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.

KEVIN C MOORE
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Notes from a small island: the fraught and colourful history of Sicily

Sicily: Culture and Conquest at the British Museum.

When a gun was fired a hundred metres or so from the Sicilian piazza where we were eating, my reaction was to freeze, fall to my knees, and then run for cover in a colonnade. As I peered back into the square from behind a column, I expected to see a tangle of overturned chairs and china but I watched instead as the freeze-frame melted into normality. I retrieved my shoe from the waiter.

I should not have been surprised by how coolly everyone else handled what I was inclined to call “the situation”. The Sicilians have had 4,000 years in which to perfect the art of coexistence, defusing conflict with what strikes outsiders as inexplicable ease, rendering Sicily one of the most culturally diverse but identifiable places on the planet. Still, having visited “Sicily: Culture and Conquest” at the British Museum, I feel vindicated. There may be no Cosa Nostra in this exhibition, which charts the island’s history from antiquity to the early 13th century, but that doesn’t mean there is no simmering conflict. Like Lawrence Durrell, who described Sicily as “thrown down almost in mid-channel like a concert grand” and as having “a sort of minatory, defensive air”, I felt the tension beneath the bliss that has characterised Sicily for many centuries.

The “barbarians”, wrote the Greek historian Thucydides, moved to Sicily from Iberia (Spain), Troy and Italy before the Phoenicians and Greeks settled there in the 8th century BC – the time of Homer, whose Odyssey provided a useful guide to some of the more threatening features of the landscape. The giant, sea-lying rocks off the east coast were the boulders that the one-eyed Polyphemus hurled at Odysseus’s ship; the phrase “between Scylla and Charybdis” referred to the Strait of Messina that divides Sicily from the mainland; Lake Pergusa, in the centre of the island, was the eerie spot whence Hades snatched Persephone and carried her down to the underworld.

It is a delight to behold the British Museum’s case full of terracotta figurines of Persephone, Demeter and their priestesses, some of thousands uncovered across Sicily, where the Greeks established the cult of these goddesses. The Phoenicians introduced their
own weather god, Baal Hammon, and the indigenous Sicilians seem to have accepted both, content that they honoured the same thing: the island’s remarkable fecundity.

The early Sicilians were nothing if not grateful for their agriculturally rich landscapes. As early as 2500 BC, they were finding ways to celebrate their vitality, the idea being that if the soil was fertile, so were they. On a stone from this period, intended as a doorway to a tomb, an artist has achieved the near impossible: the most consummate representation of the sexual act. Two spirals, two balls, a passage and something to fill it. The penis is barely worth mentioning. The ovaries are what dominate, swirling and just as huge as the testicles beneath them. We see the woman from both inside and out, poised on two nimble, straddling legs; the man barely figures at all.

Under the Greeks in the 5th century BC, it was a different story. Although many of Sicily’s tyrants were generous patrons of the arts and sciences, theirs was a discernibly more macho culture. The second room of the exhibition is like an ode to their sporting achievements: amid the terracotta busts of ecstatic horses and the vase paintings of wild ponies bolting over mounds (Sicily is exceptionally hilly) are more stately representations of horses drawing chariots. These Greek tyrants – or rather, their charioteers – achieved a remarkable number of victories in the Olympic and Pythian Games. Some of the most splendid and enigmatic poetry from the ancient world was written to celebrate their equestrian triumphs. “Water is best, but gold shines like gleaming fire at night, outstripping the wealth of a great man” – so begins a victory ode for Hiero I of Syracuse.

But what of the tensions? In 415BC, the Athenians responded to rivalries between Segesta and Syracuse by launching the Sic­ilian expedition. It was a disaster. The Athenians who survived were imprisoned and put to work in quarries; many died of disease contracted from the marshland near Syracuse. There is neither the space nor the inclination, in this relatively compact exhibition, to explore the incident in much depth. The clever thing about this show is that it leaves the historical conflicts largely between the lines by focusing on Sicily at its height, first under the Greeks, and then in the 11th century under the Normans – ostensibly “the collage years”, when one culture was interwoven so tightly with another that the seams as good as disappeared. It is up to us to decide how tightly those seams really were sewn.

Much is made of the multiculturalism and religious tolerance of the Normans but even before them we see precedents for fairly seamless relations between many different groups under the 9th-century Arab conquerors. Having shifted Sicily’s capital from Syracuse to Palermo, where it remains to this day, the Arabs lived cheek by jowl with Berbers, Lombards, Jews and Greek-Byzantine Sicilians. Some Christians converted to Islam so that they would be ­exempt from the jizya (a tax imposed on non-Muslims). But the discovery of part of an altar from a 9th-century church, displayed here, suggests that other Christians were able to continue practising their faith. The marble is exquisitely adorned with beady-eyed lions, frolicsome deer and lotus flowers surrounding the tree of life, only this tree is a date palm, introduced to Sicily – together with oranges, spinach and rice – by the Arabs.

Under Roger II, the first Norman king of Sicily, whose father took power from the Arabs, the situation was turned on its head. With the exception of the Palermo mosque (formerly a Byzantine church, and before that a Roman basilica), which had again become a church, mosques remained open, while conversion to Christianity was encouraged. Roger, who was proudly Catholic, looked to Constantinople and Fatimid Egypt, as well as Normandy, for his artistic ideas, adorning his new palace at Palermo and the splendidly named “Room of Roger” with exotic hunting mosaics, Byzantine-style motifs and inscriptions in Arabic script, including a red-and-green porphyry plaque that has travelled to London.

To which one’s immediate reaction is: Roger, what a man. Why aren’t we all doing this? But an appreciation for the arts of the Middle East isn’t the same thing as an understanding of the compatibilities and incompatibilities of religious faith. Nor is necessity the same as desire. Roger’s people – and, in particular, his army – were so religiously and culturally diverse that he had little choice but to make it work. The start of the Norman invasion under his father had incensed a number of Sicily’s Muslims. One poet had even likened Norman Sicily to Adam’s fall. And while Roger impressed many Muslims with his use of Arabic on coins and inscriptions, tensions were brewing outside the court walls between the
island’s various religious quarters. Roger’s death in 1154 marked the beginning of a deterioration in relations that would precipitate under his son and successor, William I, and his grandson William II. Over the following century and a half, Sicily became more or less latinised.

The objects from Norman Sicily that survive – the superb stone carvings and multilingual inscriptions, the robes and richly dressed ceiling designs – tell the story less of an experiment that failed than of beauty that came from necessity. Viewing Sicily against a background of more recent tensions – including Cosa Nostra’s “war” on migrants on an island where net migration remains low – it is perhaps no surprise that the island never lost its “defensive air”. Knowing the fractures out of which Sicily’s defensiveness grew makes this the most interesting thing about it. 

Daisy Dunn’s latest books are Catullus’ Bedspread and The Poems of Catullus (both published by William Collins)

“Sicily” at the British Museum runs until 14 August

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism