Treasure Island: Eddie Izzard’s peg-legged voyage of discovery

The beloved cross-dressing stand-up talks about his new Sky1 adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson's classic

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Eddie Izzard is starring in two big dramas over Christmas and New Year, but while one of them was so Christmassy it should’ve come with a dollop of figgy pudding, the other is about as un-festive as it’s possible to be. 

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Treasure Island, with Izzard in the lead role as Long John Silver, contains neither snow, nor sleigh bells, nor much in the way of good cheer at all. 

This starry retelling of the Robert Louis Stevenson classic is not, he is anxious to stress, a swashbuckling slice of Boys’ Own and barnacles. 

“It was put to me, do I want to do this? And I said only if we do a really gritty version, a Goodfellas-y version. As long as we put that edge in there, I was in. I think we’re doing one of the definitive Treasure Islands because I do think a lot of them have been hokey.” 

This production, directed by Steve Barron (the man who directed Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean video, among others), is certainly not hokey. There is no thigh slapping, yo-hohoing or unnecessarily shivering timbers. 

With Izzard, Philip Glenister, Rupert Penry- Jones and Daniel Mays all going slightly stir crazy in search of the gold, this new Treasure Island is more Heart of Darkness than Captain Pugwash.

 Izzard threw himself into the role, as he always does. He shaved his head, endured searing Puerto Rican heat for “the island” and the worst Belfast winter on record for scenes in Bristol docks, and spent the entire five-month shoot on a crutch. He has been seeing an osteopath ever since. 

“Ah yes. The whole one leg thing, that was tricky, because you know if you have one leg now you have two handles and two crutches, so you can get around. This is one stick and no handle. Getting that right was really hard. I can now go forwards and backwards on it. I can even do a fast walky-run for the chase scenes. And, yes, I have kept the crutch.” 

Of course, such physical exertions are as nothing to a man who ran 43 consecutive marathons in 2009 (more than 1,110 miles around Britain), in spite of never having done much running in his life. There’s nothing Izzard likes more than than pushing his own limits and creating new challenges. 

His list of self-imposed ordeals set and achieved in 2011 is almost as surreal as his comedy. He has done 71 gigs in French. He played the roof of the De La Warr pavilion (“What the Beatles would have done if they had lived in Bexhill-on-Sea”). 

He then played the Hollywood Bowl – and combined two hobbies by running all the way up to the top of the arena and back again. He’s done a couple of triathlons – “a 55-miler over sixand- a-half hours” and is working his way towards an Ironman triathlon “or a few Ironmans”. 

Right now he’s in Australia and New Zealand, touring again. At least those gigs are in English. Next year he’s talking about Berlin in German, and then Moscow and Cairo and Madrid, all in the mother tongue. 

“Those will all be pinnacles to climb. My Spanish is – there’s not much there, I’ve got ‘Dos cervezas por favor’, but I could probably get it. Russian will be tough… Arabic will be tough… German I did two years ago, so I can…” and he says something in German that I don’t understand but it sounds Teutonically proficient. 

It’s very hard to picture Eddie Izzard gorging on mince pies or relaxing at all. Yet between all of the marathons and the charity work, Mr Izzard professes to love nothing more than television at Christmas. 

“ITV3 and 4 are very good,” he says. I suggest that this may be the first time that sentence has ever been uttered. 

“Well, I like The Sweeney and The Professionals on 4 and then The Saint comes on and you get some of the older series like Upstairs, Downstairs. There’s something about flashing back to when you were a kid watching those series. And then there’s On the Buses, which comes on as well on ITV3 and is awful, just so awful. I cannot watch it without thinking I used to think this was, well, not brilliant but OK. But it’s awful. I watch it in a car-crash way.” 

His Christmas movies are a little more predictable. 

“My favourite Christmas film is The Great Escape. It is bizarre that it’s always on at Christmas: I mean it’s to do with Christmas but it’s all, ‘Come on let’s all go and get out of Nazi Germany’ – or Silesia in fact. I know it’s based on a real story and those guys did die so… but I do love that film. But I think Valkyrie needs to go in there as well as a Christmas classic.” 

Valkyrie? Would that be the same Valkyrie with Tom Cruise that happens to co-star one Edward Izzard? 

“Why yes! Because it’s a story that grips you and it’s the first one that German kids and British kids can all sit down and watch, and everyone’s trying to kill Hitler and that seems to be a very positive thing.” And off he goes again. 

Strange to report, then, that I eventually extract from him that there is an Izzard Christmas ritual, though as you might expect it doesn’t involve family, turkey or pointy tree. 

“I like to get up a mountain and go snowboarding, or sometimes skiing. But mountains and snow and exercising. I remember this mountain restaurant where I had Christmas lunch a while ago in the Alps. You had to go up and down a number of mountains to get there, but you could book a table. 

“The point was anyone could go there, but to get there you had to have a certain amount of skill: you couldn’t just drive there and I liked that. Everyone was in there covered in snow, brushing it off, sitting down, having a glass of wine and some good food and I just thought this was great: we’re up a mountain and it’s Narnia.” 

He pictures the scene with a half-smile. “It’s always Narnia because I live in the world of Narnia in my head.”

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Treasure Island is on Sky1 tonight at 7pm