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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Poo jokes and pessimism – the scatological legacy of British humour

Is it simply a testament to our good nature, or a sign of a darker kind of cynicism?

Many Brits will have amused themselves this summer by packing a tent, stashing their narcotics and heading over to a muddy field in the middle of nowhere to brave the torrential rain at a music festival.

Wallowing in the mud and other more faecal byproducts to the soundtrack of up-and-coming bands is considered the peak of hedonism for many in the UK, and there is something quintessentially British about the way we willfully embrace the general state of depravity that most of our festivals inevitably collapse into.

One internet meme that perfectly epitomises the difference between British and American festival culture shows an image of a woman at a US event pulling a sad face as she reveals the worst thing she’s seen: “Spitting on the ground.” On her right, a British man slumped in a camping chair holds up his sign, reading: “A man covered in his own shit sniffing ketamine off his mate’s unwashed scrotum.”

There’s a cheerful pride with which Brits embrace bodily dysfunction as a part of our comic culture, and a common trope of British humour involves undermining the stiff upper lip attitude associated with English people, often with an act of complete depravity that dispels any illusion of class and respectability. Britons have always been partial to a good old-fashioned dose of scatological humour, from Chaucer’s bawdy fabliaux that celebrate obscenity, to Shakespeare’s Falstaff, or Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or Swift’s "Scatological Cycle".

Much of the comic effect that these writers create derives from undermining high-brow intellect or spirituality with the low-brow of the rear end – for example the part in Chaucer’s Summoner’s Tale, where the division of an old man’s fart into 12 serves as a parody of the descent of the holy ghost at Pentecost.

Faeces has long since been ingrained in our past literary and historical culture – after all, as the great Shakespeare was writing some of the western world’s most seminal pieces of English literature, his chamber-maid was most likely throwing pieces of his own faeces out of the window next to him.

In English literature, scatological humour can be juvenile, but it has also been used to represent wider social anxieties. In turning bottoms up and exposing the rear end, "shiterature" is often about breaking taboos, and exposing the dirty underbelly of society. Part of the "civilising" process that societies perform to reach a high level of sophistication involves distancing oneself from one’s own excrement, and scatology reverses this by shedding a light on our dirtiest natural habits. Swift’s excremental vision asked us to peel back the mask of genteel individuals, revealing their true and disgusting selves.

Scatology can also represent collective self-disgust, and has been used to question the integrity of a British national identity that has in the past denied its colonial wrongdoings. In Tristram Shandy, the protagonist's porous and leaking diseased body has been interpreted as a metaphor for the British Empire, and indeed the whole being of the Shandean gentleman is sub-textually supported by British colonialism, being as they are descended from merchants who profited from eastern goods sold to the European bourgeois and aristocrats.

Scatology has been used to represent hypochondria, the crisis of the aristocracy, self-disgust and sexual disgust – incidentally all things that we might find at an English festival.

The onslaught of the modern era hasn’t managed to dispel our fondness for injecting sophisticated comedy with snippets of scatological humour. In Peep Show for example, a show largely appreciated for its dry wit and irony, a hilarious scene involves Mark suffering from uncontrollable diarrhea as his boss watches on in disgust. Another brilliant scene is where Jeremy’s employer at the gym confronts him with a plastic bag filled with a human stool, which Jez had used to frame another employee for pooing in the pool.

In a similar vein, one of the most famous scenes in The Inbetweeners is where the uptight Will manages to poo himself during one of his A-level exams. In the second movie, there is another disgusting poo in the pool scene.

In the dark comedy series The Mighty Boosh, characters reference "taking a shit" on objects ranging from a salad, to a swan, to even "your mum". Almost all of these characters (Mark from Peep Show, Will from The Inbetweeners and The Mighty Boosh's Howard Moon) see themselves in some way as representative of a modern British gentleman – prudish, well educated and well spoken. Each of them at points embarrasses themselves and their image with reference to their bowel movements.

It’s a cliché that British humour is about losers, and that we are more prone to self-deprecation than our friends across the pond – a cliché that is not without some truth. 

Admittedly nowadays, much American humour similarly relies on self-deprecation and laughing at the sorry fate of "losers", but cynicism and irony are more fundamental to British comedy. On commenting on the difference between the American and British versions of The Office, Ricky Gervais once said that in the UK: "Failure and disappointment lurk around every corner… We use (irony) as liberally as prepositions in every day speech. We tease our friends. We use sarcasm as a shield and weapon." 

It is certainly true that in Britain, we are particularly pre-occupied with laughing at the failures of the self, and this can manifest itself potently through deprecation of the body.

Maybe the general sense of pessimism that is alluded to so much in the UK is due to our dismal weather, and maybe our ability to laugh at ourselves and our dysfunctions is a simply a testament to our good nature, and something to be applauded. Perhaps it is just something in the air rising from our manure-ploughed green and pleasant lands that inspires in our British comedians the desire to return time and time again to the scatological trope. Or perhaps, if we dig a bit deeper into our dung-fertilised lands, we might find that an anxiety about the foundations of British identity is behind the relentless desire to represent the permeability of the personal and national body.

Should we be embracing our tendency towards self-deprecation, or does it lead to a more problematic kind of cynicism that is restrictive, making us resistant to the idea of radical change? Perhaps we are destined to remain stuck in the mud forever, grumbling about the bad weather as we desperately shelter from the rain under a gazebo, sipping on the dregs of warm beer, pretending we’re having a good time – and who knows? Maybe this is what a good time looks like. Swift once told us to bless the "gaudy tulips raised from dung" – British comedy continues to do so quite literally.