Stand-up comedian and actor Eddie Izzard takes on the role of one of literature’s classic villains, Long John Silver, in a lavish new version of the swashbuckling saga Treasure Island, airing in two parts on Sky1 HD on New Year’s Day and Monday 2 January.
TV&Satellite Week magazine caught up with him to find out more…
You are by no means the first people to film Treasure Island. How does your version differ from the others?
“We do a version that is more in-your-face than pantomime. Pirates were the footballers or rock ’n’ rollers of their day. They were the ones grabbing more cash than you could earn in a normal job. I don’t know what Robert Louis Stevenson had in his mind when he wrote the original novel, but we wanted to bring out more of the Goodfellas side of the story than the Pirates of the Caribbean side.”
Are your pirates more nasty than most screen versions?
“Absolutely. Our pirates are villains of the sea. The country was awash with affordable gin at the time and people were off the faces. They had the choice of being villains in London or getting on a boat and doing their villainy at sea. Real pirates were evil because there was nothing to stop them.”
You play Long John Silver with a London accent. Why did you choose to do that?
“We made a decision that I could say ‘Arr’ or I could say ‘Jim’ or even ‘Lad’, but I could never say ‘Arr Jim Lad’. We wanted to avoid that. I was thinking of doing a West Country accent, but we wanted to be different from the 50 or so other versions out there. I used the London accent because a lot of sailors at the time would have been from London.”
Your leg has been removed by computer graphics for the series, but you still had to walk around on a crutch. How did you find that?
“I spent hours and hours learning how to walk with the crutch. You have to be careful because you can fall and damage yourself. In fact, I did fall on the boat and bruised a rib. I put a heat patch on it to ease the pain and carried on working, but the crutch pushed the heat pad into me and burned my body.”
As well as the crutch, you also have a parrot perched on your shoulder. How did you get on with it?
“Actually it was them, rather than it. We used three of them altogether. When we filmed the island scenes we were out in Puerto Rico. The parrot we had there was the only one who could talk. But he couldn’t speak English.”
Did you get seasick?
“No, none of us did. We all took tablets to stop it. But they had the side effect of making us all conk out.”
What’s the enduring appeal of the Treasure Island story?
“It’s a morality tale. The story is about the fight for Jim Hawkins’s soul. It’s about him making a decision in his life whether he wants to follow the upright figures like the Captain Smollets of the world or the Long John Silvers.”
It looks like you were really enjoying yourself…
“Oh yes. I wanted to be an actor when I was seven and this was exactly the sort of thing I wanted to do then. I went to boarding school and one Christmas they let us all dress as pirates and it was most exciting thing. Later, when the school put on a production of The Pirates of Penzance, they wouldn’t let me be in it. They made me play the clarinet instead. That was hell – all these people were having fun playing pirates while I was stuck on a musical instrument. Mind you, all the people who played pirates at my school are probably now working in building societies. Whereas not being able to do it then is what’s driven me on to do this now.”
You seem close on screen to Toby Regbo, who plays Jim Hawkins. Did you become good friends?
“Yes, it was like making a buddy movie for me. I know he’s young and I’m old, but in my head I still feel 22. I’d like us to work together again. In my mind I’ve already got a story that could make Treasure Island 2.”