Interview: Eddie Izzard

Eddie Izzard
Eddie Izzard
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One of the busiest figures in comedy, Eddie Izzard is hitting Sheffield tonight, fresh from Bucharest. Yvette Huddleston spoke to him.

Never one to shy away from a challenge, Eddie Izzard is currently on a world tour for his latest stage show, Force Majeure, which has been billed as “the most extensive comedy tour ever”, taking in 25 countries and with the kind of punishing schedule that would leave a lesser man struggling for breath.

The past few weeks have seen him perform in the Balkan states, including Slovenia, Serbia and Croatia, Baltic states such as Estonia and Latvia, as well as in Turkey, Romania and a whole host of Scandinavian countries. Tonight he will be appearing in front of thousands of fans at the Sheffield Arena.

I catch up with him while he is in London during a rare pause in the tour which will continue right into 2014 and will include performing in Australia, New Zealand, Africa, India, Nepal, the Far East and all 50 states in America.

“Force majeure” roughly translates as “superior strength” or “force of nature” and it’s a pretty appropriate description for Izzard himself. In 2009 he completed 43 marathons in 51 days for Sport Relief, despite having no previous experience of long-distance running, and raised over £200,000 for charity. Next year he is planning something similar – 27 marathons in 27 days as a tribute to Nelson Mandela’s 27 years in captivity. His current tour follows in the wake of a ground-breaking show at the Hollywood Bowl in 2011 – he was the first ever stand-up to play a solo show at the legendary Los Angeles venue – and his three-month stint in the same year at the Theatre de Dix Heures in Paris during which time he learned French in order to perform his show Stripped Tout en Français. He is also a committed political activist and has said he is seriously considering standing as a Labour candidate in the not too distant future.

He may be hurtling around the world at breakneck speed on a constant round of performance and air travel, but he seems entirely unfazed by it. “I find it invigorating,” he says. “I’ve just come back from Bucharest and there was a great buzz there. A lot of the kids there speak English; the average age was about 20-35 and they are coming out to listen to me. Everywhere I go audiences are getting it; they have been very positive and enthusiastic and they seem to be happy that I am there. There’s been a great reaction.”

His brand of slightly surreal, off-the-wall humour seems particularly well suited to an international audience and while some of his material deals with such weighty issues as Roman history and the existence, or otherwise, of God, it is counterbalanced by endearingly silly moments and whimsical flights of fantasy.

“I think there is a perception that there is a British sense of humour, a German sense of humour and a French sense of humour,” he says. “But Monty Python, for example, went down well all around the world – and that was a British sense of humour, laced with some American humour thanks to Terry Gilliam. It was just classic, surreal, well-written comedy. Each country has a kind of mainstream sense of humour where they make jokes about pop stars and politicians and there are plays on words and so on – and then there is the alternative stuff. That’s what I do – it’s sort of progressive comedy.” He is looking forward to the gig in Sheffield and his connection with the city goes back a long way. “I was a student at the university briefly in the early eighties but my creative stirrings really started in Sheffield,” he says. He dropped out of his accountancy degree course but remained in the city working on developing his comedy skills. “I took three shows up to Edinburgh from Sheffield and hitched up the M1 from there. It was also at a motorway service station just outside Sheffield that I decided to do the 43 marathons in 2009, and Sheffield Arena was where I was presented with my special Sports Personality of the Year Award.”

Izzard’s connection with Sheffield University is ongoing – he is honorary president of the students union and in 2006 was awarded an honorary doctorate from the Faculty of Arts. Tonight, after his arena gig finishes, he will be appearing in “un show exceptionelle” at the university’s Drama Studio – presenting Stripped in French with friend and fellow stand-up Alistair McGowan. “Yes, for the first time in the history of the world there will be two Englishmen doing a comedy show in Sheffield entirely in French,” he says, chuckling. “I found out that Alistair is fluent in French so I thought we could do it together.”

Force Majeure at Sheffield Arena tonight and Stripped Tout en Français at Sheffield University Drama Studio. www.eddieizzard.com

LIFE AND TIMES OF A FROCK STAR

Eddie Izzard was born in 1962 in Aden in Yemen where his father was working for BP. The family moved to Northern Ireland and later to Wales; his mother died when he was six. He has said he knew he was a transvestite at the age of four. After dropping out of university in the 80s he spent time as a street performer in Europe and the United States. In 1987 he performed at the Comedy Store in London and won British Comedy Awards in 1993, 1994 and 1996. He took his Dressed to Kill show to San Francisco in 1998 and won two Emmy awards. He has also appeared in films, on stage and on television.