From stand-up comedian with a dash of guy-liner to charity fund-raiser to dramatic actor, Eddie Izzard, 52, has won fans in a variety of roles.
Here he talks to TV & Satellite Week about his latest dramatic part, playing the inventor of radar in a one-off story called Castles in the Sky on BBC2 (Thursday, Sept 4).
You’ve recently done more dramatic parts, in series such as The Riches, Day of the Triffids, Treasure Island and Hannibal. Can you tell us about this career shift?
“I have a wider range than people think. I think people always assume I will do something that is very closely tied to their perception of me, but I’m beginning to spread my wings. My feet are finally under the table in terms of acting.”
In Castles in the Sky you play the little-known meteorologist Robert Watson-Watt. Can you tell us about the drama?
“It’s the story of an unsung Scottish hero. His team could have saved Britain and maybe the world, because although the RAF did a great job, without radar they would have been shooting the bombers on the way out, not on the way in. It’s key if you analyse it – although of course hindsight is 20/20. If we’d gone down, the Americans wouldn’t have had a base to come to, Russia would have fought on its own and the Germans would have totally dominated. It would have been a nightmare.
“I thought I knew a bit about World War Two, but no one had punched this up. It’s a great story”
Before the war, there were concerns in Britain that the Nazis were developing a ‘death ray’ that could destroy aircraft. Watson-Watt had quite a battle to convince the government that his defensive radar was a better option for Britain to develop…
“The democratic powers were on the back foot. For the scientific community to actually believe there was a death ray was quite something. Watson-Watt and his colleague Arnold ‘Skip’ Wilkins worked out that if you actually did it, you would blow yourselves up on the ground. I wonder how he had the confidence to say that, but he was right – no one’s ever got one out.”
So your character was under huge pressure?
“These are guys battling against the system that said they were weather people without a clue. It was geek warfare! These were guys who were saying, ‘We’re not the coolest people, but we’ve got ideas and we think outside of the box.'”
Can you identify with your character then?
“As someone who works very hard to think outside the box, I identify with these guys. If you want to come up with new ideas, that’s what you’ve got to do. I identify with Robert Watson-Watt.”
You became famous as a comedian, but for how long have you harboured ambitions to be an actor?
“I wanted to be an actor since I was seven, but at school they wouldn’t give me the roles. I discovered Monty Python and got this idea of writing my own shows and giving myself the lead roles, which seemed to work! I realised that if you can work out where the centre of your creativity lies, you can tap into it and apply it to other things. If I could turn sketch-writing into street performing and then stand-up, I could do drama as well.
“I don’t think I’m naturally good at anything. I think I have the ability to work and stay in until I pull something out of me. So I’m not picking things up, I’m just adding things I’ve wanted to do since a child. It’s a slightly experimental thing to do. But I’ve decided to do certain things – and I’m going to make sure that I do them.”
And you’re thinking of a new challenge for the future – politics?
“In 2020 I’m going to run either for Mayor of London or as an MEP. I’ll have to put my creativity into deep hibernation for that. But until then, if I’m offered roles like this, I’m just going to grab it.”