Tears are never far from ruining the make-up of Eddie Izzard

His new DVD is far from a laugh-a-minute, but then so is its author. By Ian Burrell

On the evening before I met Eddie Izzard he had walked across the cobble stones of the Covent Garden piazza to reminisce on the long, hard years he spent pedalling a unicycle and tying himself up in chains in the hope of prompting a few laughs from passing shoppers.

"I just like visiting the place where I lost it all," he explains, sounding a little maudlin and slightly irritated that he found the area barricaded off and deprived of the street theatre for which it is famous. "It's my manor; it's where I found myself and learned that pit-of-the-stomach thing."

These days Izzard splits his time between London and Los Angeles and earlier this year he reached a new pinnacle in his career by playing New York's Madison Square Garden.

"From the Garden to the Garden," he observes. To some, he is the male comic with a strange talent for applying eyeliner and stepping gracefully in high heels. That simplistic caricature he suspects, in spite of his global fame, puts people off coming to see his act.

It's the reason why his Christmas DVD is a complicated biographical documentary, rather than one of his shows. "Seeing as people still don't understand where the hell I come from, it seemed like a good idea."

So instead of belly laughs at Izzard's trademark stream-of-consciousness journeys into the surreal, such as those served up on previous live DVDs such as Dressed to Kill and Stripped, viewers of Believe get to see tearful Eddie, angry Eddie and Eddie dying on stage, again and again. It's a challenging watch for Christmas.

Sarah Townsend, Izzard's former girlfriend, directed the film over six years. She says Izzard's work ethic presented her with a problem.

"There are no tantrums, no drug parties or behaviour that will create wonderful footage. It isn't like that - it's very organised; a streamlined machine," she says.

At least that has been the case since 2000, when Anne Robinson and the BBC's Watchdog threw a spanner into the works. Ten years later Izzard remains outraged that the show had the audacity to accuse him of ripping off his audience by performing successful gags that he had told before.

So livid was Eddie that Townsend actually starts the film with what many would regard as a footnote in his rise to stardom. "We had never seen you so upset by anything," she says, sat on a sofa alongside the comedian. He is far from over the incident. "The Watchdog thing really did fucking kick me in the head. Watchdog is normally: 'This guy sold a bad vacuum cleaner," he complains, slapping himself theatrically on the wrist. "And I'm in that bag! That's not what I was trying to do!"

He was, he says, doing no more than the Rolling Stones playing their hits. "Morecambe and Wise? They had the same show for 20, 30 years. I only had that show for a year - give us a break!"

Believe picks up the story as Izzard bounces back with his Sexie tour in 2003. But for six years Townsend filmed her ex without being able to find a narrative. It was only in the last week of filming that she coaxed from him the most poignant moment on Believe, when he emotionally acknowledges the reason for his extraordinary drive: the death of his mother when he was six years old.

"The big problem is that everything I do in life is trying to get her back. I think if I do enough things that maybe she will come back," he says on the film, before a long pause in which tears run down his left cheek.

"I don't know what went on in that interview, but I had never quite said that before. It was a slightly out-of-body experience," he says now. The loss of his mother drove him onwards.

Now he's huge in America, he admits his cross-dressing helped to make his name. "For me to say: 'I'm a transvestite and I'm doing this', seemed to be quite fresh in America," he says, while complaining that he has had to "crowbar apart" the notion that he is a drag artist. "People thought: 'It's all about make-up' and then realised: 'Oh, it's not - he's talking surreal stuff'." He was hassled by American officials - "they always used to pull me over" - not for his dress sense, but because his passport records his birth in Yemen.

He is about to decamp to a Paris club where he will perform in French for three months. He'd also like to do his act in German. "I'm very positive on European politics. We just need to be a big melting pot because we are all the same humans around the world."

'Believe' is on BBC2 on Saturday at 10.45pm and is out now on DVD