Setting the bar high

MULTI-FACETED: Eddie Izzard's memoir Believe Me is out now.MULTI-FACETED: Eddie Izzard's memoir Believe Me is out now.
MULTI-FACETED: Eddie Izzard's memoir Believe Me is out now.
Comedian, actor marathon man '“ and former Sheffield University student '“ Eddie Izzard talks to Hannah Stephenson about his memoir Believe Me.

Eddie Izzard never does anything by halves. He’s performed comedy in numerous languages in massive stadiums where previously only rock stars ventured, run 27 marathons in 27 days and played royalty opposite the Dame Judi Dench.

The cross-dressing comedian, actor and writer – who briefly studied accountancy at Sheffield University before dropping out to pursue his comedy career – constantly sets himself seemingly impossible challenges and frequently diverts from any conventional career path to a more mountainous, hazardous route which is much trickier to navigate.

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His latest diversion, memoir Believe Me, reveals – in part – why he’s developed such a tough, resilient skin. “Some people say to me, ‘Oh, you just do challenges. But there are challenges and challenges. I’m doing things that have a positive effect on the country, but I want to reach out to other countries – can we learn from you, can you learn from us? We can all do more than we think we can. We’ve got one life. Let’s live it positively.”

Izzard, 55, is a tough character, but you can understand why when you look at his past. The son of BP’s chief accountant Harold Izzard, his mother Dorothy Ella died of cancer when he was six, but his parents didn’t tell him she was dying and he wasn’t prepared for the emotional loss. Soon after, he and his older brother Mark were sent to boarding school, another traumatic event which led to him battening the hatches emotionally, as detailed in a chapter he entitles ‘Exile’. “We didn’t see dad for two-thirds of the year. I did a lot of crying and wailing. I was unhappy about everything and feeling sorry for myself. I cried till I was 11,” he recalls. “Boarding school toughens you up. It can make you emotionally dead. You can’t empathise or sympathise.”

While at Sheffield University, he took his first steps into comedy and through sheer grit, determination and persistence, staged his first show at Edinburgh Festival in 1981. After Edinburgh, he thought that his end goal, to be on national television, would follow. It didn’t and he found himself in what he calls ‘the wilderness years’, dropping out of university, doing street comedy in London for almost a decade - and ‘coming out’ in 1984. He remembers the first time he stepped out in a dress and high heels. “I just felt fear, fear, fear...” he trails off. “But I also felt, ‘This is how I want to express myself, so I’ve got to do this’.”

Izzard is happy to talk about his ambitions, his sexuality and his politics – he’s a member of the Labour party and keen Remain supporter. Izzard is constantly setting the bar higher for himself. He’s soon to be seen as Bertie, the Prince of Wales in the forthcoming movie Victoria & Abdul, out in September, has two more movies planned for this year and a new stand-up show, to be performed in Central and South America – in Spanish. And in the first general election after 2020 he’ll be running for MP, he says confidently. If that happened, he’d put his showbiz career on hold. “This is just the beginning of another chapter,” he concludes.

Believe Me is published by Michael Joseph, priced £20.

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