'There’s a real vibrancy in Belfast now... South Africa and Northern Ireland are the big success stories.'
Eddie Izzard has come a long way since his early years in Northern Ireland. The comedian, actor, writer and now sportsman was raised until the age of five in Bangor, County Down, after being born in Aden, Yemen, where his father worked as an accountant with BP. ‘I left in ’67, so it was before the Troubles,’ Izzard tells CultureNorthernIreland.
‘I wasn’t politically aware – I was too young – so it was a wonderful time for me. My mother was alive, and I used to muck about with all the kids on the housing estate. That was great fun, but it’s difficult for me to compare back. I went with my dad to Belfast, but you don’t really get a sense of what the city looks like, or how Bangor was then, except through the eyes of a four-year-old.’
Shortly after Izzard’s family had moved from Bangor to Skewen in south Wales, Izzard’s mother became ill with cancer and died. Consequently, many of the comic’s happiest childhood memories are tied to Northern Ireland, and he makes an effort to include his former homeland in each of his tours. ‘The Northern Ireland audiences have always been great. There’s a real vibrancy in Belfast now. I do think it’s an amazing distance that Northern Ireland has come, and it should be celebrated. South Africa and Northern Ireland are the big success stories, even though both still have their problems.’
Izzard recalls a challenging visit to Northern Ireland in the aftermath of the October 1993 Greysteel massacre, during which UFF gunmen killed eight civilians in a pub in County Londonderry. ‘My tour manager refused to come up to Northern Ireland,’ Izzard recalls, ‘so I drove the car up myself from Dublin and played three gigs at the Arts Theatre in Belfast, and then went on to Derry, and played there at the Rialto. I was very pleased with that, because I did have such a positive time growing up in Northern Ireland.’
Earlier this year, Izzard again returned to Ulster, during a seven-week marathon run that took him from London to Cardiff to Belfast to Edinburgh and back to London, to raise money for Sport Relief. He carried a flag for each country in which he ran, including a specially created banner for Northern Ireland. Some of the injuries the 47-year-old incurred were gruesome, but Izzard insists it was a wonderful experience.
‘It was a great, weird thing to do,’ he says. ‘Toenails came off and there was blistering on the feet, and I was pulling muscles in different legs – well, you know, one side, then the other side – but it wasn’t too bad. The exhaustion was the main thing, and the first three weeks were really tough, because it was raining and my feet were falling apart, sodden with rain. There was a lot of pain involved, but I had decided I was going to do it, so I never thought about stopping. That’s what you have to do.’
It’s a mentality Izzard also applies to his live performances. ‘In a show, you have to carry on no matter what. It’s a bit like driving from one city to another city, and it’s really rough but you just have to keep going, because you have to get there. I think the run was a slightly separate thing. I could have given up. I could have said, “This is too hard,” because it was off the scale. With the shows, no way.’
This month, Izzard brings his acclaimed Stripped tour to Belfast. The December 12 date at the Odyssey Arena comes near the end of a lengthy UK and Irish tour, but Izzard is adamant that Ulster fans will see the same high-energy show as anyone else. ‘This tour has been developed from last year,’ he says. ‘I did 34 gigs with this tour in America, and I played London for five weeks, and I think if you saw it at the beginning, or if you saw it on the last gig, at Madison Square Garden [in New York City], it won’t make any difference.
'The material will be somewhat different – I like changing it, and moving it, and ad-libbing – but if you see it in Belfast, Dublin or Nottingham it won’t make any difference. If I’m playing it in Paris, or Moscow, or New Zealand, or Iceland, in a 10,000-seater, in a 15,000-seater, or in a 100-seater, it’ll be exactly the same show.’
Certainly, Izzard is one of the few British comedians with truly international appeal, something he attributes to the universal nature of his material. ‘I design my stuff so that it will work anywhere,’ he says. ‘I will talk about Romans, cavemen, the whole history of the world, religion, sexuality, Moses, Darwin… I tend not to talk about what’s on Britain’s Got Talent, or the 159 bus to Streatham.’
Considering his Bangor roots, Izzard could be said to be Ulster’s most successful comedy export. BBC Northern Ireland recently attempted to find the next generation of Northern Irish stand-ups with its television series Find Me the Funny, starring the comedy coach Kurtis Matthews. The programme was something of an X Factor for stand-ups, unforgiving in its rabbit-in-the-headlights exposure of local would-be comics.
‘Stand-up is actually the scariest thing you can think of,’ confirms Izzard. ‘Bands can rehearse. Actors can rehearse. If you’re a stand-up there is no rehearsal. You can do it in front of your mirror – that’s no good. You can do it in front of an invited audience of friends – that’s not really any good either, because they’ll probably laugh anyway, even when it’s not funny. The only real rehearsal is in front of a paying audience and that’s what makes it so bloody hard at the beginning. It’s tough as hell.’
Eddie Izzard performs at the Odyssey Arena, Belfast, on December 12. Tickets, priced £33.00, are available from all Ticketmaster outlets.