‘Boarding school can make you emotionally dead’

Eddie Izzard
Eddie Izzard

Eddie Izzard never does anything by halves. He’s performed comedy in numerous languages in massive stadiums where previously only rock stars ventured, run not just one marathon but 27 in 27 days and played royalty opposite the Dame Judi Dench in the highly anticipated movie Victoria & Abdul.

The cross-dressing comedian, actor and writer - who originally wanted to join the SAS - constantly sets himself seemingly impossible challenges and frequently diverts from any conventional career path to a more mountainous, hazardous route which is much trickier to navigate.

His latest diversion, memoir Believe Me, reveals - in part - why he’s developed such a tough, resilient skin.

Today, dressed in ‘girl mode’ jacket, tight jeans and black patent stilettos, fuschia pink lipstick, scarlet nail varnish, long false eyelashes and diamond stud earrings, his thoughts seem as random and surreal as some of his comedy, relaying themes as they pop into his head and frequently going off on tangents.

“Some people say to me, ‘Oh, you just do challenges. But there are challenges and challenges. How many can you get in a taxi? I’m not doing those. I’m doing things that have a positive effect on the country, but I want to reach out to other countries - can we learn from you, can you learn from us? We can all do more than we think we can.”

But, 27 marathons in 27 days? What was that all about?

“Why not?” he says simply. “It’s adventurous, endurance and fortitude. It’s fighting for something, and people saying, ‘that can’t happen’. It’s and me saying ‘I can make it happen’, raising money and inspiring people.’’

Izzard, 55, is a tough character, but you can understand why when you look at his past. The son of BP’s chief accountant Harold Izzard, his mother Dorothy Ella died from bowel cancer when he was six, but his parents didn’t tell him she was dying and he wasn’t prepared for the emotional loss.

Soon after, he and his older brother Mark were sent to boarding school, another traumatic event which led to him battening the hatches emotionally, as detailed in a chapter he entitles ‘Exile’.

“We didn’t see dad for two-thirds of the year. I did a lot of crying and wailing. I was unhappy about everything and feeling sorry for myself. I cried till I was 11,” he recalls.

“Boarding school toughens you up. It can make you emotionally dead because you are emotionally blocked, but you are tough. You can’t empathise or sympathise.”

On leaving school, he started an accounting and financial management degree at Sheffield University, where he took his first steps into comedy. Inspired by Monty Python, he set out to take a show to the Edinburgh Festival - and through sheer grit, determination and persistence, staged his first show there in 1981.

He’d been wanting to wear dresses since he was four or five, and as a teenager used to put on his stepmother’s dresses and use her make-up when she was out, but remained a closet transgender, although he says he never felt repressed at university.

“If you’re a straight transvestite and you fancy girls, it’s not a big deal. You can have relationships - just don’t mention you’re transgender.”

l Believe Me by Eddie Izzard is published by Michael Joseph, priced £20.