Mackintosh, each of whom has his own personal demons to grapple with, but Izzard’s character is kept deliberately mysterious. It’s gradually revealed that despite his sinister, shaven-headed appearance, he brings amazing healing powers.
“He doesn’t know anything except loads of really useless facts, and everyone thinks he’s bonkers,” says Izzard. “Then he becomes bonkers-but-useful, because if you grab his hand he experiences visions which can help you find something you’ve lost. Eventually there are cathartic resolutions of these losses and the conflicts between the characters. I think it’s a beautiful little gem of an urban fairytale, and it’s some of the best work I’ve done.”
Not that he isn’t also glowing with pride about his work in Sky 1′s remake of Treasure Island, due in January, in which he plays a bald and brooding Long John Silver, with a rather splendid crimson parrot perched on his shoulder. It’s an all-star knees-up, with a roll-call including Rupert Penry-Jones, Elijah Wood, Donald Sutherland and Philip Glenister.
“It’s a big, fun, rollicking epic,” raves Izzard. “We shot it in Dublin and Puerto Rico just before I did Lost Christmas, and it’s like the Goodfellas version. It’s much more kick-ass than the way it’s usually been done.”
But before that, there’s Christmas.
“I love Christmas,” he proclaims. “My mother would always get me and my brother to write down the things we wanted and we’d put them in the fire and they’d go up the chimney to Santa Claus. After my mum died my dad would write messages from Santa on Christmas Day, so it was always a great time.”
Naturally, Izzard has his own list of favourite Yuletide TV events, those ones that only keep improving with age. “I like to watch Christmas movies, especially Scrooge with Alastair Sim. The Great Escape is one that bizarrely always comes up, and I love Trading Places – it’s not really a Christmas story but it works at Christmas time.”
Is he a Downton Abbey man, or a Strictly Come Dancing fanatic?
“I know Strictly exists,” he mutters. “Is it like Pro-Am golf but with dancing? I haven’t actually partaken of it. I’ve heard Downton Abbey is a big smash but I’ve yet to get it on my iPod. Touring around the world means you miss some of the big things on telly.”
Though he claims there aren’t any particular presents which he covets, he will insist on having an authentic, full-scale Christmas meal.
“When I was doing my arena tour a couple of years ago, I liked having a Christmas meal every day. I think turkey’s great and brussels sprouts are great and roast potatoes, though you have to be careful with the roast potatoes. ”
Special measures were taken to nullify the threat of soggy sprouts. “We took our own catering people with us,” he says smugly. “If you get to the point of playing 15,000 seaters, you can at least ask for some decent brussels sprouts.”
And in January, Izzard can burn off those excess pounds by running a few marathons (he famously ran 43 of them in 51 days in 2009).
“Yes, I do keep it up,” he confirms. “I’m doing triathlons now and I will do more marathons. You’ll see it all on Twitter.”
I put it to you, Eddie Izzard, that you are a driven personality.
“Yes, I think I am,” he agrees. “Once I got a break, I didn’t let it go. I thought ‘let’s push it forward and see where we can take it. Let’s see how good you can be.’”
Lost Christmas is on BBC One on Sunday 18 December at 5.30pm