Eddie Izzard on nails, running marathons and his quest to be London Mayor

"Just do what Nelson Mandela would have done, 'Try, try and try again'"

Eddie Izzard’s nails – long and burgundy, apart from one painted in a Union Jack and another that’s the European flag (he calls them his “political nails”) – have had quite an airing in recent months. They featured in his February television series, Meet the Izzards, which had Eddie travelling to Namibia, among other countries, to trace his ancestors through his own DNA. The African tribesmen, and more particularly the tribes- women, were fascinated by this sturdy white fella and his girlie nails as he scrabbled around in the earth to find twigs to help build a fire.


When I first interviewed him, about 14 years ago, his image was more rock ’n’ roll (blue PVC trousers, dirty-blond hair and loads of slap). He painted his own nails then and liked it when they chipped: “a kind of bad-boy/bad-girl look; quite nice.” But now they’re acrylic: “I keep playing serial killers so I have to keep taking them off, but my actual nails are as hard as this…”

And so, very soon, we are in EddieLand – which, like Alice’s Wonderland, has its own unusual logic and narrative thread: “Girls’ nails, you see, are not as strong as boys’ nails, which are really strong. These nails are actually attack weapons. If you think about it, pre-Stone Age, we must have been fighting other animals to secure meat in the same way that all the other animals were fighting – because tigers aren’t coming up with a rock and going, ‘Bam!’ If blokes actually grow their nails – I mean, Chinese men go and do that weird curly thing – but my nails are just like tigers attacking.” He makes his hands into scary cat’s claws.

It used to be that Izzard was known solely as an ingenious stream-of-consciousness stand-up comedian who was also a transvestite. Then his reputation broadened beyond being someone who was simply a funny TV (a term he prefers to tranny) to one who could also do straight acting (David Mamet plays; the lead role as Wayne Malloy, an Irish traveller identity- stealing con artist, opposite Minnie Driver, in the 2007/8 US television series The Riches).

Around the time of the new millennium, politics entered the frame with his public support of the Labour Party (which he had joined in 1995) and his pro-Europe campaigning. Most recently he has added mad marathon- runner to his CV.

In 2009, he completed 43 marathons in 51 days to raise money for Sport Relief. Last May, he attempted 27 marathons in 27 days in South Africa, as a tribute to Nelson Mandela who was in prison for 27 years, but had to pull out after the fourth because of health complications. This South African experience, including the debacle, has been filmed for a two-part documentary, Eddie Izzard’s Mandela Marathons.

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We met, this time around, on the eve of his massive global stand-up tour (25 countries, throughout Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Africa, the USA, India, Nepal and the Far East). And I subsequently caught up with him on the phone while he was being driven through somewhere unpronounceable in the Netherlands and was struggling with a cold. I wonder how the programme will work in two parts, since the project was aborted so early on? He explains that you see the first three marathons in the first episode and the “dramatic crash in the second one. We had a whole lot of people we were planning to talk to and so we did talk to a number of those, including Mr de Klerk [last apartheid President, FW de Klerk] who doesn’t really give interviews any more. So it sort of unfolds itself.”

What stopped him, literally, in his tracks was that he felt terrible. This turned out to be a consequence of taking medications for cholesterol and high blood pressure that were incompatible – potentially life-threateningly so with excessive training. Eddie being Eddie, he spent the time in hospital, even as they were pumping fluids into his body, doing calculations to see if he could make up the difference. Maybe he could do two marathons per day on two consecutive days, at the end of the epic journey, when his body had become accustomed to running? The only thing that made him pull out was that his doctor said that if he continued to run, he would die.

Two of Izzard’s most striking personality traits are courage and determination. So how did he cope with defeat?

“It’s symbolic. You know, Nelson Mandela said, ‘Do not judge me by my success, judge me by the number of times I failed and got back up again.’ It wasn’t just: start the stopwatch – 27 years, and then you’ve got a free country. When he got out of prison, he had four years of battle to get elected. Next year, will be the 20th anniversary since he was first President, so I’m sure he’s going to stick around for that.”

Izzard got the idea of running as a tribute to Mandela after watching the film Invictus – the tremendous story of how South Africa won the 1995 rugby World Cup, after the end of apartheid. “When I saw it, I just made an instant decision to run through South Africa,” Izzard says. “I didn’t really help Nelson Mandela get out of prison. There were people marching all the time, and that wasn’t me – and now I thought I could do something as a tribute to him.

“I think he is one of the greatest people that ever lived – and he’s a real human being who had his faults and just kept going. He towers over everyone in the 20th century and we can all be inspired by what he has done.”

Izzard met the great man in 2010, at the end of a stand-up comedy tour in South Africa when he gave his earnings from it – £100,000 – to the Nelson Mandela Foundation. In the room with Mandela before him was Neil Armstrong, who was also an inspiration to Izzard as a seven-year-old.

“Nelson Mandela’s short-term memory wasn’t great – he was 91 then – but he was very engaging and energetic – ‘I met the Queen of England… and how is Dame Margaret Thatcher?… and we will do a photograph’ – so that was just wonderful because I didn’t think I’d ever get to meet him. He is a legend in life, and in death he’ll enter mythical status. There won’t be all the bad stuff you get with a recently deceased person in the UK – all that negativity and hate.”

He is referring, of course, to Margaret Thatcher, whose funeral it is on the day that we speak. He was not a fan, to put it mildly, of the Baroness: “I hated the 80s and I hated the politics and I really didn’t like her. I’m all for get-up- and-go and she did have energy, but throwing people on the scrapheap of life is what she did, and she seemed to revel in it, as well.

“People have to have a heart. She was endlessly good friends with Pinochet, who we know was a murderer and a torturer. And she said Nelson Mandela was part of a terrorist organisation and that if the ANC think they’re going to be running the country, they are in cloud-cuckoo-land. That sums up Margaret Thatcher for me.”

Izzard will be seeking the Labour nomination for Mayor of London in 2019, and if he doesn’t get it, he hopes to stand as an MP. He is reconciled to being mocked and knocked for his political ambitions: “People say, ‘Well, you’re a bit woolly’ and ‘You’re really not informed’; ‘You’re not this’ and ‘You’re not that’. But I realise those attacks are going to happen and you have to push through to get to a better place.”

As someone who campaigned for Ken Livingstone as Mayor of London, you’d expect Izzard to give Boris short shrift, and he does: “You know, the whole Boris bike thing is crazy. It was Ken’s idea, he saw cycles for hire in France and wanted to set it up, but no one seems to mention that. It’s ‘Ken cycles’ not “Boris bikes’.”

Can he say anything positive about the present Mayor? Apparently not. “I think the Tory hierarchy are really p***ed off that Boris just keeps laying into David Cameron and the Tory Party,” he says. “Boris is really all about Boris.”

Next year, he will go back to South Africa to complete that marathon challenge he set himself. When he did his UK marathons, he muscled through on sheer willpower.

But after his setbacks last year, he now has a trainer in both this country and South Africa, as well as a nutritionist. He acknowledges that there is a possibility that he could fail again – “But I’m not stopping until at some point I do achieve 27 marathons in 27 days. I know I can do it.”

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It was his experience at the Olympics that has really given an extra charge to his motivation. As one of the ambassadors for the Games, he met the volunteers at the marathon feed-stations, and was singularly impressed by how incredibly wiry, lithe and bright all the 60-somethings were. They were members of the 100-plus club of people who have run more than a hundred marathons: “There was one guy who’d done 700-plus marathons and a woman who had done almost 400, and I thought, “That’s where I need to be – I need to be knocking up a marathon a week if I want to live like this.’”

I wonder what keeps him going. There must be times when he has a dialogue with himself, where one voice is saying, “I just have to stop”? “No, no, no!” Izzard startles me with the urgency of his response. “This is very key, Ginny. You can’t ever have that dialogue. Anything below zero, anything below ‘This will be done. We will finish this’, is unacceptable. So when the doctor said, ‘If you do this,you’re going to kill yourself’,that was the only thing that made me say, ‘OK, well, I can come back and just do what Nelson Mandela would have done, ‘Try, try and try again.’”

It’s a very long time since Izzard has been associated with anything other than success, but it hasn’t always been that way. It is failure, he says, that has been the making of him. “All the Thatcher years were the time when I was dealing with failure,” he says. “I failed in stand-up, I failed in acting and I was an abject failure as a street performer – it broke me and rebuilt me. I learnt what to do and what not to do in my head and that’s informed me ever since.

“The simple formula is: keep going when you’re failing – keep adjusting and just do it. Don’t pull out, because if you do, you won’t learn anything. When I was peforming on the piazza in [London’s] Covent Garden and had done a bad show, the other street peformers actually looked away or wandered off. The humiliation… they wouldn’t even talk to you because they thought you were so bad. I’ve learnt to walk through that fire and know you can come out the other side.”

Those who have seen his shows from way back know he doesn’t believe in God, although he is extremely interested in the idea of him. (One of his long-running sketches is about the unfeasibility of Noah’s Ark – all the animals would be dead except for the lions and tigers.) But he is strongly humanitarian and a deep thinker who is sincere about trying to be a good person. He says that he believes that what we do in life “echoes in eternity” and when I ask him about death (does he fear it?), his answer is that what’s important is to put something into life, while we’re here.

“When I was training for the marathons [in the UK], there was a sticker on the back of a car I used to see all the time when I ran down the Thames to Richmond. It said, ‘One Life, Live It’. So grab it, live it, try to do something positive – good karma – because death comes to us all.”

He stops to think – like Columbo, coming back for “Just one more thing”. “Of course, one could argue that the Nazis really put a lot of energy into their lives, but they were trying to murder people – you know, the extremists who are murdering people are really putting a lot of effort into it. So you’ve got to have a good heart, be a generous person and live and let live.”

See Eddie Izzard’s Mandela Marathons Thursday 9:00pm, Sky 1


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