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There is much more to Mr Twonkey aka Paul Vickers than just surreal comedy

Having a hearty breakfast with Mr Twonkey

I met up with Malcolm Hardee Comedy Award winner Paul Vickers aka Mr Twonkey over breakfast to talk about his show Twonkey’s Night Train To Liechtenstein but, initially, we got sidetracked by the three gigs he recently played at the Prague Fringe – in the Museum of Alchemists.


JOHN: What is the museum like?

PAUL: It’s a lovely place. It’s got a lot of… not waxworks… fibreglass dummies of alchemists.

JOHN: I like Prague.

Mr Twonkey was a cover star at the Prague Fringe

PAUL: Oh, it’s a beautiful place. we always give money to the Infant Jesus of Prague. They change its clothes every day; it has different jackets and stuff. The more money we gave, the busier the show got. 

JOHN: Did he bleed more if you gave him more money?

PAUL: He doesn’t bleed, but he smiles. He is in a little glass box in a little church just over the Charles Bridge. He is small, but he has big fluffy coats and very flamboyant clothing. 

JOHN: It’s not a small statue of Liberace, is it?

PAUL: It does look like Liberace, but it’s Jesus. It’s one of those things like his eyes are following you round the room.

JOHN: His stigmata are following you round the room?

PAUL: Yeah. But the more money you give him, the more people come, you know?

JOHN: Anyway, you are performing your Twonkey’s Night Train To Liechtenstein at the Bill Murray venue in London next Thursday. Is that the same show you did in Brighton?

PAUL: Slightly but not totally different. It’s finding its feet. I have different terms for my shows now. The current show is an Arrival show. But I also do Gateway shows.

JOHN: What are they?

PAUL: A Gateway show is where you find a way in or a way out. With creative ideas, I find sometimes you get trapped. You get a formula for doing something and then, over time, that formula becomes stale, so you feel trapped by it. A Gateway show shows you don’t actually have to do it like that.

In another show, Mr Twonkey spent Christmas in the Jungle

You experiment with a new format and, if that works then, after that, you can have an Arrival show which I think is the most exciting type but it’s also potentially The End. In which case you need another Gateway show. Unless I have two Arrival shows, which is what I’m thinking.

I wonder if that’s possible.

JOHN: Maybe Liechtenstein will have a fire escape.

PAUL: Yeah. That would be great: if I could have two Arrival shows. 

JOHN: …and a fire escape show, like West Side Story.

PAUL: It makes sense in my head, but…

JOHN: So what you did before feels a bit stale to you now?

PAUL: Well, my first three shows – Twonkey’s Cottage, Twonkey’s Castle and Twonkey’s Kingdom – were like a trilogy and the idea was I was only going to do that. I was telling the story of the mythical character Twonkey. But the trouble was no-one understood what I was going on about; no-one was following the story. In some respects, you had to have seen the show before to fully understand the threads in the other show.

JOHN: What was the over-all narrative of the three shows?

PAUL: It was following the journey of Twonkey, who was an accountant… well, a dragon, really… Basically, a dragon who moved from a castle and got more and more powerful. He started off in a cottage, then had his own castle, then had his own kingdom. 

Mr Twonkey had a colourful and successful Blue Cadabra

Then I broke away. I killed Twonkey off after the third show. So the dragon died and I became Mr Twonkey. I became the essence of Twonkey. What I realised was that Twonkey was not a dragon but a state of mind. That freed it up. I had a Gateway show – Twonkey’s Blue Cadabra – which I had quite a bit of success with.

After that, I did a series of shows in that kind of formula…

JOHN: How many?

PAUL: Eh… How many were there?…Two?

JOHN: You’re not quite sure?

PAUL: No. I did Twonkey’s Private Restaurant, which was an extension of Cadabra. In Twonkey’s Stinking Bishop, there was a log flume park. Then Twonkey’s Mumbo Jumbo Hotel was the one I got the Malcolm Hardee Award for. That was a Gateway show, because that was the first time I introduced the idea of an interwoven narrative throughout the over-all piece. 

I have carried on with that since and the new show – Twonkey’s Night Train To Liechtenstein – probably has the most clear narrative I’ve had.

JOHN: And you are doing that at the Edinburgh Fringe in August?

PAUL: Yes.

JOHN: Are you playing Fringe By The Sea in North Berwick while you’re up in Edinburgh?

PAUL: Yes, but not as Twonkey. I’m doing my band stuff. Paul Vickers and The Leg.

JOHN: Your band is active again?

PAUL: Yes. We are recording an album at the end of June.

Paul Vickers (right) and The Leg: part of a body parts boom

JOHN: Why are they called The Leg?

PAUL: There was a boom in Scotland of bands named after body parts. There was Wounded Knee; there was Withered Hand; and so there was The Leg. There was also Frightened Rabbit.

JOHN: That’s a body part?

PAUL: No. Not a body part. But it fits in somehow.

JOHN: Fringe By The Sea sounds good.

PAUL: Yes, an odd mix of acts. The Sugarhill Gang. Mica Paris. Lewis Schaffer, David Steel and Roy Hattersley.

JOHN: David Steel and Roy Hattersley? The politicians?

PAUL: Yes.

JOHN: They’re singing…?

PAUL: No. Sitting in chairs and speaking to people.

JOHN: Roy Hattersley should join your band.

PAUL: Well, he had the reputation of spitting a lot… on Spitting Image… My girlfriend is making a seagull at the moment.

JOHN: What?

PAUL: My girlfriend is making a seagull at the moment.

JOHN: As a prop for your Twonkey show?

PAUL: She says it is. Though I haven’t got anything with a seagull in my act at the moment. 

Paul/Twonkey has been known to use occasional props

JOHN: She makes your props.

PAUL: Some, yes. And Grant Pringle makes the bigger ones.

JOHN: Is he related to the Pringles crisp dynasty?

PAUL: No. I think he is related to Pringle The Slayer.

JOHN: Who?

PAUL: Pringle The Slayer was a Borders Reiver. He had people locked up in a tower near Galashiels. I wrote a piece about Pringle The Slayer for Border Life magazine. I used to write for that. We interviewed David Steel for that too. Local interest. I also did Border X-Files, which was about  aliens and ghosts.

JOHN: That was a separate magazine from the one David Steel was in?

PAUL: No. It was all local interest. There was a lot of going to manor houses and talking to rich old ladies and there were photos of horses and green fields. It was the most successful thing we did after the music magazine failed. When BritPop deflated, the music magazine went down and we went into local publishing. But then the band took off and we were alright.

JOHN: What was the music magazine called?

PAUL: Sun Zoom Spark, named after a Captain Beefheart song.

JOHN: Ah. How are you enjoying your baked beans?

PAUL: They’re very nice.

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Mr Twonkey pays tribute to Ivor Cutler, “embodiment of the Scottish eccentric”

“Embodiment of the Scottish eccentric”

Influences are always interesting.

Malcolm Hardee Comedy Award winner Paul Vickers is currently preparing for his new show – Twonkey’s Night Train to Liechtenstein – at the Glasgow Comedy Festival next Friday (9th March). Paul performs as Mr Twonkey, definitely one of the more eccentric acts in British comedy.

He reminded me that today (3rd March) is the anniversary of the death in 2006 of Ivor Cutler – Scottish poet, songwriter, humorist and arguably the eccentric performers’ eccentric.

Mr Twonkey phoned Mr Cutler in the winter of 1995

Paul says Ivor Cutler was “the embodiment of the Scottish eccentric.” His rider in contracts stated that he had to be provided with a two-bar fire and marmalade sandwiches – “Which,” says Paul, “is reason alone to love him. I would like to keep his name alive. He will be sadly missed and fondly remembered.”

In the winter of 1995, “feeling slightly hung over”, the future Mr Twonkey interviewed the then Mr Cutler by telephone for the music magazine Sun Zoom Spark.

This is what Paul/Mr Twonkey wrote.

I have edited it slightly for length.


STOP THE GAME THERE’S A HEN ON THE FIELD

An Interview With Ivor Cutler

By Paul Vickers

Mr Ivor Cutler drawing by Grant Pringle to accompany the article in  Sun Zoom Spark

In the heart of World War 2, Ivor Cutler held the position of navigator with the R.A.F, fiddling with maps and charts between 1941-42. He was de-ranked to first aid and store man for the Windsor Engineering Company when his peers noted he had other things on his mind.

He, however, was more suited to teaching movement, drama and African drumming.

He didn’t start writing poetry until 1942 and his creative waters didn’t really flow until he was forty-eight. But, since then, he has been a prolific songwriter with a chest full of wisdom spanning three decades; classic album releases (Dandruff, Jammy Smears and Velvet Donkey) and many books of poetry (Private Habits, Fresh Carpet and A Little Present From Scotland). He has also found time to carry out his numerous duties as chairman of the London Cycling Association.

He has made a name for himself by being a true original with perfect spoken word performance skills and graceful, offbeat sense of comic timing; a difficult man to predict; an impossible man to write questions for; a bona fide enigma, the man behind a huge assortment of atmospheric, melancholy laments.

“How are you doing?” I bellow in the voice of a Yorkshire mining town skivvy.

“Oh… I don’t know… I’m coming to life.”

“Could you give me a brief summary of what a day in the life of Ivor Cutler might consist of?”

“You ought to make yourself known to me…”

“NO. I think perhaps you ought to make yourself known to me don’t you think?”

I stammer and stutter a makeshift introduction. “Oh, I’m really sorry. I haven’t introduced myself. I’m Paul. I wrote something about you a year or so ago.”

“Yes… I was very touched by that. You turned out to be unique in saying you laughed yourself sick initially but then began to see there was stuff underneath and I bless you for that. It’s the first time anyone has ever spoken in that way about my work. I’m sure I’m not just seen as one of those belly laugh comics, but the way in which you did it, I think was very revealing”

“Would you like to be taken more seriously?”

“I like to be taken seriously although I use humour as a medium it’s just the way I’m made. It is a way of instantly grabbing people. Yes, of course but not everyone cares to have that happen to them which means 50% of the people who come across my work think it’s great and the other half think I’m a lunatic. I resent that very much.”

“Do people actually get quite aggressive about it?”

“Well not with me but people in positions of power. People who are able to give me gigs or work. A lot of such people think Cutler’s an idiot and we’re certainly not going to put him on our programme. But I don’t want to be seen as complaining about this. It’s very nice to be controversial rather than have the total acceptance of everybody. I mean I worked with the Beatles once – on the Magical Mystery Tour – and I was so glad such a thing never happened to me. This ‘treated like god’ stuff. It would have turned me into a more unpleasant person than I already am,” he giggles heartily.

“I did a tour with Van Morrison some years ago so I got playing all these big places. I’m not crazy about it when it gets over a thousand, because I like to see the audience. I get them to turn the lights up so I can see their faces. I don’t have such a desperate ego problem that I need to play to masses of people. I remember doing a gig in front of three people. It was snowing that night. It was very early in my career and it was a great show… But I prefer more than three actually”

“You seem to find great humour in the cruelty of situations – cruelty in the ways of nature, like the way animals behave.”

“Stick a knife through a tomato –  Owcchh! Spllllcccchhh! That wasn’t very nice!

“Well yes. They’re busy killing one another. If people weren’t to be cruel then the only thing we’d be able to eat would be salt. I mean, all these plants. You stick a knife through a tomato and it goes Owcchh! Spllllcccchhh! That wasn’t very nice! One has to be cruel to survive.”

“But your humour is, at times, very dark”

“Yes, the person who totally changed my way of creative thinking was Franz Kafka who is seen by many to use very black humour indeed.

“The nature of laughter is very often fear. One is glad it’s not happening to oneself. I mean the man slipping on the banana skin gets people laughing. People are glad it’s not them.

“By the way,” he interrupts himself, “I’m not a surrealist. I get that stuck on me a lot. I’m somewhere in between surrealism and realism which makes it difficult for people to know whether to laugh or not. A friend of mine, Phyllis King, used to get dead silence when she performed because people didn’t want to hurt her feelings by laughing.”

“I think your most beautiful song is Squeeze Bees from Jammy Smears. It conjures up this sleepy image of a little girl and a little boy being completely content, sitting in silence and just enjoying the sound of the beehive; very tranquil and romantic.”

“I struck a bee-type noise with the harmonium to get the right emotion. I’m an emotional man. I think people who like to hear emotion get themselves fed by my stuff but of course not all my songs are so emotional. I’m a happy man and I’ll punch the man who says I’m not!”

“What makes you happy?”

“Well I used to collect stones but I’ve grown out of that. People go through life and do something to make them happy for a while and then it becomes boring. In fact boredom has been a very big part of my life. People look at me and think: How can a man like him be bored? Well… I just am, I suppose.”

A Stuggy Pren was a chance to peep inside Mr Cutler’s unique drawers

A photographic exhibition to promote his poetry book, A Stuggy Pren, gave people a chance to go through the keyhole and peep in his drawers, count his cushions and revel in his sentimental attachment to battered and bruised ornaments that litter his home. He is one of the last, great romantic eccentrics and, as the modern world slowly closes in on him, Ivor is slowly pushed out. He rarely plays live nowadays and when he does it’s always in the afternoon, allowing him to return safely home to get a good night’s sleep in his own bed. Anything less than a familiar mattress to Mr Cutler, just won’t do.

“One last question, Mr Cutler. What would you like to see yourself doing at the end of the century?”

“Oh crumbs! Dead, I suppose! The way I find civilisation presently I’d be very happy to be in another world. Life can be very unpleasant for me. I’d be quite happy to shuffle off after doing all one can in a lifetime. You see there’s too much rock music around and I hate loud music. It makes my ears hurt and it interferes with my body clock. I’ve got a lot of fans through John Peel and I’m sure they all like loud music and when I think what they do to me compared to what I do to them, it seems very unfair. I’m a member of the Noise Abatement Society.”


Ivor Cutler: born 15th January 1923; died 3rd March 2006, aged 83.

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Filed under Comedy, Eccentrics, Humor, Humour, Poetry