Radio 4's lounge Izzard

Comedian in panel-game shock! Eddie Izzard tells James Rampton why he's the new Meryl Streep
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The Independent Culture
Eddie Izzard receives as many propositions as Liz Hurley, but he plays much harder-to-get than the over-exposed actress. He is the only known comedian to have become famous by not appearing on TV. It's the old "treat 'em mean, keep 'em keen" philosophy: the more he turns people down, the more they lust after him.

So which of his countless suitors has the most sought-after stand-up in town finally succumbed to? Is he doing a mould-breaking, bijou sitcomette for Seamus Cassidy at Channel 4? Or perhaps a cutting-edge sketch -cum- stand-up-show at the behest of BBC2's Michael Jackson? Er, no. The hottest comedian around is actually doing a panel game on staid old Home Counties Radio 4. His legion of fans - "Izzardites" follow their hero and notch up gigs with the same devotion that Dead Heads lavish on the Grateful Dead - don't seem to mind, though. Queues curled round the block at the Paris Studios in London to see a recording of his Radio 4 show, Missed Demeanours, earlier this year. The man who won't do TV was certainly packing 'em in for radio.

The producer of Missed Demeanours, Phil Clarke - a former stand-up who warmed up the audience by getting them to practise "a polite, middle-class round of applause, remember this is Radio 4" - admires Izzard's judgement. "The majority of the media are guilty of being sluts. Comedians are like pop groups: flavour of the month. The media chews them up and then spits them out again. Parasitical stand-up TV shows, for instance, will get comedians to use up their best five minutes' material and then tell them to buzz off. Eddie concluded that in order to do what you want to do, you have to be in charge. It's a bit like boxing: you want to do the right gigs-stroke-fights at the right time. He keeps them guessing. Now Eddie gets people coming to him with the begging-bowl."

Speaking down the line from Leicester, where he is rehearsing for the lead in Marlowe's Edward II, Izzard reveals why he accepted the begging- bowl Clarke proffered: "I've wanted to do a panel game for a million years, one of those sit-around-and-talk-bollocks games. They're a joy for comedians, because you can be so lazy in them. Just talking off the top of your head - that's what you've trained for for 10 years on the circuit. The essence of it is bam-bam-bam, off-the-cuff wit. That's when it gets hot." The temperature at the Missed Demeanours recording certainly rose when Izzard warmed up, playing on variations of the idea of being hoisted by your own Jean-Luc Picard.

Clarke applauds this "ability to go down an avenue of surreal whimsy. This show is a good vehicle for Eddie, because he can follow a unique train of thought. Comedians who like to work a highly-structured set wouldn't feel so at home." With a slight paunch, a hairdo of an orange hue not found in nature and a shabby white collarless shirt, Izzard is no "comedy is the new rock'n'roll" babe-or-bloke-magnet. But what does that matter when he can make you laugh without even opening his mouth? One charismatic, coquettish mug to the audience is enough to crack them up. He can even turn a rare line which falls flat into a gag: "I'm sorry. My comedy lung has just been removed." According to Clarke, Izzard's whimsical, defiantly untopical style makes him "one of the few comedians who appeals to a broad cross-section - people of 50 and 15 like him. That is unusual in an age where comedians, like everything else, seem to have a niche."

As with all the best panel games, Missed Demeanours has childishly simple rules. In this ingenious cross between Timewatch and Call My Bluff, one team of comedians reads out an account from history - Canine Heroes of the First World War, a History of the Adelphi Theatre - and the other has to interrupt when it thinks history and the truth have parted company.

"Just a Minute is the classic, because it's so simple," says Izzard, who devised Missed Demeanours. "Some of the other games get very complicated. I wanted to do one where everyone knows where they are, then we're free just to talk rubbish over the top." At the recording, he never let the game get in the way of a good gag. "I do say kamikaze things," he admits, "like, 'George III played banjo at Hull Kingston Rovers'." He is hopeful that the station will want more of his peculiar brand of rubbish. "At first, Radio 4 thought 'this is much too racy', but they should be happy with an injection of young blood. Now, if we don't get another series, we'll have a fight or perhaps an arm-wrestle." After Edward II, Izzard can be seen opposite Robin Williams, Grard Depardieu and Bob Hoskins in Christopher Hampton's screen version of The Secret Agent. He has already starred - to critical acclaim, for the most part - in David Mamet's The Cryptogram, and serious actorhood apparently beckons.

He draws an unlikely comparison between himself and Meryl Streep. "Once she was the woman who did silly accents and had no sense of humour. Now, with The River Wild, she is making herself into an action heroine. She's trying to be unpigeonholeable. I am too. It gives you more options and people get less pissed off with you. I want to be curious, as opposed to being phenomenally well-known for just one thing. I want to keep moving constantly. If you stop moving, you're dead." So, what's Izzard's next move? "I'm going to live in a ditch for six years and eat spam."

'Missed Demeanours' begins at 6.30pm on Radio 4 on 18 May