Eddie arrives looking sharp. He’s dressed in a tailored black suit, ankle boots with 50s-style specs. A bit of chic for a French show perhaps. The room we’re given to interview Eddie Izzard unfortunately isn’t so glamorous. We meet in the UEA Finance office; just one blue sofa and one blue chair, in a very blue, very carpeted room.
Photo: Birmingham Mail
Eddie is friendly and chatty as soon as he steps through the door, and we instantly begin talking. After a brief confusion over the photographer’s name (Kieran) and my name (Ciara), this unexpectedly leads to a masterclass on how to do a Northern Irish accent (I tell him Ciara is an Irish name and my dad is from Derry). We spend about five minutes repeating ‘Weetabix’ with a Belfast slant, and ‘hau nau braun cau.’ We then quickly and sensibly move on from accents onto languages.
His show, Stripped Tout en Français was announced with short notice and sold-out immediately, happily coinciding with UEA’s 50th Anniversary celebrations. To some, one of Britain’s most popular comedians performing a whole show in french on home-turf might seem risky, so why do an entire tour? “Well, I’m ambitious – but you can be ambitious and negative. I feel like I want to reach out with an open hand; some people reach out with a closed-fist, I’m an open-hand person. I was born in Yemen, I’ve lived in Northern Ireland and South Wales, and I like languages.” He shows me his metallic red manicure. On his set of glossy nails he has one Union Jack and one European Union flag transfer. “Seeing as I’m a British-European transvestite, I should put my money where my mouth is.”
Eddie’s enthusiasm for language is coupled with his love of Europe, not shy of professing his ardent support of the European Union. “It’s quite difficult to make a governmental system sexy. The idea was to stop people from killing each other.” For Eddie, the learning of languages and the continuation of cooperation in the EU are interlinked. “Arthur Smith, who is going to introduce me tonight – he did the first ever French gig in Paris, ten minutes it was, and then I’m going to take this further and drive this through and then I’m going to do German next year, then hopefully Spanish at the end of next year or in 2015, then Russian, then Arabic.”
He continues, “touring France, which I’ve started doing, is just beautiful. I saw French people fighting to sell out my show and it blows my mind.”
I ask if doing a show in French in a very un-bilingual country might perhaps be seen as niche. “I think people see it (speaking French) as ‘other’ rather than niche. Learning a language might sometimes be seen as niche, but right-wingers in Europe tend to go “oh they’re so ‘other’ they’re so different to us” What I’m trying to do is show the similarity between us.” Even he admits that learning new languages, potentially for an entire stand up show “scares the shit out of me.” Yet, he holds the strong belief that it isn’t an exclusive talent. “Learning a language is like driving a car. Some people are not the sharpest people, but you would never say “they’re so un-sharp they can’t drive car.””
Eddie is a huge advocate of European standups coming to perform in Britain, such as German standup Michael Mittermeier. “The Russians the Germans and the French; if they’re doing are doing it (standup) in English, hopefully I can do it in German and eventually Russian.” He reiterates that this mixing of languages is a way of bringing people in Europe together. “A lot of people aren’t following what I’m doing, it doesn’t seem they’re beating a path in, maybe if I make more money doing this, then maybe they might. It’s quite hard, but it’s not that hard.”
Stripped Tout en Français has gone down a storm where it has been performed, however his plan for a standup tour in French had inauspicious beginnings. “It was a complete and utter failure. Authur Smith did ten minutes and I think did pretty good, but I did an atrocious five minutes. I got so scared I couldn’t remember French.”
Eddie’s standup routines often have the Python-esque surreal narrative, which one would think might not sit will with French audiences, and that he would perhaps have to change his material. “No, I don’t. There is a mainstream sense of humour in every country. Alternatives will do more surreal, out-there stuff. Like all us surreal guys, the Python’s children, they exist in France and Germany. The audiences exist there, you just have to find them.”
We round up the interview but I have one last, very important question: what is “covered in bees” in French? This turned out not to be a simple question. “Ooh good point…” he pauses and has a think. “Couvert des abeilles? Il a été… No… something like that… I’m going to look it up now. I’ll do it in the direct translation, this should be fun.” He whips out his iPhone and quickly tries to Google the answer. “Je suis couvert chez des abeilles? That’s weird. Home of the bees. That’s wrong. Je suis couvert des abeilles. That’s what it is.” You can download his show, Stripped Tout en Français from the french iTunes, and Stripped from the UK website.