The Weekend's TV: Believe: the Eddie Izzard Story, Sat, BBC2
Little Crackers, Sun, Sky 1
Eddie's glorious leaps of faith
Monday 20 December 2010
It seems we have Weekend Watchdog to thank for Believe: the Eddie Izzard Story.
Sarah Townsend's intriguing film about the comedian began with a snippy and ill-informed report on the consumer programme, which accused him of recycling material from an old tour. Virtually every minute of the film that followed might have been designed to prove that taking easy shortcuts is the very last thing that Izzard would do. Hurt by the suggestion that he was short-changing his fans, he took a break from stand-up to concentrate on acting; this film both recorded his preparation for his comeback tour and explained how he went from comic no-hoper to the kind of star who can sell out Wembley Arena.
What really wounded Izzard about the charge of recycling was that he'd never made any secret of his working process, which involves ever-wilder excursions from the previous shows. It's a process of evolution, which means that by the end of a tour the material he's using will be completely different to the show he started with. This time round though, sensitive about any suggestion that he was building on old foundations, he effectively began with a pre-tour, popping up in tiny venues in places like Frome to slowly lick the new show into shape. And in between doing that he reminisced about his past, and revisited places that had been important to him.
"Living here was the best part of my life," he said, looking around the Northern Ireland house he'd lived in as a small child. "After that it all went crap." The reason for that was the death of his mother from cancer, after which he and his brother were consigned to a school in Eastbourne, where Izzard rapidly absorbed the most crucial lesson the English boarding system delivers: that it's probably safer to repress the emotions. "I thought, 'Crying equals losing in arguments'. So I didn't cry from then on." Instead, in a classic displacement for the unhappy and vulnerable, he showed off a lot. And when Izzard saw Monty Python he decided to make it big in comedy.
That isn't the sort of thing you're supposed to be able to decide for yourself, but the fascination of Townsend's film lay in its evidence that Izzard – apparently the most insouciantly natural of comedians – had conjured himself into existence by sheer force of will. His phrase for it was "personal nepotism". If no one else would give him a break, he would do it for himself. So, though he could be described as an overnight success, after a single charity gig that really made his name, years of obscurity had led up to that night – on the cobbles of Covent Garden, where he learned to work a crowd round to his way of thinking, and in the rash of comedy clubs that sprang up in London in the Eighties. Izzard would come back to his flat from compering open-mike spots and plot his progress on a map of London, colour-coding what material worked where.
He'd also learned something crucial earlier, after an escapology act went humiliatingly wrong in Covent Garden piazza. "If you think you cannot get out you will not be able to get out," a colleague told him. "You have to believe you can get out." He now seems almost addicted to performance risk; when he felt in control of stand-up he went off to Paris to do his act in a language he could barely speak. It was a disaster, so he plugged away at that, too, and now he can even make Frenchmen laugh. "Why do you want to be a so-so actor when you're a brilliant comedian?" someone asked, just after he'd added that to his to-do list. "Well, once I was a so-so comedian," he replied.
It might all strike you as ruthless – if it wasn't for the man behind it. After one gig in America, a weeping woman dressed as a bee came to the stage door to thank Izzard for bringing her through a recent medical ordeal; she'd been reciting one of his routines as she was wheeled out of the operating room. He reached out and gave her a big hug – which isn't something you can imagine Jimmy Carr or Frankie Boyle doing. And there's a humanising need behind his drive, too. Towards the end of the film, Townsend filmed him shortly after he'd read some old letters his mother had written, expressing her concern for the boys she knew she was about to leave behind: "Everything I do in life is about trying to get her back," Izzard said with tears in his eyes. Personally, I didn't think we needed "Mama Can You See Me Now" on the soundtrack as Izzard opened at Wembley to press the point home. We got it already. But that misjudgement aside, this was a film that began as a fan's DVD extra and steadily deepened into something far more substantial and moving.
Oddly, a premature maternal loss also featured in The Giddy Kipper – Victoria Wood's contribution to Little Crackers, Sky's season of short festive dramas, which she'd introduced by saying, "It is – in a lot of ways – my childhood." In fact, Wood's mother didn't die when she was a child, so this account of a solitary little girl excluded from the Sunday school treat by a vindictive teacher can't have been directly autobiographical. It included a lovely moment of fantasy, when winter dark transformed into daylight and the central character found herself briefly reunited with her mother. Touching enough anytime, but particularly poignant if you'd seen Believe.
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