Profile: Eddie Izzard; A seriously funny man

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After witnessing a stand-up performance by Lenny Bruce, the critic Kenneth Tynan wrote: "Clutching a hand mike, he slouched around a tiny dais, free-associating like mad; grinning as he improvised, caring as he grinned, seldom repeating in the second show what he said in the first, and often conducting what amounted to a rush job of psychoanalysis on the audience he was addressing. He used words as a jazz musician uses notes, going off into fantastic private cadenzas and digressions, and returning to his theme just when you thought he had lost track for ever."

The description could equally be applied to Eddie Izzard, but for the microphone and the dais. Izzard doesn't play the kind of smoky, intimate clubs in which Bruce's lethal mix of scatology and satire had punters torn between rolling in the aisle, squirming in their seats and running to the exit. Izzard fills theatres for weeks on end, and earlier this year he became one of that tiny band of merry men, who get laughs for a living, to play Wembley Arena. Only the French have witnessed the comic at close quarters in recent times. He toured Paris clubs in a valiant and reputedly successful attempt to translate his act into the native tongue, despite being equipped with little more than schoolboy French. Now, in the play Lenny, which starts previews next week, he is to return to the West End theatre as an actor, for the first time since his role in 900 Oneonta in 1995.

The decision by the director Sir Peter Hall and the writer Julian Barry to cast Eddie Izzard as Lenny is inspired. Based on the life and words of Lenny Bruce, Barry's play was last produced for the stage here in 1975, and became the Bob Fosse film with Dustin Hoffman in the lead. The writer first encountered Izzard on a video belonging to the 12-year-old daughter of a friend, and called Hall immediately.

The name of Lenny Bruce may not bring audiences to the West End, but Izzard will, even though in the past his acting has been less noteworthy than his comedy. Certainly, with his film roles this is a reflection more of the slimness of the characters, than of his performances: a villain in the remaindered The Avengers, and a Seventies pop manager in the risible Ewan McGregor vehicle The Velvet Goldmine. The combination of his two major skills, and the free-association-style that Izzard has made his own -just as Bruce did - make him perfect for the part. And even though this is a scripted play with a cast of eight and a live jazz band, there has been no effort to restrict him to a script when re-enacting the routines of the legendary American comic. Who will then come to the fore - Eddie Izzard the comedian, or the ghost of Lenny Bruce?

"Once you commit, as long as you finish you'll be fine," he has said in the past, regarding his approach to improvisation. "That's what I learnt from street performing. All you had to do is finally do it." Riding a tricycle round Covent Garden for the non-paying public in the Eighties, escaping from woolly jumpers and making cornflakes disappear were part of his routine as a street entertainer. And as one half of a knife-throwing act, he auditioned to be part of the in-flight entertainment on Virgin Airlines. Except for a few weeks as a barman and a waiter, Izzard's jobs on the laboured and circuitous route to becoming a paid-up actor have always related to a performance of some form or other.

The ambition took root, as such flights of fancy often do, after he saw his first play, at the age of seven. Izzard was born in Yemen, where his father was an accountant for BP, and shifted about a lot in his youth, moving to Bangor in Northern Ireland at the age of one, later to Swansea, and eventually to Bexhill-on-Sea, after the death of his mother when he was seven. There the pace of life was so slow that "you could hear several pins drop - from people's artificial limbs". These days Izzard considers himself to be an internationalist.

He has often been quoted as saying - in the way that Madonna and many a motherless child who grew into a determined performer tends to do - that the dream and subsequent ambition were born of a desperation for the love of an audience. If this is the case, that in itself is an ambition fulfilled. Another one to be ticked off Izzard's ever-lengthening list.

The loyalty he inspires in his fans is the kind usually reserved for purveyors of pop. Female fans swoon, and wax lyrical about his attractiveness and charm. And Izzard himself has joked that the look that he has fine- tuned to an art as sharp as his comedy - that of a man-in-make-up/ bloke- in-a-dress - is ultimately a better opener than a chat-up line. His obvious affection for his "Izzardites", as he refers to them, along with his love of all the mod cons of new technology, come together in the Izzard Web page. Here he leaves messages about his days - "dreading this meeting" - and his whereabouts, to which fans respond by e-mail. They are also invited to contribute passages to his Net novel, The Lion, the Midwitch and the Badcrumble.

He is apparently all talked out on the subject of cross-dressing. After all, it has been on his mind since the age of four, when he first felt the urge to step into a dress. Oddly, the subject has previously served as a safety curtain, protecting him from revealing any further information about his private life, or a significant other. It has become absorbed into Izzard's professional persona to the extent of being both expected and ignored, but there could not have been a better place to experiment with and expand on his "executive transvestism" than the world of celebrity in the nation's capital - though he has cast himself as a kind of missionary, taking cross-dressing from the bedroom to every backwater on the British landscape.

Three years ago he became embroiled in a fight in Cambridge, when four men took objection to his style of dress. Consequently Izzard took them to court and won what he considers to be a moral victory. The Izzard look that graces the neat and vibrant designs of videos and books evolved from an early television performance on Comic Relief. The routine was one about a transvestite on television, from a comic with kohled eyes and lipstick, largely unknown to viewers, and was met with little more than the sound of one hand clapping. These days, the make-up is perfect, the trousers are PVC and the jackets are box-shaped and brocaded. A design element has bunked in, but Izzard is still more Asda than Prada. And this only adds to his appeal. Despite having friends on high tables, the comedy and pop aristocracy on the celebrity restaurant loop and a big house in Notting Hill, he could easily be dressed for a Saturday night in Albert Square with Irene Hills and the girls.

Izzard's appearance may have caused offence in some quarters in the past, but unlike Lenny Bruce, he has nothing in his repertoire that would result in a walkout, a police bust or the threat of prison. Like "transvestism", the word "surrealism" has become synonymous with Eddie Izzard, and each hints at part of the story rather than revealing the whole. Before he moved into the public consciousness, the image of a transvestite bought to mind astrakhan collars on catalogue coats, and surrealist comedy invariably involved a parrot, an orange and a punch line. What you get with Izzard's comedy performance is more than an act; it's a mind and an imagination at work.

Like Victoria Wood at her best, he manages to hone the comedy of recognition by swooping in on the trivial, asking the silly questions that no one thinks of asking (Why do racing commentators say "There were five also- rans"? Who cares? Maybe one sauntered) and taking flight. As with John Sessions' brilliant one-man shows in the Eighties, Izzard mixes and matches modern-day minutiae with the big moments in history, and conjures up unlikely yet plausible couplings. Cesar dog food links Rover with Roman emperors, and a dyslexic boxing promoter pits George Formby against Mohammed Ali.

It was during his stint at Sheffield University, between boarding school and comedy busking, while studying accounting and financial management, that Izzard first tried his hand at stand-up. He financed a one-man show at the Edinburgh Festival that proved to be an unmitigated failure. A few years later, he won the Perrier Award and subsequently became the first comedian to embark upon a West End run of a solo show. Somewhere in between, Izzard was blessed with that eureka! moment, in which, after much sniffing round for clues in creative culs-de-sac, a nascent genius finally discovers the voice that eventually becomes his signature and, sometimes, the key to success. Proust had his madeleine, and Warhol his Brillo pads. For Izzard, it was breakfast cereals: the subject of a sketch for two that he was forced to perform alone in a comedy workshop. "I learnt to play myself. I found out how I could have a central me or an extension of me to hold it all together."

It was the beginning of a system. And Izzard loves systems - as comedian, businessman and actor. It's the one significant rule that he learnt from his accountancy course. Ultimately, there is a plan to everything he does. The ad-libbing and the free association of his stage act can snap quickly back to order and control. Similarly, he diversifies and flits from the nucleus of his career into flights of fancy that, like some routines, don't succeed, but are always within the embrace of the nerve centre of the Izzard empire, Ella Communications. Named after his mother, this is the company that he set up to produce videos of his stage shows, and control every product that emerges from the Izzard imagination.

His foray into pop was short-lived, as manager of the group the Wasp Factory, and his self-penned sitcom The Cows ran for one series. Politics is a subject he does best to steer clear of. An appearance on Question Time last year was reminiscent of the moment when Culture Club once informed us, insightfully, that war is stupid. Here, when asked to comment on issues of the day, Izzard's "ums" and "ahs", and ad-libbing round the theme that, yes, people should be nice to each other, and, oh, fighting is bad, were those of someone genuinely lost for words.

For a man who originally shunned television, fearing that if he became too familiar with comedy he would never be taken seriously as an actor, Izzard has occasionally fallen into the trap of lesser comedians who need the chats with the Clives - James and Anderson - more than most. Now, ironically, the role that looks likely to make him the actor he has always wanted to be is that of a comedian.

Life Story

Born: 7 February 1962, in Aden

Family: Father, John, an accountant with BP; mother, Dorothy, a midwife. One elder brother, Mark

Education: St John's in Porthcawl, Mid-Glamorgan; St Bede's in Eastbourne; Eastbourne College; Sheffield University (accountancy and financial management)

Awards: British Comedy Award for best stand-up comedian, 1993 and 1996. Nominated for the Perrier Award, 1991

Height: 5ft 7in

Favourite books: Tolkien's Lord of the Rings

Favourite films: The Italian Job, The Great Escape

He says: `I am normal and boring. That's probably why I'm keen to do things that scare me, like stand-up and doing the whole thing in French in Paris and going to America. I suppose it comes from being a transvestite'

Of himself: `The best description of me is a male lesbian'

Others on him: `Of all the comedians I've seen over the years, he is the closest there is to Lenny Bruce in the way he works.' (Julian Barry, writer of Lenny)