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.

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Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis