A history lesson for our times
Eddie Izzard talks humanity – and Nazis – to George Fenwick, as her latest movie finally makes it to the big screen after a Covid-related delay of more than two years.
Eddie Izzard does not write. Those are her words, not mine: despite her long and illustrious stand-up career, Izzard is much more likely to improvise her comedy live on stage than sit at her computer and script a show beforehand.
But it’s that very approach that stood her in good stead, she says, when it came to sitting down and writing her first film.
‘‘In all my standup, I just come up with an idea,’’ says Izzard, who uses the pronouns she and her. ‘‘And then I workshop it on stage and craft it into a shape which probably leaves the way clear for me to write screenplays.
‘‘I think the way that we tabulate our brains, you start when you’re a kid, and you don’t know quite what you’re doing, but over time, you gradually go, ‘Oh that’s good. That works, and that doesn’t work.’ And that’swhat I now have a sense of [with screenwriting].’’
Izzard’s screenwriting debut comes alive in Six Minutes to Midnight, a new spy period thriller in which she plays the lead role of
Thomas Miller, an MI5 agent who goes undercover as a teacher to investigate a school in Bexhillon-sea, England, that is indoctrinating young German girls into the ideologies of Nazism.
Dame Judi Dench plays the school’s mysterious headmistress, and Carla Juri, James D’arcy and Jim Broadbent also star.
Astonishingly, the story is based on fact: in the 1930s, near Bexhill-on-sea, where Izzard spent much of her childhood, the daughters of high-ranking Nazi officials were indeed being taught in English at an elite finishing school. The school badge was proudly emblazoned with both the Union Jack and a Nazi swastika.
‘‘They were there to learn English and make friends with a British aristocracy that was very Nazi sympathetic,’’ says Izzard.
‘‘I thought, there’s a film just begging to be made with that as a starter. And if you put a story on top of that, you can have a spy story that will fit in very well. So that’s where our artistic licence came in, but all the foundations of it are true.’’
Izzard developed the script with fellow actor Celyn Jones and found a director in Andy Goddard, who has directed episodes of Downton Abbey, Altered Carbon and Luke Cage.
Inwriting the script, Izzard was interested in the idea of exploring the internal world of a finishing school in which far-right ideologies were being taught to young girls as opposed to boys.
‘‘It’s a kind of Picnic at Hanging Rock vibe; it’s a slightly more ethereal feel,’’ she says. ‘‘It’s more psychological. Young boys are much more physical and easily turn to violence, but the psychological nature of how girls interact is intriguing and better for a film.
‘‘Thomas has a great challenge: it’s a very difficult thing to try to compete against the Nazi regime that for six years has been battering these young kids with Right-wing ideas, and that Germany is great, and that everyone is less than us. And so it was a very fertile area to look into that.’’
Exploring the teachings of Nazi Germany inevitably had Izzard comparing far-right ideologies around World War II with present-day examples, citing the US Capitol riot in January as an example. But Izzard believes modern-day farright views can be traced back to a ‘‘small, very vocal minority’’, one which is important to rally against.
‘‘The Nazis only ever got a third of the votes in Germany,’’ says Izzard. ‘‘If we talk about fascism, I don’t know if it’s very helpful these days.
‘‘Extreme right, white supremacy: these are the words that are easier to grab hold of, because I think a lot of average people think they can’t quite grasp what fascism exactly is, even though we understand it relates back.
‘‘It is essentially white supremacy and nationalism, and ‘our country is better than your country,’ and blame from Right-wing culture, where they just choose almost anyone to blame. They encourage people to hate a group of people, and use lies as a tool of politics. That is on the rise,’’ she says.
Izzard hopes Six Minutes to Midnight serves as a
‘‘lesson from history’’ for viewers.
‘‘We did this before. You’re not supposed to be sexist to other people, racist, full of hatred, but some people say, ‘no, we wish to do that,’ and
Trump gave them permission. Right-wing movements and leaders give people permission to be racist, sexist, hateful, ANTI-LGBTIQ+, bring hatred into their lives and use it and use the threat of violence.
‘‘A lot of people who are moderate will just close down and be quiet at that point. We have to stay loud, we have to stay strong, because otherwise, we’re going to go back to what was happening in the 1930s.
‘‘And I’m trying to encourage the world to head more forward to amore positive 2030s. The 21st century, I think, will be the deciding century for humanity. We’re either going to make a fair world for everyone, or we’re going to wipe ourselves out.’’
While the UK is finally emerging from a five-month lockdown, I spoke to Izzard when restrictions were still locked in place and shops, pubs, restaurants – and cinemas – were still closed. Izzard describes the feeling as a ‘‘permanent Sunday’’.
‘‘I thought it was going to be like Zombieland, with things blowing around and no-one on the streets, but it isn’t. It’s like a permanent Sunday,’’ she says.
‘‘We’ve just been in the strangest times that I’ve ever experienced, and I did experience one flu epidemic before, in 1969, which was just like, it seems like for amonth, certain kids weren’t coming to school and everything got a little weird at school, but it didn’t seem quite like this.’’
A year of lockdowns meant Six Minutes to Midnight’s releasewas delayed from its initial release date of May last year, which was already two years since production wrapped in 2018. When I ask Izzard how she felt about such immense delays, she offers a neat analogy.
‘‘It’s like doing your exams in the summer of 2018 and getting your results two and a half years later,’’ she laughs.
‘‘It’s very weird, but I’m happy with the results that we’ve come up. We’re very happy with this film.’’
Six Minutes to Midnight is in cinemas now
The 21st century will be the deciding century for humanity. We’re either going to make a fair world for everyone, or we’re going to wipe ourselves out.