Eddie Izzard’s comedy language crusade

The stand-up and activist speaks to EL PAÍS ahead of his return to Spain, with Brexit on his mind

Eddie Izzard is a man with Brexit on his brain. The transgender comedian, actor, activist and aspiring politician campaigned hard for the United Kingdom to stay in the European Union, only to see his efforts come to nothing on June 23, when Britons narrowly voted in favor of leave. But speaking to Izzard nearly five months after – on the day of the US elections, no less – the topic of Britain’s future is clearly still at the forefront of his mind.

Comedian, actor and activist Eddie Izzard.
Comedian, actor and activist Eddie Izzard.Amanda Searle

After a first, hugely successful run of shows in an intimate venue in Madrid in 2014, Izzard is coming back to Spain with his long-running Force Majeure show, this time performing his surreal brand of comedy in both the capital and Barcelona. And as he did two years ago, he will be performing part of his set in Spanish – despite speaking very little of the language. It’s his way of bringing his audiences together – a cause he's passionate about.

So how were those first Madrid shows?

The problem with Spanish is the subjunctive and the two forms of ‘to be’

“They were great, I think i may have managed about 12 or 15 minutes of Spanish, which I will be continuing this time. It’s a radical way of learning a language. I back-fill the show with Spanish, so I do the first part in English, y poco a poco en español.”

The challenge might sound daunting, but Izzard has been here before, having already translated and performed Force Majeure in several different languages. In fact, for his so-called “333” gigs, he delivered three consecutive hours of comedy in German, French and then English.

“It’s such a simple method,” he explains. “You just learn it like a play first, and then you go and learn the language after that. If I hadn’t been an actor as well I wouldn’t have been able to come up with this.”

During the Madrid run, Izzard was taking Spanish lessons during the day and then performing his set at night. But he has now abandoned that idea and will first focus on learning the show by rote. But what difficulties did he face with the peculiarities of Spanish?

“I think I’m going to have the same problems as everyone does, the subjunctive, the two forms of to be – what’s going on there?! You just have to get used to it, the irregular verbs… But I love the way you pronounce Spanish as you see it – as an English speaker, the accent just means emphasize this or that, so that’s wonderful. There’s a number of wonderful easy things.”

When the conversation turns to his impression of Madrid and its people, the Brexit floodgates open.

Eddie Izzard in action.
Eddie Izzard in action.Idil Sukan (Draw HQ)

“They were great, I enjoyed it and I’m happy to be back. This is my thing. If half my country is saying let’s walk backwards, I’m saying: Carry on walking forwards. I’m proud of my country but I reach out my arms to other countries. Can you learn from us, can we learn from you? Trump is shutting it down, saying Brexit – it is a time of extremists. We are allies, we fought together in the Second World War against extremists and the Allies have to come together and fight again against the extremists.”

Izzard was a very visible part of the Remain camp, having chosen a striking pink beret – complete with British and European flag badges – as his wardrobe trademark for the entirety of the Brexit campaign,  touring the country in a bid to get young people to vote on their future. So how did he feel after the result came in?

“I accept it but much of it was a con,” he says. “We were told that 350 million pounds a week would go to the NHS and then the next day Nigel Farage said that was a lie. So we were conned. The good people of the United Kingdom were lied to. Even the most horrible people in the world have to accept that we have to head towards a world where everyone has a fair chance. And if you don’t accept that, you’re not a fair person. And how do we head towards that? We’ve got to make the continents work first, that’s what the EU was set up to do.”

Even the most horrible people have to accept a world where everyone has a fair chance

Izzard’s intervention in the campaign was not without its critics, however. In particular an appearance on BBC politics panel show Question Time came in for particular scrutiny, after he continually clashed with UK Independence Party leader Nigel Farage and members of the audience. A subsequent editorial in British daily The Independent said that “if he wants Remain to prevail, Eddie Izzard needs to stay out of the EU referendum debate.” So did the campaign experience dishearten him in any way?

“We have to work towards a world where all seven billion of us have a chance,” he responds. “Because otherwise we put people in despair, and despair is the fuel of terrorism, hope is the fuel of civilization. We have got to be fighting towards hope. Running and hiding, the pound going down the toilet because of a hard Brexit, pulling out of the single market... it doesn’t work, it will not work.”

In another episode during the campaign, a pro-Brexit protestor at a Remain demonstration actually stole the pink beret off Izzard’s head, running off with it before being tackled by the police.

“It’s got to be hope and not brex-hate, brex-hate is a terrible thing,” he says of the incident. “They were standing there with death-head masks on and paramilitary uniforms, that’s the kind of hatred that brex-hate inspired. I jumped in and got the beret back, and the police took him down and he pleaded guilty.”

Izzard came out as transgender 31 years ago, and has suffered plenty of abuse – much of it homophobic, despite his not being gay – since. But was he surprised by the often ugly turns the Brexit campaign took ahead of the vote?

“No, I think that human beings have this capacity, we saw it back in the 1930s,” he says. “The idea of leaving the single market and going back to 1973 – was 1973 such a wonderful time? I don’t think so. You’ve got Farage, he’s from an immigrant family, he’s married to an immigrant, and he hates immigrants. If you look at the word hypocrisy [in the dictionary], Nigel Farage’s face is grinning out from there, holding hands with Donald Trump, who says he wants Brex-hate plus plus plus… They’re just pushing for hatred. It’s an easier one to go for. Building is much harder than tearing apart, and they’re trying to tear things apart. We have to build, we cannot go back to the dark ages of the 1930s. We have to put more hope in the world than despair. That’s what I’m trying to do – that’s why I’m going into my fourth language.”

And of course, we all know what happened next. Less than 24 hours after Izzard spoke to EL PAÍS, the Republican candidate was confirmed as the winner of the US election. It looks like pro-EU, anti-Trump Eddie Izzard might need a few more languages yet...

Eddie Izzard – Force Majeure en inglés... y (poco a poco) español. Various dates in November Café Teatre Llantiol, Barcelona. See www.barcelonacomedyfestival.com for more information and to buy tickets. Various dates in December in Ancora, Madrid. See www.madridcomedyfestival.com for more information and to buy tickets.


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