Picture the scene. Prime Minister’s questions.
A lone figure rises from the opposition benches to quiz the leader of the UK government during the weekly House of Commons bunfight.
Cutting a distinct and dashing figure, he fires off a verbal missile loaded and dispatched with the withering speed and unerring accuracy of a battle-hardened stand-up comedian.
Just in this case the words happen to be spoken by one of the world’s premier gagsmiths putting the PM firmly in his place, no doubt with a surrealistic flourish involving jam or bees.
If Eddie Izzard has his way, the reality of this hitherto dream-like scenario could come to fruition sooner than we think.
Picturing the world’s most famous marathon-running, cross-dressing, Hollywood acting, multi-lingual comedy icon bestriding the chamber of the House of Commons (very possibly in high heels) might signify a great loss to the world of comedy – but what a coup for politics and what theatre this would present for a British public often out of love with the whole political landscape.
For Izzard, it looks to be the next in a long line of lofty ambitions that has seen the 51-year-old redefine the word ‘overachiever’.
Lest we forget this is the man who chalked up the incredible feat of completing 43 marathons in 51 days for Sport Relief in 2009; made even more astonishing by the fact that he had only six weeks’ training before setting off, and no prior experience of running.
When we speak he’s just wrapped up the continental leg of his latest globetrotting tour Force Majeure – the biggest, most geographically extensive run of dates of all time taking in such far flung comedy outposts as Belgrade, Bucharest and Istanbul. It also includes dates in France performing in French.
There continues to be no half measures for the conviction comedian who this year celebrates 25 years as a performer and puts most of us mere mortals to shame with the sheer scope of his indomitable world view.
That’s why on declaring his political ambitions, no one appeared particularly surprised, especially as Izzard, a staunch Labour activist, has spent the past few years sharing a platform with members of the party.
When he came out and said he would love to be an MP and declared that he would run for office as the Mayor of London in 2020, the thought of a comedian in political office wasn’t derided but seen as a wholly captivating idea. “People ask me can you run for mayor if you are a comedian and I say ‘Boris Johnson’ and they say ‘ah yes’!” he says, elongating his vowels in that trademark way he does on stage – usually when regaining his train of thought in between mind-boggling flights of fancy involving jazz chickens and dinosaurs.
“I have said I will be running for Mayor of London in 2020, so that or an MP,” he adds. “It’s seven years away so it’s down the line a bit. Who knows where that might go.
“I’m buggered if I’m just going to sit on my hands. I have determination, so I’m just going to push, rather than float by and go, ‘Oh, that was life, was it? Okay, switch off the lights and I’ll just shuffle off.’ But this isn’t something out of the blue; I campaigned (for Labour) in the 2008 election, and in 2010. I’ve put my time in and not been sitting idly on my backside.
“I’ve been quite consistent; I don’t think I’ve been a loose cannon, so hopefully people will realise that I’m there to try to do something positive and help as opposed to just having a go in some sort of crazy way.
“I’m serious about it and I’m making all the plans I can.”
The comic can actually pinpoint the precise moment he made his mind up to fastrack his political ambitions.
“When I was practising for the marathons, running down to Richmond and back, there was a bumper sticker on the back of this parked Jeep which I kept going past, and it said, ‘One life: live it.’ I don’t believe in a god, so I think we have only got this one life – maybe there is another one, but no one’s ever managed to get back and say, ‘Yes, there’s definitely another one’ – so I’m living this one to its fullest.
“I’m getting more (job) offers than I’ve ever had in my life, so it’s sort of the worst time to go away. But I’ve got to do this, and if I don’t do it then I don’t think I’ll ever do it.
“I tend to make these plans way ahead and then go away and try to put them into action. People know I’m kind of tenacious. If I have ideas about playing Europe and doing gigs in French, or running 43 marathons, it might take me 15 years to get there, but I get there. I’m not mucking about, so hopefully people will believe that.”
Much of Izzard’s drive comes from an intense dislike of the far right’s insidious racist agenda. And the staunch Europhile reserves most of his bile for Ukip and their anti-European posturing.
“There’s people hating people, blaming each other, there’s the immigration issue. It’s cyclical; we had it back in the ’30s with Hitler on the rise,” says Izzard, who has never shied from nailing his colours to the European mast.
“Fifty per cent of our trade is with Europe and if we move out of Europe and have no say over it that’s crazy. Yes it needs to be less bureaucratic, yes it needs to be more streetwise, but I just want to be involved in all that. More people should get involved in politics because we need to give a damn about each other.
“A lot of people find politics very boring. It can be very dry politics, I’ll agree, but I’m fired by the fact that I don’t like the right wing, I don’t like people saying you’ve got to hate each other, you’ve got to hate immigrants. You’ve got to say we need to be better than this.”
Born in the Yemen where Izzard’s father worked as an accountant for BP, maybe it was an early nomadic existence and disparate roots, which saw him live in Wales, Northern Ireland and England, that accounts for his passion for travel and being an enthusiastic advocate for the broadening of borders.
It seems that his political fire is burning brighter than ever.
In his new show he mentions the recent death of former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher declaring that “hell is busy at the moment because Lady Thatcher just arrived there”.
And he goes further: “To run a country you need to have a heart. She didn’t give a s*** about half the country – and that’s why she’s in hell.
“She didn’t get a state funeral so that was right. I guess she struck a blow for sexism in the Tory party but she seemed to be someone who had little female sensibility about her.
“She was actually very anti-women, she wouldn’t have any women in her cabinet. So she wasn’t good for women, she wasn’t good for people. She wasn’t good for your average person. She was good for the rich and those who wanted to make a lot of money.
“She was totally against people who were having a tough time. She was supposed to be a leader of a whole country, but she never was.”
It may appear that with Force Majeure Izzard is subtly spinning his own particular political allegiance, but he insists he’s not playing party politics.
“No, it’s not that, honestly. The show is about stuff that is timeless and historic,” he insists.
The comic’s eye for a surrealistic twist still remains intact, however.
His last tour Stripped saw him peeling away the layers of history thanks to the use of animals and historic figures, so are there any dinosaurs or jazz chickens in this one?
“There’s no dinosaurs and this time it’s a different chicken,” he laughs.
“There’s also a ghostly grey lady and God meets Darth Vader in the Death Star Canteen (a sequel to one of his most famous routines). Like Monty Python it’s intelligent, surreal and stupid all at the same time.”
Izzard has blurred the boundaries by performing Force Majeure in places even he has never ventured before.
“It’s kind of crazy going to places like Istanbul, Zagreb and Belgrade. I wasn’t quite sure what was going to happen but it was great. It sold well and it was fun and they like British comedy. I don’t feel there is a big difference in their sense of humour.
“They love Monty Python as much as they love The Simpsons, you just have to link it up to your weird surreal world.”
How did he surmount the language barrier then?
“It’s the English thing. I’m talking about human sacrifice, Darth Vader meeting God in the Death Star canteen, Lord of the Rings, ancient greek gods, Clash of the Titans, some of our kings like Richard the Lionheart, so there’s lots of things that audiences everywhere can relate to.
“I make it all universal. And I’m doing it all in English except for France where I perform in French. So their English is good, very good in fact. In Belgrade and Bucharest there was a huge reaction. It was crazy.”
Deriving from the French translation of ‘acts of god’, Izzard says that Force Majeure is a show that addresses the fact that we are only ones that can save ourselves.
“It’s all about us being human and gods not coming to help us.
“Most people are either centre right or centre left with the three main parties, then there’s the extremists coming back especially in times of financial crisis and now you’ve got the real right wingers on the rise.
“So this is about all of us, people believing in people and how whatever we may think we have got better over the years – at least we’re not doing that human sacrifice stuff anymore!”
I wonder what drives Izzard into such spectacularly ambitious continent-straddling ventures.
“It’s exciting, it’s an adventure. I’m reaching out, I believe in people. Ambition is good if you are trying to do something positive. Nelson Mandela was ambitious. When I was growing up in the ’70s all I knew was that we were an ex-Imperialist country and all we did was steal other people’s stuff, all that asset-stripping capitalist thing.
“That I’m not into. But what I am into is the Richard Branson style of business. Being like The Beatles or The Stones, being global. The Stones are doing their 50th anniversary, this is my 25th anniversary – so that’s what I’m about reaching out and meeting other people and doing a bit of comedy while I’m at it.”
As we speak, he reveals he’s attempting to gig in Kathmandu, after a chance meeting with someone from the Nepalese capital.
Closer to home he’s now into the UK and Ireland leg of his global trek, which will see him play three dates at the Cardiff Motorpoint Arena this month.
Izzard spent part of his life living in Wales, in Skewen in the Neath valley.
Although Wales was the country where his mum died (Izzard was six at the time), he remains upbeat about his time here despite that early heartache.
“I was only in Skewen for about three years. My mum died when I was there so yeah that was tough,” he recalls.
“When I did the marathons and ran back to Wales, if you had drawn a straight line from Cardiff you could go straight up to Liverpool, but I thought no, I want to run to Swansea and Skewen.
“I was in school in Swansea, I was also in school in Porthcawl, so I have a big affection for Wales. I love the flag, I love the dragon, they play a great game of rugby there and Swansea City is doing very well; the club is a wonderful example of how to survive in the Premier League, which is better than my team Crystal Palace,” he chirps.
He also attributes his marathon-running prowess to the energy-sapping, thigh-straining hills of Brecon.
“Running through Brecon I thought I’d conquered Everest at that point. I think it was marathon number 10 and once I’d completed that I had the belief I was a runner. So I’m happy to say I’d learned to run marathons in Wales. It was tough time for me there but I learnt how to break through.”
Izzard’s multi-marathon feat, which raised £1.8m for Sport Relief, still remains one of the most incredible tests by any human being – athlete or otherwise – and resulted in the comic receiving a special award at the 2009 Sports Personality of the Year Awards.
His 43 marathons in 51 days saw him leave London and push himself to his physical limit through the capital cities of England, Wales, and Northern Ireland, returning to a triumphant welcome in London’s Trafalgar Square.
“It was a very positive thing,” he says by way of huge understatement.
“We tried to encourage kids and other people to do positive stuff, eat more healthily and it raised £1.8m, so it was all good and an adventure.”
There must have been points where he thought he couldn’t carry on so what kept him going?
“I realised that at any point if I thought I couldn’t carry on, then I wouldn’t carry on.
“But I never let negative thoughts enter my mind. I thought this is what I’m going to do so let’s make it happen. Come hell or high water I’ve just got to drag myself around the country, so I got by with a mixture of running, walking and staggering. People asked me, ‘Did you like the running?’ I said I liked the stopping.”
It’s this supernatural kind of single-mindedness that currently sees the multi-lingual performer learning five languages – Spanish, French, German, Russian and Arabic.
He explains: “Spanish – because it’s spoken in a large chunk of America and most of South America; French because we’ve always been scratching between the two countries as we’re neighbours and I’m now selling out 2,000 seaters in Paris; German – there’s 80 million people there and about 10 million in Austria and if I go there that breaks something open for me; Russian – again a huge place and hello here’s an English speaker learning the language; and Arabic because I was born in an Arabic country and they’re struggling like crazy with democracy.”
So no plans to master the Welsh language then?
“When I was young we did go up to Porthmadog and stay in a log cabin, so I did get out the phrase books, but I found it really tricky.
“Welsh is already in a good place,” he counters. “You have your language and the people speaking it. I’d feel like I’d have to jump through hellish hoops and only be able to do a few gigs in the whole of Wales if I tried to learn to speak Welsh. I’m just being practical with languages right now. I’m a pragmatic idealist. So, I have to apologise for not learning every language in the world!”
For the performer who has carved out a sizeable career in Hollywood appearing in big budget movies – Ocean’s Twelve and its sequel Ocean’s Thirteen, My Super Ex-Girlfreind and Valkyrie, as well as TV series such as The Riches and Hannibal – it’s difficult to comprehend how Izzard manages to divide his life between his various passions. Even he himself admits it can be difficult.
“It’s tricky, yes indeed,” he laughs. “I’m looking to do as many good dramatic roles as I can. With comedy I can pick that up when I choose, but working out how to do everything is a little difficult.
“It’s a lot like juggling rabbits – I’m not quite sure how I work it out.
“The one thing I say is you don’t go after the money, don’t chase the money. However, do as much good work as you can.”
Izzard concedes that he initially found it difficult to get where he wanted to in the film world, but now equates his current ascent to the world’s highest peak.
“I did feel with the Oceans films that it was like getting to basecamp at Everest. Everyone else was going up the mountain and I wasn’t quite there. So it was good to get to basecamp, now I’ve got to keep going up Everest.”
Metaphorically-speaking, how far up the world’s highest peak does he feel he is?
“Well in comedy I feel I’m in a good place and I need to stay there. With drama I feel I’m halfway up the mountain but there’s still a way to go, but I’m delivering and getting better roles. I’ve just done Hannibal on NBC (in the US), I did Lost Christmas for the BBC, and (TV movie) Treasure Island which I was very happy with.
I wondered how he felt about fitting in with the Hollywood elite – having acted alongside such bankable stars as Brad Pitt, George Clooney and Tom Cruise in the Oceans and Valkyrie movies. Did he feel at all intimidated appearing with such stellar names?
“I’ve never felt intimidated working with people like Brad Pitt, George Clooney and Tom Cruise.
“You’re just anxious because you want to do as good as you can. I was very happy to be there and they were very welcoming to me.
“It was just fun to be on set. You’ve just got to be as confident as you can.
“It was what I wanted to do in the first place, it’s just been a long struggle to get into those situations.”
And there seems to be plenty more to come from the man who keeps on confounding expectations.
“There’s more touring. I’ll be playing all 50 states of America, doing more dramatic work and then gigs in German, so that’s the next thing,” he says matter of factly, as if it was the most natural thing ever.
Which in the extraordinary world of Eddie Izzard it most evidently is.
Eddie Izzard brings Force Majeure to Cardiff Motorpoint Arena on May, 17, 29 and 30. Tickets from the box office on 029 2022 4488