Call me Edward: the documentary that shows why Eddie Izzard is a true pioneer

Eddie Izzard came out as a transvestite by turning up on stage in a dress and heels on the opening night of his first proper tour. It feels as if he was determined that, if he was going to be successful, it would be on his own terms. A new documentary cha

"Inspirational" is a grotesquely overused word – but it's hard to describe the portrait of Eddie Izzard that emerges from Believe, the documentary about his early stand-up career, as anything else. Awe-inspiring? Humbling? Borderline insane?

The 90-minute film, available on BBC iPlayer until 26 December, was shot over several years by Izzard's then girlfriend, Sarah Townsend. It traces Izzard's life from his birth in Yemen to his first night playing Wembley but focuses mainly on the years – and there were plenty of them – of total obscurity.

The film begins with a low point in Izzard's career, when he was accused by Watchdog in 2000 of recycling jokes. And, for much of the film, there's nothing but low points: an endless succession of poorly attended gigs and routines that don't quite work. In 1981, flush with the optimism of youth, Izzard took a show to the Edinburgh Festival. It was the year that Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie and Emma Thompson won the Perrier Award with Cambridge Footlights. For them, comedy seemed easy; for Izzard, it was bloody hard work.

After that summer, he dropped out of university and began a decade of street performing. Gradually, the interspersed snippets of stand-up get funnier – the best are still astonishingly good, even out of context. What other comedian could mine so many laughs from Engelbert Humperdinck, squirrels wearing make-up or professional mourners?

Izzard frequently describes himself as obstinate but there's more to it than that. At times, he's suicidally determined to do things his way. His transvestism, which so preoccupied the media, is dealt with in a fairly peremptory fashion – but it's fascinating that he came out by turning up on stage in a dress and heels on the opening night of his first proper tour. It feels as if he was determined that, if he was going to be successful, it would be on his own terms.

By the time he succeeds – with a three-minute spot at an Aids benefit in 1991 – the primary emotion the viewer feels is relief. Izzard himself seems remarkably sanguine, arguing that he'd always believed he could be a stand-up: it just took the rest of the world some time to catch up.

Yet even when all the years of unrewarded graft are over and he's achieved success, Izzard can't stop pushing himself. He decides to do a gig in French, a language he barely speaks. As he fumbles through a ham-fisted routine, he keeps forgetting the words he needs for the punchline. The audience pitch in, shouting "clémentine" gamely at him but they're indulging him, not really enjoying themselves. Then there's his acting, of which the less said, the better. He just won't accept that there are things he can't do.

Around this point, you realise that the vast majority of us just aren't like Izzard. In his position, we'd have tried a few gigs, decided it wasn't working and gone to work in a bank or in telesales or whatever. We'd have settled for being "the funny guy" at work, the one everyone tells, "You should really be a comedian, you should."

Izzard, on the other hand, has an almost eerie drive to pick himself up again whenever he gets knocked down. After Watchdog accused him of recycling jokes – an unfair accusation, as it's a common practice in stand-up circles – we see him starting a new tour with entirely fresh material. Much of it falls flat but he marches on.

As Sarah Townsend said in a recent interview: "When we tested [the film], people would come and tell us how it had really inspired them. Most people sort of give up if they don't just 'arrive' now. The idea of working hard has gone by the wayside because today everything is so instantaneous, which I think sort of cheapens it."

She is pretty clear about what created this superhuman dose of determination: the death of Izzard's mother when he was six. "I don't remember wanting to perform before she died," he says early on in the documentary. Townsend has admitted that she found it difficult to get Izzard to open up but eventually he did. Reading a letter from his mother to a family friend, he notices that she called him "Edward". "I thought she called me Eddie," he says, slowly. "But I was an Edward to her."

This sets him off on a train of thought. "I think performing . . . you're trying to get the love of the audience. And that was a swap of Mum's love not being there. The big problem is that everything I do in life is trying to get her back. I think if I do enough things," he says as his voice breaks with emotion, "that maybe she'll come back."

By the end of the documentary, you feel pathetically grateful that Eddie Izzard did succeed, because it would be unbearable to watch someone try, try and try again in the way he did and still fail. His story is inspiring precisely because it's not a fairy tale – he worked hard to get where he is and he's still working hard.

Every teenage X Factor reject who snuffles about their dream being over should be forced to watch this documentary. And then told to come back after ten years of performing to try again.

You can watch Believe here. Keep an eye out for some of Eddie's early stage outfits, which are truly hideous.

Eddie Izzard, star of Believe.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

DREW KELLY/NEW YORK TIMES/REDUX/EYEVINE
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Yiyun Li: Can reading help you conquer depression?

In her memoir of depression and reading, Yiyun Li speaks to all those with unquiet minds.

Most sufferers of severe depression will tell you that the condition is incommunicable: it cannot be expressed, except through metaphors, and then those, too, are pitifully inadequate. How does one talk about a great, centrifugal force that spins the self away to fragments, or towards annihilation, leaving no stable, immutable self to write about?

Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life (the title is a quotation from a letter by Katherine Mansfield) is a memoir of depression and reading, and the first work of non-fiction by the acclaimed Chinese-American writer Yiyun Li, whose books include the prize-winning debut collection A Thousand Years of Good Prayers and The Vagrants, her astonishing and bleak first novel. In Dear Friend, she grapples with the question that lies at the heart of books as diverse as William Styron’s Darkness Visible and Andrew Solomon’s Noonday Demon, but from the outset Li swerves away: she never once mentions depression by name, talking instead about “a difficult time”, or her mind being in “poor shape”, and about “this emptiness in me”.

A severe reluctance to talk about herself has led her to devise a way of writing about emotions in a forensically intellectual manner, subjecting each feeling to the rigours of close reading and an investigation-by-argument not a million miles from the practice of philosophers. In fact, the first chapter of the book is divided into 24 short subsections, of anything between four lines and just over a page: a collection of thoughts, observations, memories, aphoristic distillations, even propositions.

This sets the formal template for what follows: the titles of the subsequent chapters lead one to expect thematic unity, but the greater coherence comes from Li’s overarching project in Dear Friend of thinking about time. She starts out with the notion that the book “would be a way to test – to assay – thoughts about time. There was even a vision of an after, when my confusions would be sorted out.” To talk of a “before” and “after” is to acknowledge an intervening present; all posit an experience unfolding in time. But right from the start she is acutely conscious of a self-defeating task: “To assay one’s ideas about time while time remains unsettled and elusive feels futile.”

This compulsive argumentation and dissection of feelings into ever finer strands can produce the occasionally cloudy culmination, usually aphoristic or epigrammatic in style, almost always paradoxical. Even context fails to illuminate fully, for example, these sentences on Elizabeth Bowen: “‘The moment one is sad one is ordinary,’ she [Bowen] wrote. But that is not enough. The moment one feels anything one feels fatal.” Or: “To say nothing matters is to admit that everything matters.” Li’s emotions are thoughts, a pre-emptive mechanism to salvage a frangible self; perhaps this is the only way one can talk about an illness that eats the very faculty that produces thought. “As a body suffers from an auto-immune disease,” she writes, “my mind targets every feeling and thought it creates.”

Slowly, a bare-bones biographical narrative emerges: an immature, unstable monster of a mother; a quiet, fatalistic and long-suffering father; episodes from a childhood in China; a career in science cast aside for writing; two stays in hospital for serious depressive episodes (we find out their exact nature only in the afterword).

But, other than the self-consuming mind, the one constant running through this ­deliberately fractured memoir, like a flowing stream whose noise is always present, sometimes near, sometimes far, is the theme of reading. Here, too, Li is original in her approach, in describing how writers speak to her unquiet mind or to the darkness at her core. Take her love of biography or writers’ correspondence. She tells us that it springs from “the need – the neediness – to find shelter from one’s uncertain self in other lives”. It is heart-rending to read that she finds her “real context” in books: “. . . all that could not be solved in my life was merely a trifle as long as I kept it at a distance. Between that suspended life and myself were these dead people and imagined characters. One could spend one’s days among them as a child arranges a circle of stuffed animals when the darkness of night closes in.”

Li is a writer who has made her name in the lyrical-realist school, producing pellucidly moving works that enrich our understanding of psychological interiority and affect, so it is not surprising to note her admiration and love for Turgenev and Chekhov, Mansfield, John McGahern, William Trevor, Stefan Zweig, Bowen. More unpredictable, at least when these first occur, are the names of Marianne Moore, Graham Greene and Philip Larkin; the Moore and Larkin connections with her life are particularly unexpected when they unfurl.

There is a beautiful and profound chapter on renouncing her mother tongue – even though Li never wrote in Chinese – and the decision to adopt English. She gives the ­penultimate chapter of her book, fittingly, to the writer who has mattered to her most: Trevor, a writer she “aspired to be”, “to see as he does”. At the end of her assay there is a sense of endurance; this book is “an experiment in establishing a truce with what cannot be changed”, a terribly beautiful gift to the reader, who will always remain locked in her own life as the author is in hers.

Neel Mukherjee’s most recent novel is “The Lives of Others” (Vintage)

Neel Mukherjee is an Indian writer writing in English. His book The Lives of Others was shortlisted for the 2014 Man Booker Prize and he reviews fiction for the New Statesman. 

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit