The first transvestite in Downing Street

 

The fact that he's a transvestite is one of the least interesting things about Eddie Izzard, given that even the most superannuated of critics describe him as "the best comic of his generation", but he's always the first to raise it in conversation, as in this vignette from the time earlier this year when he went to meet Tony Blair at 10 Downing Street: "I went along as I am and just as I went through the door I realised that I was the first TV to be invited to 10 Downing Street" he says. Although given the fact that the same building housed 17 years of Tory cabinet meetings, he'd want to be careful about assuming too much.

Is Blair a fan? "I don't know, I presume he knows who I am otherwise I wouldn't have been invited. We were just there chatting, making small talk, which was sort of bizarre. Then I met some people I knew and we started wandering around. Everyone was looking out of windows and going "oh, there's the back garden - they must have launched the rocket over there" and all that sort of stuff. Then I found a phone, so I made a call to my Dad and said: "I'm at Number 10!" and he goes: "I know, we just saw you go in on the telly". It was funny, because when I first told people I was a TV I thought it would kill me in all social circles forever. So being there was a very positive thing".

In a role model sort of way? "No, I don't really get that sort of stuff. Although I was in HMV buying records the other day and this bloke came up to me and said: "I think it's really good what you're doing" and it was obvious he was talking about the clothes thing, so that was good. Apart from that, it's not an issue, although obviously being in show business helps, because people expect you to be a bit weird anyway. And it's a straight thing too, I'm heterosexual, as are most TV's".

There's usually a good deal of anguished analysis about the "reasons" for his transvestism - he just feels comfortable wearing make-up and women's clothes, that's all there is to it - and the same sort of ill-informed questions are directed at his career. How did he get to be where he is today? why he is such a control freak? Why is he becoming an actor? How come he can come up with reams of new material every few months? Why doesn't he do television? Why is he moving to America? The answers, he says, are simple:

"There's always been a plan and in my case they are five year plans which are really good, except in Stalin's case when they were bad. I started off with a five year plan of Edinburgh - everyone forgets I did Edinburgh in 1980 f***ing one, that long ago. It took me ages to get accepted up there and when I did and the word buzzed around about my stand-up, I had another plan with the comedy clubs, and then another with doing theatres, and now I've got another about doing America. It would have been the same even if I had decided to do what I really wanted to do and join the army"

The army? "Yes, I'm not joking. It was that or stand-up. I was really interested in all the active stuff in the army, because I've always been whatever the male equivalent of `tomboy' is, and all that running, jumping, hiding and going in canoes sounded great. But the killing people aspect of it wasn't very groovy, so I decided on comedy after first trying to be, and again I'm being serious, an accountant. I studied it at university but I got thrown out. In reality, I failed my exams and they told me to leave. I always tell people they threw me out, but in reality I begged them to let me stay".

It's not that he planned to become the best comedian of his generation, but that evolved from his talent/ genius at moving stand-up into an area it had never deigned to visit before. Izzard's surreal streams of comic consciousness approach may not seem as ground breaking now as it was when he first started all those years ago (largely due to the amount of Izzard wannabes around) but when he first broke big he was a refreshing blast of nonsense in a world populated by clones whose routines centred around kebabs, drink, shagging and over-liberal uses of the "have you ever noticed the way" phrase. Izzard, by contrast, could delve into his limitless reservoir of imaginative set-pieces and talk at length about subjects ranging from being raised by wolves, to domestic cats drilling for oil, to daleks who had problems negotiating staircases.

One of his earliest ever routines at London's Comedy Store opened with the line "I used to go to school with Perez de Cuellar" and over the next 20 minutes he'd make it all seem so real and introduce enough new images to keep your mind reeling. "It's all mind stuff," he says, "it's the images being put together and the juxtaposition of them. I suppose it's not necessary to have speed of mind, but it helps. You're just talking images to them".

It's not that he's infallible though, as anybody who sat through Channel 4's Cows show (a pilot for a sit-com that never was) last year will testify. "Cows was critically received like a long lost relative who turns up at the wrong house with an overdue Christmas card," he says. "It was only a pilot, you know and so many pilots have been `eurgh' and then you get it together. It was probably under-momentumised. But it's good to f***k-up. I f***ked-up so much before I started to take off and it's good to go: `I can't do everything'."

The new stage show, which he's bringing to Ireland next week, is probably his strongest yet (the previous three Live At The Ambassadors, Definite Article and Unrepeatable went on to become best-selling videos). Kicking off with the Old Testament he works his way up to the New Testament courtesy of some typical Izzardesque magic, but it's not all biblical and there are some potently funny diversions into the game of hopscotch as a feminist conspiracy, some incredible stuff about such prosaic items as toasters and showers and a whole segment on what grass would say if it could talk.

The Irish dates bring a close to his world tour, but he'll be popping up in cinemas soon as a straight actor: "I never play the funny man parts - I have a part in the new Avengers film where I play a thug, so I just stand around looking menacing, saying nothing and frequently hitting people. I'm also in a glam rock film, Velvet Goldmine which is being made by a hip indie film-maker called Todd Haynes and there's my own Dick Turpin film that I want to get off the ground, which will be a sort of Tarnatino highwaymen type thing"

Next month he's off to the US for an extended stint - will the Americans get what you're on about? "I think so, I don't believe there's that much difference between nationalities. There's differences between alternative and mainstream comedy and between surreal and political comedy, but there's no real boundaries in countries. Going to Broadway isn't bad going when you consider the only reason I've got where I am today is because of saying `ehh' a lot and wearing make-up".

Eddie Izzard plays The National Stadium, Dublin on Monday and The Waterfront Hall, Belfast on Tuesday.