Shiny Shelf

Eddie Izzard, Marathon Man

By Mags L Halliday on 29 March 2010

Eddie and his ice cream vanAnyone remember when telethons were exciting? Me neither. ‘Sport Relief’ is one I find even more annoying than ‘Comic Relief’ (which at least comes with the potential for new ‘Doctor Who’ material in it).

And yet this year the BBC’s annual fundraiser did something astonishing: it produced three hours of genuinely inspiring television.

‘Eddie Izzard, Marathon Man’ follows the comedian as he attempts to run 43 marathons in 51 days. The Olympic sports doctors and trainers are aghast when he arrives at their centre for training. He’s never run a marathon before: “I’ve run for the bus.”

He sets off a couple of weeks later: unfit, undisciplined and with undimmed enthusiasm. He ignores advice from his trainer and his sports therapist. He stops to buy a Calippo and get into trouble with a park warden. He’s being followed by an ice-cream van that gives out free Mr Whippy ice cream in return for a donation to Sports Relief.

There is, you think as he runs his fourth marathon in four days and the David Tennant narration says one of Izzard’s blisters could fester, no possible way this will end well.

I knew it would: I’d seen his tweets during the run so I knew he made it. So it wasn’t the “will he/won’t he?” that made the programme compelling. It wasn’t the “life journey” element that saw him visit his childhood homes in Wales and Northern Ireland. It wasn’t his endurance in the face of frankly insane odds.

It was the people that came out to support him.

There were running groups and mountain rescue teams who may have been called in advance to provide the support of fellow runners, but there were many more who just spontaneously ran with him. The man somewhere near Reading who shook his hand with a “you’re bloody mental”. The woman near Bridgend in Wales, bringing him some Welsh cakes because he’d said he was hungry. The two lads on BMXs in Liverpool who got their mums’ permission to ride alongside him and went as far as the countryside, further from home than they’d ever been in their lives.

Those moments made you realise how powerful small actions could be: through their sudden impulse to join in they gave him the will to keep running. It was awe-inspiring in its simplicity.

I hate running. Yet I watched. That’s the power of great public service television: giving you something you might not want but that engages you completely. I can’t imagine any other network devoting three hours to an unfit comedian running without filling it with gimmicks or a snarky voiceover. Instead Tennant calmly tethers the documentary, explaining background information but not trying to take attention away from Izzard’s on-screen achievements (or rambling tangents).

If you can watch it, even if you hate sports as much as I do, you should. Utterly life-affirming.

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