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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“Minoan pendant”: a new poem by Mark Granier

“Yes – I press my nose / to the pleasantly warm glass – / it’s a copy of one I saw / cased in the cool museum”

Yes – I press my nose
to the pleasantly warm glass –
it’s a copy of one I saw
cased in the cool museum –
gold beaten to honey, a grainy
oval dollop, flanked by two
slim symmetrical bees –

garland for a civilisation’s
rise and collapse, eye-dropped
five thousand years: a flash
of evening sun on a windscreen
or wing mirror – Heraklion’s
scooter-life buzzing and humming –

as I step in to browse, become
mesmerised by the warm
dark eyes of the woman
who gives her spiel and moves
softly and with such grace,
that, after leaving, I hesitate

a moment on the pavement
then re-enter with a question
I know not to ask, but ask
anyway, to hear her voice
soften even more as she smiles
and shakes her hair – no.

Mark Granier is an Irish poet and photographer. He is the author of four collections of poetry, most recently Haunt (Salmon).

This article first appeared in the 16 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Britain on the brink