Paul Vickers performs on stage as Mr Twonkey.
“I went to art college and that’s when it all went wrong,” he told me yesterday. “That’s when I started on this road of creative adventure…”
“You mean you started on this road to fame and penury?” I suggested.
“Yeah,” he agreed. “Once you get started, you can’t stop and then you realise you’ve wasted your life so you might as well keep going.”
“Why are you Mr Twonkey?” I asked him, which I thought was an easy question.
There was a long pause.
“You don’t know?” I asked.
“Not entirely, no,” said Paul. “I was using a little puppet and I dropped it on the floor and I said: Oh, Twonkey! and it seemed like a good name for the puppet. I think the puppet was originally called Twinkey and, when I dropped it, it became Twonkey. It was Claire Smith of The Scotsman who coined the term Mr Twonkey.”
“So critics have some use,” I said.
“Well, yes, they are useful,” said Paul. “Sometimes they punish you; sometimes they praise you; but it’s always useful to have an outside perspective on what you’re doing because obviously it’s very difficult to have full awareness of what you’re doing.”
“Have you full awareness of what you’re doing?” I asked.
“No. Not quite,” said Paul.
“I’m seeing a read-through of your play Jennifer’s Robot Arm on Monday,” I said, “Is it your first play?”
“Yes,” said Paul decisively, then added: “Well, not entirely. No. I did a short radio play called Pissed as a Postman and I also attempted to write a musical called Itchy Grumble, which was released as an album. I re-salvaged what I could of it and wrote a little novella Itchy Grumble about it which I sell as a book at my shows.”
There is a trailer for the book on YouTube.
“Was Pissed as a Postman taken up for broadcast by BBC Radio 4?” I asked. “It’s an interesting title.”
“Eh… No,” said Paul. “It was something I wrote years ago. It was originally called Dusty Bottles. It was about a bunch of barflies who are drinking and then they realise one of the people they’re drinking with is God and one of them dies and they dance themselves to death. For a long time, it was the only decent thing I’d ever written. When you first start evolving creatively, you sometimes have those moments where you do one thing that’s really good, then you have difficulty replicating it and it takes a while to get your ‘voice’ and your style. So I re-booted Dusty Bottles as Pissed as a Postman and did that recently and it opened up the idea of me maybe writing plays.”
You can hear Pissed as a Postman on SoundCloud.
“What’s the difference between a play and a 60-minute show?” I asked.
I suppose,” said Paul, “that you expect a play to be in two acts and last at least 90 minutes.”
“How long is your play?” I asked.
“About 60 minutes. It’s got a narrative that’s quite clearly defined whereas my Twonkey things don’t really have a narrative. They’re more just like a scrapbook to incorporate what I do, which is sing, do a bit of comedy and tell fairy tale like stories. Jennifer’s Robot Arm is an expanded one of those miniatures, cos there was a short story called Jennifer’s Robot Arm which I expanded.”
“What is it about?” I asked.
“It’s about a little girl who thinks she’s the sister of Pinocchio and her mother is quite a careless drunk and the little girl is lost in her fantasy world. She has a friend called Patrick Promise, who is like a little goblin and he wants her to prove that she is made of wood by showing him her tree rings but, of course, she’s not. She saws her arm off and her family panic and try to work out what to do about the fact she’s lost her arm. And this guy just walks in off the streets and they find him in the mother’s bedroom, raking around in her lingerie drawers and, when they confront him about why he’s there doing that, he says it doesn’t really matter, that nothing really matters.
“It turns out he is an inventor and he can help them by making a robot arm. There’s money under the fruit bowl, but it’s not enough to pay for the arm. He starts off with a bit about Admiral Nelson and how Nelson lost his arm in Tenerife and how they tried to make him a porcelain arm. So the fruit bowl is the Admiral Nelson Memorial Fruit Bowl. But it’s not enough to pay for the arm, so the catch is that the mother has to sleep with him over a certain period of time to pay off the debt for the robot arm. They enter into a sexual deal which goes wrong.
“The man says: I’ve been trying this on for years. I go from house to house and this is the first time it’s actually worked.”
“You are not performing in the play,” I said, “but Myra Dubois and Simon Jay are?”
“Yes,” said Paul. “In a way, it’s kind of been taken out of my hands this one. Simon Jay is a big Twonkey fan and was performing in The Counting House at the Edinburgh Fringe last year and came about four times to see my show, which is a lot for anyone to tolerate. And I went to see his show: he’s a one-man theatre. His show was about un-picking a man’s life through an autopsy and he played about five or six different characters and rummaged around in carrier bags.
“I had been trying to get my play off the ground up here in Scotland. I got £300 from the Tom McGrath Trust. But then Simon took the baton and said he’d try to get it staged in London.
“When I was writing it, I imagined Myra Dubois in the role: it’s a perfect role for a transvestite. She’s the best drag act in London. It works for the woman to be quite a formidable force. Myra can really control a room and she’s a brilliant stand-up comedian.”
“Have you got a new show for this year’s Edinburgh Fringe?” I asked.
“Yes. Twonkey’s Stinking Bishop. It’s about how I’ve been sacked from Looney Tunes during a purple patch, which is partly true because Warner Bros own Looney Tunes and the band that I used to be in – Dawn of The Replicants – was signed to East West, which was a subsidiary of Warner Bros and they dropped us in the late 1990s. They had people like Simply Red and the Led Zeppelin back catalogue and The Doors in Britain. They were looking for something like The Beta Band, a big alternative Scottish band at the time and we did a couple of albums for them.”
“So,” I asked, “is Twonkey’s Stinking Bishop about that?”
“Not really,” said Paul.
“Are you frustrated at the moment, because you’re not in a band?”
“There’s an element of that,” said Paul. “Except I am in a band, but we’re just not active all the time. The band’s called Paul Vickers and The Leg… The Leg are an entity in themselves but sometimes they also do records with me. We’ve just released an album called The Greengrocer.”
“Songs from your previous shows?” I asked.
“There’s a couple of songs from previous shows. My Trifle was in last year’s show Twonkey’s Private Restaurant.”
There is a clip from Twonkey’s Private Restaurant on YouTube.
“Is The Greengrocer a novelty album?” I asked.
“No,” said Paul. “It’s a proper album with a band. It’s in the Tom Waits/Captain Beefheart area. No-one does absurdist Blues-rock like Captain Beefheart. Basically, the over-all theme is the idea that you can be creative, but you’ve still got to sell vegetables; you’ve still got to have a shop. It’s not a concept album but, on the back, it’s got a picture of an aubergine filled with carrots, which are supposed to be sticks of dynamite.
“I think a lot of my things recently have been about that idea that I have a job… I have to do that job to survive. I think The Greengrocer is partly about that. Obviously, I’m not a greengrocer, but…
“You could be if you wanted to be,” I suggested.
“I could be,” agreed Paul. “It’s that level you walk between being an artist and actually surviving.“