Tag Archives: surrealism

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

Phil Jarvis of Consignia: “Surrealism has taken over. It’s gone mainstream.”

Pay attention now. Concentrate.

Last Sunday, I went to Lottie Bowater’s Depresstival event at The Others venue in Stoke Newington to chat to Phil Jarvis of Consignia about a gig they are performing this coming Sunday at the Bill Murray venue in Islington.

Phil had been to Highgate Cemetery the previous day.

Consignia – named after a failed attempt at re-branding by the Royal Mail – are always interesting. I went to see one of their late-night shows at the Edinburgh Fringe and, at the end, they decided to repeat the whole show. So their one-hour show turned into a two-hour show.

“So,” I said to Phil, “this show on Sunday at the Bill Murray. You told me it’s about neo-liberalism. What on earth is that?”

Phil performing at Depresstival last Sunday

PHIL: Privatise everything. Privatise the whole lot. That’s what neo-liberalism is about

ME: The whole lot of what?

PHIL: Eh… Jobs.

ME: Jobs ARE privatised, aren’t they? Unless they’re public sector jobs?

PHIL: Well, I dunno, I mean, it’s dismantling of the state.

(AT THIS POINT, COMIC ALEXANDER BENNETT ARRIVED)

ME (TO ALEXANDER): Your scarf only starts halfway up.

PHIL: It’s the Euan Blair way.

ME (TO PHIL): Alexander is going to play Tony Blair’s son on Sunday?

PHIL: Yeah.

ME (TO PHIL): You went to Highgate Cemetery yesterday. Why?

PHIL: To look at dead Marxists.

ME: So neo-liberalism is privatising everything?

PHIL: Yes. There’s lots of job insecurity. There are competing Santas because Santa is dead.

ME: It is a Christmas show?

PHIL: Yes.

ME: Did I know this?

PHIL: I don’t know. It’s a Christmas show about neo-liberalism. Santa is dead and Euan Blair has made sure there’s lots of competing Santas.

ME: So who is performing in this show?

PHIL: Consignia.

ME: Consignia changes occasionally. Is Andy Barr in it?

PHIL: Yes.

ME: But Alexander is not in Consignia.

PHIL: Yes he is. Everyone is in Consignia. You are in Consignia. The whole world is in Consignia.

ME: Could we privatise a percentage of them?

PHIL: That is what the show is about – About fighting back against that.

ME: You said it was about privatising things.

PHIL: No. And it’s coming together quite nicely.

ME: You mean it is organised? Well, that is no use. Consignia has a style to maintain. I was slightly worried you had sold out when I read on social media the word ‘script’…

PHIL: There is always a script. But it is just a guide.

ME: It was unsettling when I saw that Edinburgh show where you did it twice and the second time was pretty much the same as the first time. I thought: “There surely can’t be a script!”

PHIL: Exactly. That is how it is. A script is a prompt. It’s not something you have to religiously stick to.

ME: Like Christmas?… So, this Christmas show on Sunday, is it going to be in Edinburgh next August?

PHIL: No. It’s a special show with lots of our friends in it.

ME: Oh dear. Such as?

PHIL: Seán Morley. It’s all the talent.

ME: I have gone off the idea now. It’s the word “talent”.

PHIL: It’s gonna be a spectacle.

ALEXANDER: It’s all good people, but they’ve not abandoned what Consignia is.

ME: What is Consignia?

ALEXANDER: Phil.

ME (TO PHIL): Are you going to take your clothes off in it?”

PHIL: I’ve reined that in now. I think the way to go is to put more clothes on.

ME: I am rapidly going off this show. It has a script and you are not going to get your kit off.

ALEXANDER: I haven’t had a drink since yesterday morning.

ME: That’s hardly giving up drink…

ALEXANDER: I wasn’t claiming that. I was just telling you how long it had been.

PHIL (TO ME): Are you coming to the show on Sunday?

ME: Yes. I am seeing the Consignia show, then seeing Matt Price & Martha McBrier’s storytelling show at the Bill Murray, half an hour after you finish.

PHIL: Oh, we had better clean up for them. I am doing Dinner For One again, within the Christmas show.

ME: Your shows have a tendency to over-run – by about 60 to 90 minutes.

Phil with part of the 12-page Christmas script

PHIL: Well, the script is only 12 pages long.

ALEXANDER: There are lots of bits in the script that say something happens and then, in brackets, THIS GOES ON FOR FIVE MINUTES.

PHIL (TO ME): So, although you might slag us off for having a script, we are true to who we are.

ME: Your last show at the Edinburgh Fringe this year was a non-show, wasn’t it?

PHIL: Yeah. I had to go for a job interview.

ME: It was a gig with no performers but with an audience.

PHIL: Yeah. We can still get people in without us being there. We are making the system work for us.

ME: Well, it is a way to avoid losing money in Edinburgh. You get an audience for your show but you are not there, so it doesn’t cost you anything and you can’t lose money. It’s a win.

PHIL: It is a win.

ALEXANDER (TO PHIL): You should say who else is in the show.

ME: Who else is in the show?

PHIL: Seán Morley.

ME: Again? The Seán Morley Twins?

PHIL: Ben Target, Euan Blair, Adam Larter, Nathan Willcock, of course. Lottie Bowater. Helen Duff. She’s very good. Have you seen her?

ME: I saw her at Juliette Burton’s boyfriend’s birthday. She wasn’t performing. She was eating. But she ate very well.

PHIL: Cassie Atkinson is in it. We’ve got half the comedy scene.

ALEXANDER: The crème de la crème.

ME: You are going to have no-one in the audience. They will all be on stage.

PHIL: That’s the plan. But tickets are selling. Tickets have sold.

ME: So Adam Larter is in your Christmas show?

PHIL: Yes. He is directing it. We have three different directors.

ALEXANDER: Andy Barr is the director…

PHIL: …in Consignia.

ME (TO PHIL): Are you a director?”

ALEXANDER (TO PHIL): Well, you are the main driving force behind all of this.

PHIL: I am the project manager of it. We basically have a show about neo-liberalism which mirrors neo-liberalism, because it has lots of competing… eh… sort of things… going on within the actual show.

ME: Structured.

PHIL: Structured.

ME: So it has 12 pages with three directors.

PHIL: Joz can be in it if he wants.

(JOZ NORRIS WAS SITTING ACROSS THE ROOM)

JOZ: I’ll be there.

PHIL: We have to have some punters in the audience.

ME: I’ll be there.

JOZ: I could play a hat stand.

PHIL: Who else is in it? There’s Cassie Atkinson.

ME: Again?

PHIL: Seán Morley is in it.

ME: The Seán Morley Triplets and the Cassie Atkinson Twins?

PHIL: Mark Dean Quinn’s in it. Alwin Solanky. Michael Brunström is in it. He is playing Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm. The show is basically about dead Marxists come to save Christmas from neo-liberalism. That’s the basic thrust of it.

Phil with one of the Karl Marx Twins (Photo by Adam Larter)

ME: And this is why you went to Highgate Cemetary yesterday? To see Karl Marx’s grave?

ALEXANDER: There are two Karl Marx graves there.

ME: What? Like all the people in your show? There are two of them?

PHIL: Seán Morley is in the show.

ME: So have they divided him up?

PHIL: Seán Morley?

ME: Karl Marx. Are there two graves in different places?

PHIL: Yes there are. They’ve got the original grave, when he wasn’t famous. And then, in the 1950s, the Communist Party of Great Britain got some money together and made a bigger thing for him.

ME: Ah.

PHIL: Jeremy Beadle is in the show. George Michael is in the show. And Kat Bond. She is also in the new the new WeBuyAnyCar.com advert. She’s in the advert with Mark Silcox about building a statue to Philip Schofield.

ME: You are joking.

PHIL: No. Surrealism has taken over. It’s gone mainstream.

ME: So, this show on Sunday at the Bill Murray. You told me it’s about neo-liberalism. What on earth is that?

Phil performing at Depresstival last Sunday

PHIL: Privatise everything. Privatise the whole lot. That’s what neo-liberalism is about

ME: The whole lot of what?

PHIL: Eh… Jobs.

ME: Jobs ARE privatised, aren’t they? Unless they’re public sector jobs?

PHIL: Well, I dunno, I mean, it’s dismantling of the state.

(AT THIS POINT, COMIC ALEXANDER BENNETT ARRIVED)

ME (TO ALEXANDER): Your scarf only starts halfway up.

PHIL: It’s the Euan Blair way.

ME (TO PHIL): Alexander is going to play Tony Blair’s son on Sunday?

PHIL: Yeah.

ME (TO PHIL): You went to Highgate Cemetery yesterday. Why?

PHIL: To look at dead Marxists.

ME: So neo-liberalism is privatising everything?

PHIL: Yes. There’s lots of job insecurity. There are competing Santas because Santa is dead.

ME: It is a Christmas show?

PHIL: Yes.

ME: Did I know this?

PHIL: I don’t know. It’s a Christmas show about neo-liberalism. Santa is dead and Euan Blair has made sure there’s lots of competing Santas.

ME: So who is performing in this show?

PHIL: Consignia.

ME: Consignia changes occasionally. Is Andy Barr in it?

PHIL: Yes.

ME: But Alexander is not in Consignia.

PHIL: Yes he is. Everyone is in Consignia. You are in Consignia. The whole world is in Consignia.

ME: Could we privatise a percentage of them?

PHIL: That is what the show is about – About fighting back against that.

ME: You said it was about privatising things.

PHIL: No. And it’s coming together quite nicely.

ME: You mean it is organised? Well, that is no use. Consignia has a style to maintain. I was slightly worried you had sold out when I read on social media the word ‘script’…

PHIL: There is always a script. But it is just a guide.

ME: It was unsettling when I saw that Edinburgh show where you did it twice and the second time was pretty much the same as the first time. I thought: “There surely can’t be a script!”

PHIL: Exactly. That is how it is. A script is a prompt. It’s not something you have to religiously stick to.

ME: Like Christmas?… So, this Christmas show on Sunday, is it going to be in Edinburgh next August?

PHIL: No. It’s a special show with lots of our friends in it.

ME: Oh dear. Such as?

PHIL: Seán Morley. It’s all the talent.

ME: I have gone off the idea now. It’s the word “talent”.

PHIL: It’s gonna be a spectacle.

ALEXANDER: It’s all good people, but they’ve not abandoned what Consignia is.

ME: What is Consignia?

ALEXANDER: Phil.

ME (TO PHIL): Are you going to take your clothes off in it?”

PHIL: I’ve reined that in now. I think the way to go is to put more clothes on.

ME: I am rapidly going off this show. It has a script and you are not going to get your kit off.

ALEXANDER: I haven’t had a drink since yesterday morning.

ME: That’s hardly giving up drink…

ALEXANDER: I wasn’t claiming that. I was just telling you how long it had been.

PHIL (TO ME): Are you coming to the show on Sunday?

ME: Yes. I am seeing the Consignia show, then seeing Matt Price & Martha McBrier’s storytelling show at the Bill Murray, half an hour after you finish.

PHIL: Oh, we had better clean up for them. I am doing Dinner For One again, within the Christmas show.

ME: Your shows have a tendency to over-run – by about 60 to 90 minutes.

Phil with part of the 12-page Christmas script

PHIL: Well, the script is only 12 pages long.

ALEXANDER: There are lots of bits in the script that say something happens and then, in brackets, THIS GOES ON FOR FIVE MINUTES.

PHIL (TO ME): So, although you might slag us off for having a script, we are true to who we are.

ME: Your last show at the Edinburgh Fringe this year was a non-show, wasn’t it?

PHIL: Yeah. I had to go for a job interview.

ME: It was a gig with no performers but with an audience.

PHIL: Yeah. We can still get people in without us being there. We are making the system work for us.

ME: Well, it is a way to avoid losing money in Edinburgh. You get an audience for your show but you are not there, so it doesn’t cost you anything and you can’t lose money. It’s a win.

PHIL: It is a win.

ALEXANDER (TO PHIL): You should say who else is in the show.

ME: Who else is in the show?

PHIL: Seán Morley.

ME: Again? The Seán Morley Twins?

PHIL: Ben Target, Euan Blair, Adam Larter, Nathan Willcock, of course. Lottie Bowater. Helen Duff. She’s very good. Have you seen her?

ME: I saw her at Juliette Burton’s boyfriend’s birthday. She wasn’t performing. She was eating. But she ate very well.

PHIL: Cassie Atkinson is in it. We’ve got half the comedy scene.

ALEXANDER: The crème de la crème.

ME: You are going to have no-one in the audience. They will all be on stage.

PHIL: That’s the plan. But tickets are selling. Tickets have sold.

ME: So Adam Larter is in your Christmas show?

PHIL: Yes. He is directing it. We have three different directors.

ALEXANDER: Andy Barr is the director…

PHIL: …in Consignia.

ME (TO PHIL): Are you a director?”

ALEXANDER (TO PHIL): Well, you are the main driving force behind all of this.

PHIL: I am the project manager of it. We basically have a show about neo-liberalism which mirrors neo-liberalism, because it has lots of competing… eh… sort of things… going on within the actual show.

ME: Structured.

PHIL: Structured.

ME: So it has 12 pages with three directors.

PHIL: Joz can be in it if he wants.

(JOZ NORRIS WAS SITTING ACROSS THE ROOM)

JOZ: I’ll be there.

PHIL: We have to have some punters in the audience.

ME: I’ll be there.

JOZ: I could play a hat stand.

PHIL: Who else is in it? There’s Cassie Atkinson.

ME: Again?

PHIL: Seán Morley is in it.

ME: The Seán Morley Triplets and the Cassie Atkinson Twins?

PHIL: Mark Dean Quinn’s in it. Alwin Solanky. Michael Brunström is in it. He is playing Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm. The show is basically about dead Marxists come to save Christmas from neo-liberalism. That’s the basic thrust of it.

Phil with one of the Karl Marx Twins (Photo by Adam Larter)

ME: And this is why you went to Highgate Cemetary yesterday? To see Karl Marx’s grave?

ALEXANDER: There are two Karl Marx graves there.

ME: What? Like all the people in your show? There are two of them?

PHIL: Seán Morley is in the show.

ME: So have they divided him up?

PHIL: Seán Morley?

ME: Karl Marx. Are there two graves in different places?

PHIL: Yes there are. They’ve got the original grave, when he wasn’t famous. And then, in the 1950s, the Communist Party of Great Britain got some money together and made a bigger thing for him.

ME: Ah.

PHIL: Jeremy Beadle is in the show. George Michael is in the show. And Kat Bond. She is also in the new the new WeBuyAnyCar.com advert. She’s in the advert with Mark Silcox about building a statue to Philip Schofield.

ME: You are joking.

PHIL: No. Surrealism has taken over. It’s gone mainstream.

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Award-winning UK comic to write play about Twin Peaks director David Lynch

Mr Twonkey promotes his Christmas in the Jungle in Brighton

So I had a chat with Mr Twonkey aka Paul Vickers at King’s Cross station in London.

He was on his way back home to Edinburgh. Last year, he won the increasingly prestigious Malcolm Hardee Award for Comic Originality at the Edinburgh Fringe.

“How were your Christmas in the Jungle shows at the Brighton Fringe?” I asked.

“It was so hot,” he told me. “I don’t think people were feeling… They were… It occurred to me that maybe doing a Christmas show in the middle of the summer isn’t such a great idea.”

“But surely,” I said, “with your act, to do a Christmas show at Christmas would be a silly idea.”

“Well,” he replied, “I was pitching it as The only Christmas show on at Brighton in June. Unfortunately, there was another one called The Grotto. And, when I was flyering for it in the street, people were asking me: What’s wrong with you?”

“You are,” I checked, “still doing Christmas in the Jungle at the Edinburgh Fringe this August?”

“Yes.”

“Have you seen the new Twin Peaks TV series yet?”

“No. But I am trying to write a play about David Lynch.”

“Your previous play was Jennifer’s Robot Arm,” I said.

“Yes. That was more kitchen sink drama/science fiction. This would be about people who actually exist.”

“How are you getting the facts?” I asked. “From Wikipedia?”

“Various sources. There’s a few books about him. The trouble is none of them are any good apart from one which is not bad: Lynch On Lynch, which is a series of interviews with him.”

“Does he know anything about himself?” I asked.

“I would imagine there are a few gaps. But there’s also a good documentary online about someone following him around while he’s making Inland Empire.

“And there’s a book coming out in February 2018, published by Canongate Books which has his full support. I think it’s called Room To Dream.”

“So your play,” I asked, “is about… what?”

“I want to focus on is the time he spent in London. The early part of people’s careers is always the most interesting. He was living in a flat in Wimbledon, making a suit for The Elephant Man.

‘You know, in Eraserhead, there’s a little deformed baby. I think he kept it very damp. I think he used chicken and raw animal flesh, moulded it together and used maggots quite a lot – to eat away the face. And then he kept it damp. His daughter wanted to play with it and he told her: You can play with it as long as you don’t touch it.

“After Eraserhead, he was a cult figure – a young hotshot director – and he had a few films he was trying to pitch. One of them was called Gardenback, which was about a community of people who could only speak to each other by passing an insect between them, either through the ear or through the mouth.

“The studio kept pushing him to write dialogue for it and he couldn’t write any. He said: Well, that’s the whole point: that they don’t speak. They communicate by passing the insect. So that project was shelved.

“Then he had another project called Ronnie Rocket, which was for the actor of restricted height in the Black Lodge. It was like Rocket Man, but he was small and it was surreal and it had villains called The Donut Men. But no-one would pick it up.”

“Jam on the fingers?” I asked.

“Yeah. So then they just gave him a pile of scripts and he picked The Elephant Man without reading it. Mel Brooks was producing it.”

“Mel Brooks,” I said, “once told me that, whenever you get your photo taken, you should always open your mouth.”

“Did he? Anyway, Mel Books had had success with Young Frankenstein as a black & white film and I think he quite liked the idea of re-invigorating the genre and Eraserhead had been in black & white.

The Elephant Man was a big responsibility for David Lynch and apparently it was the closest he ever came to committing suicide. He almost put his head in the oven in Wimbledon during the development process. I was going to have a bit in my play where he puts his head in the oven and it turns round and Mel Brooks comes out from a theatre where he has been viewing Eraserhead.”

“This is live on stage?” I asked.

“Yes.”

“Will the insects from Gardenback take part?”

“They could. But I was thinking focussing more around the fitting of the costume. They gave him six months to make a costume for The Elephant Man based on the fact he had done well with the baby in Eraserhead. And apparently what he created was horrendous. John Hurt came round for a fitting and he couldn’t hardly breathe or walk and certainly couldn’t act in the costume.

Mr Twonkey takes a train and a door north to Edinburgh

“So that process was unsuccessful and a lot of money had gone down the drain and I think that was when he thought about putting his head in the oven.”

“And the costume in the finished film?” I asked.

“I think, essentially, he got someone else to make it. There was a bit of controversy on the set because he was young but had experienced British thespians like Sir John Gielgud and Anthony Hopkins who had been round the block a few times. I think there was a friction with young David Lynch adapting to these older British actors.”

“Maybe they didn’t talk about it,” I suggested.

“What?”

“The elephant in the room.”

“That’s a good title.”

“You just have to make the play relevant to the title,” I suggested. “Would you perform in it?”

“I don’t know.”

“You’re the wrong shape for David Lynch,” I suggested.

“I don’t think I could play him convincingly enough for more than 5 or 10 minutes; then I would run out of steam. It needs to be a proper actor.”

“The good news with a play about David Lynch,” I suggested, “is that there’s no limit to the possible surrealism.”

“It can be a BIT eccentric,” Paul agreed. “It can be a bit Lady in The Radiator in Eraserhead.”

“But it can’t all be that. What would give it real poignancy is revealing a bit of his history that people didn’t know about. The main scene would be the fitting, where it goes wrong.”

“Hold on,” I said, “If you are going to do a show about David Lynch making a costume he can’t make, you have to make the costume, don’t you?”

“That’s true.”

“Is that a problem?”

“It will have to be a good costume.”

“The one that isn’t successful…”

“Yes. But it can be really horrendously bad. That will be good.”

Mr Twonkey and Sir Nigel Gresley, Chief Mechanical Engineer of the Great Northern Railway (1911-1923) and the London & North Eastern Railway 1923-1941). He designed The Flying Scotsman train.

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Mr Twonkey on the Chicken Church cult and being hit by Lewis Schaffer’s spoon

twonkey_malcolmhardeeaward

Paul Vickers aka Mr Twonkey

Paul Vickers/Mr Twonkey had forgotten too

“Why are we meeting?” I asked Paul Vickers aka Mr Twonkey, surrealist performer and winner of the 2016 increasingly prestigious Malcolm Hardee Award for Comic Originality.

“I have forgotten,” he told me.

“Me too,” I said. “Are you doing the Leicester Comedy Festival?”

“I am. On 9th and 10th of February. And the Museum of Comedy in London on the 15th of April.”

“Maybe that’s why,” I suggested. “What else have you been doing?”

“I have been taking advice on relationships from Lewis Schaffer.”

“Are you mad?” I asked

“He has algorithms,” Paul told me, “and he is trying to teach me how to read. He says I haven’t learnt how to read properly. I am dyslexic, but he is convinced that it is not a real disease. He thinks I am not trying hard enough.”

“He is teaching you too read?” I asked.

“He has a book,” Paul explained, “and I have to read words that have similar sounds and get used to reading and recognising them.”

“What is the book called?” I asked.

Lewis Schaffer’s book

Lewis Schaffer’s book without wooden spoon

“This Simple Book Will Let You Teach Anyone to Read by Lewis Schaffer. When I mess up, he hits me with a wooden spoon. It is based on a similar thing to Dr Seuss. It does actually work. But it is tedious and unpleasant. I think Lewis Schaffer finds it funny – and I did to start with, but then it became tiring…

“…and painful,” I suggested.

“Yeah,” Paul agreed. “Lewis Schaffer was upset because I didn’t take the book with me last time. He said they had printed it out specially for me.”

“There is,” I asked, “only one copy of This Simple Book Will Let You Teach Anyone to Read by Lewis Schaffer?”

“I think there may be 3 or 4 copies. But he has got a copy that is specifically for me. It is signed at the front and  it is my copy. We have had two sessions so far.”

“When was the previous one?” I asked.

“In May last year, I think.”

“Have you progressed?”

“Not as much as I thought. He showed me the page where we left off last time, and it was only halfway through the first page. But I think he may be cheating; I am sure I did more than just that page.”

“Is it enjoyable?” I asked.

“No,” said Paul. “It is not a fun activity and, last time, I did it before and after a gig so I was quite tired. But that doesn’t stop him. He’s relentless.”

A page from Lewis Schaffer’s book

A page from Lewis Schaffer’s relentless book

“Relentless in what?” I asked.

“I don’t know. Just relentlessly… erm… cruel, I suppose. It seems a bit cruel.”

“I thought you were seeing him for relationship counselling?”

“Well, there is that as well, but he has not written a book about relationships. He just has an algorithm that he feels will work.”

“An algorithm on relationships?”

“Yes.”

“What’s the algorithm?”

“It is based on the fact that all people are fundamentally selfish.”

“Lewis Schaffer thinks other people are too inward-looking?” I asked.

Paul laughed: “I am not sure I can repeat a lot of what was said.”

“Are you going to follow his advice?”

“It is always good to get the Lewis Schaffer’s perspective on a situation.”

“No it isn’t,” I said. “On relationships??? That seems like a very bad idea. You are going to end up an emotional wreck with no self confidence and speaking with a fake American accent.”

A selfie by Paul Vickers/Mr Twonkey

A Soho selfie by Paul Vickers aka Mr Twonkey

“That is true,” Paul agreed.

“Who first suggested,” I asked, “that you should go to Lewis Schaffer for reading lessons and relationship counselling?”

“That’s just what he sees as necessary when I turn up,” Paul replied. “That’s his idea of passing time with me.”

“Better than conversing…?” I asked.

“Well,” mused Paul, “he made me a chicken sandwich and then he took the book out… and the wooden spoon.”

I asked: “Does he keep a special wooden spoon for lessons?”

“Yeah,” said Paul. “That’s the one he beats you with.”

“This should be a show at the Edinburgh Fringe,” I suggested.

“It’s quite tedious, though,” Paul told me. “It really is quite tedious. It’s like blog – slob – cog – mob – gob – hob – lob. Quite tedious.”

“What does this supposedly teach you?” I asked.

“It teaches you how to recognise how certain things sound, because he says I get my Bs and Ds mixed up, which is true. And that I have difficulty recognising sounds and words. When I look at a page, I do sometimes have that thing where I can see words backwards. It’s partly why I ended up going down the road I’ve gone down. Apparently dyslexic people either turn to crime  or art… I could be in prison…

A selfie by Paul Vickers/Mr Twonkey

Another selfie by Paul Vickers aka Mr Twonkey

“…instead of being hit by a wooden spoon?” I asked.

“The dyslexia has actually affected my life,” Paul continued. “If only Lewis Schaffer had got to me sooner, then maybe I would have turned into an upstanding member of society.”

“I am not convinced,” I told him, “that you are learning to read. You are just getting bruised.”

“He sees it as doing a good thing,” Paul countered.

Then there was a long pause.

“Well, I don’t know if he does,” he added thoughtfully.

“Anyway,” I said, “what is this new show you are taking to Leicester, the Museum of Comedy and the Edinburgh Fringe?”

“If you could push my Museum of Comedy show on the 15th of April that would be cool,” said Paul.

“And the new show is…?” I prompted.

“It is called Twonkey’s Christmas in the Jungle.”

Mr Twonkey’s Christmas in The Jungle

Mr Twonkey’s Christmas in The Jungle – is not in a jungle

“Is it going o be performed at Christmas in a jungle?”

“No. At the Museum of Comedy in London on 15th April.”

“Have you written it all?”

“More or less.”

“Which?” I asked. “More or less?”

“Well, I have a beginning and an end but, because it has never been performed in front of an audience, I don’t entirely know how much of it works. I have a rough story.”

“Which is?”

“My manager – I don’t have a manager but, in Twonkey World I do – he sends me to do the Iquitos Fringe in the Hallucinogenic Peruvian jungle. The idea is he is trying to get rid of me, cos he has other acts who are more prestigious and exciting to manage.”

“Are you,” I asked, “going to have a jungle in the venue?”

“Yeah. My long-suffering other half, Mary, has made a jungle for me and some of my puppets have turned to a religious cult called The Chieftains of Paradise Who Welcome Evil.

“They wear a lot of rosettes and they believe that Jesus, when he rested, actually went to Hawaii and, when he was in Hawaii, he came up with some ideas like the Solomon Islands and Canada and the piña colada.

“I am trying to wean the puppets off the religious cult and the only way to be rescued from the jungle is for someone to go to the Chicken Church – which actually exists. It is not in the Peruvian jungle, but it’s a massive church that looks like a chicken. Well, it is not supposed to be a chicken: it’s supposed to be a dove but it looks more like a chicken. It has become a tourist attraction.

The Chicken Church in the Indonesian jungle

The real Chicken Church is actually in the Indonesian jungle

“The idea is that, if the puppets get to the Chicken Church and ring the bells, then the rescue helicopters will come and lift us all to safety.

“There is a song about the Chicken Church in Twonkey’s Christmas in the Jungle.”

“That would be,” I said, “the show which is going to be at London’s Museum of Comedy on 15th April?”

“Yes. The song is from a new album by Paul Vickers & The Leg with the working title Sherbert and Chilli – but that’s a long way from finished. We have about twelve tracks written and demo-ed. Christmas in The Jungle is another of the songs. It takes a while to finish these things… and there is always the temptation to try and get it right this time.”

“Do you,” I asked, “resist that temptation?”

“Well, I think I sometimes get it right accidentally. I do know how to persist and I know when something has gathered a certain amount of mass and it may be worth presenting to people, but it’s difficult to know when anything is ever really truly finished. It’s quite tricky to constantly mine the human consciousness for those gems or whatever they are.”

“Have you thought of doing something completely different – like not being Mr Twonkey?”

“I could have gone into advertising, but I didn’t. I could have gone any number of ways.”

“You still can,” I suggested.

“Yeah. That’s the thing. You feel you are in a very small, tight little room but, when you find those little doors it can take the roof off and it becomes expansive again. When people talk about writers’ block it’s really that they don’t have the keys to a door yet.

Paul Vickers tries a new look after our chat

Paul Vickers tried a new look for Mr Twonkey after our chat

David Lynch explains it really well. He says that sometimes you get little bits of ideas but you can’t work out what to do with them or how they connect and everything you need is in one room but it is a room you are not allowed access to yet.

“I think the ideas I have are not necessarily always fully explored. Jennifer’s Robot Arm – the play that I did – was originally just a 500-word story but I realised I could expand it out. There’s a lot of things I have like that; they could be expanded out. I would like to write more plays.”

twonkeychristmasjungle_leicester

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Mr Twonkey’s Buxton Fringe Diary

Mr Twonkey was front-page news in Buxton

Mr Twonkey was big front-page news in Buxton

Performers often preview their Edinburgh Fringe shows at the Buxton Fringe.

This year, the Buxton Fringe runs 6th-24th July and the Edinburgh Fringe officially 5th (but, in fact, 3rd) to 29th August

Paul Vickers  is a songwriter, comic and puppeteer who performs as Mr Twonkey

Last year in Edinburgh, he was nominated for the increasingly prestigious Malcolm Hardee Award for Comic Originality.

He will be performing his new show Twonkey’s Mumbo Jumbo Hotel in Edinburgh next month and has just returned from performing it for three nights in Buxton. This is his diary of what happened over the weekend…


DAY ONE

Mr Twonkey performed late night in Buxton

Mr Twonkey performed late night underground in Buxton

As soon as I arrived, I headed for a vegetable shepherd’s pie. The table I choose to sit at was about three foot taller than all the other tables. I had set myself up to be the freak straight away. Old ladies gazed at me gloomily as Old Blue Eyes provided the swinging soundtrack. I felt so vulnerable.

Afterwards, I walked along the high street and spotted some teenagers dressed in World War 2 clobber. They had just performed their first show and all seemed to think the audience was a little nervous and quiet as they hammered their show into them like a night raid on Coventry.

The evening came round fast.

First I did Barrel of Laughs which was a mixed bill show. I tried out new songs and it all went down very well. People started singing along automatically which was unusual. It was almost as if they knew the songs better then me, which was a little creepy.

My late solo show was more sparsely attended. However I had a reviewer in and he loved it, saying I was as mad as a trumpet made from ear wax but enjoyable all the same.

My Air BnB was incredibly minimal. When I opened the door to my room, the handle came right off. I went straight to bed.

DAY TWO

Mr Twonkey stared at the viaduct and the grass near Buxton

Mr Twonkey stared at the viaduct and the grass

The morning began with a fright as I heard a penguin flapping about in the loft above my head. Luckily, I managed to secure the door to the hatch with an old broom. I would be horrified having to deal with a bird flapping around my small room hungry for berries and seeds. Or fish.

I decided not to start my day with a punishing schedule of Fringe shows but to immerse myself in the sanctuary of nature and stone temples.

First I went off to stare down a viaduct and, just up the road from that humped wonder, I found a lovely farm shop. They served cherry Bakewell ice cream, which was pretty much the best thing ever.

Afterwards, I tried talking to a horse and a farmer caught me at it. He said he once had a bull that rolled it eyes when it was hungry.

Then I walked back into town refueled and ready to give Buxton a show to remember.

I picked up a new cast member in a junk shop called Maggie Mae – a fine coconut frog belly monster with a devilish grin.

I played to a busy house. The show fell straight off the bone, which is the way I like it: loose but tasty.

After my success, I read an old copy of the Buxton Advertiser and fell asleep.

DAY THREE

Mary Queen of Scots used to rub herself against the stalagmites in Poole’s Cavern

Mary Queen of Scots used to rub herself against the stalagmites in Poole’s Cavern (Photograph by Stephen Elwyn Roddick)

The morning began with a hop, skip and a jump down a cave – Poole’s Cavern. This comprises a network of tunnels that Mary Queen of Scots used to visit via candlelight as she feverishly rubbed her body up and down the stalagmites in a desperate effort to try and cure her rampant arthritis.

I also learned about the beaker people. Their bodies were discovered when the area near Solomon’s Temple (a Victorian viewing booth on the moor) was excavated. Apparently they were buried with beakers between their legs so that when they arrived in heaven they would not go thirsty.

In the afternoon, Buxton was simply throbbing with brass bands, vintage sports cars, cream teas and jollity. People in blazers tiptoed around the opera house gorging themselves on fancy cakes and antiques. The sun was so hot you could hear the huge laminated portraits in front of the Milton’s Head sizzle: a bizarre tribute to the fallen Prince, John Lennon, Whitney Houston and Cilla Black.

As the day drew on, posh people left the park and were soon replaced by local yobs kicking bottles of Buxton spring water around in a hateful manner. I started to feel a little nervous about my final Buxton show.

I gave them my most physical show yet.

I was burnt-out but satisfied by the end of it.

I did it!

I blasted the Buxton Fringe.

I gave them a bit of Twonkey and – you know what? – I think they liked him.

As for me, I don’t care for the guy.

Paul Vickers on Skype yesterday

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A Dada celebration staged by a foolish man + Brian Blessed’s voice & a urinal

Mike Freedman is a New York writer and film maker. Or is he?

“I was born in New York,” he tells me, “but I have lived here in London for 31 years. My parents brought me over as a child.”

He has an American accent but was brought up here and, as an adult, has lived in London. So what is the reality? What is reality?

Mike Freedman in Soho - London not New York

Mike Freedman in Soho, London not New York

Mike Freedman is very serious.

“I love film,” he tells me, “because it is the only art form that is all the other art forms. It IS drama, theatre; it can also be dance, painting, music, rhythm. All artistic expression can be found in films – if they are good – to an extent that is simply not possible in the other media.”

He made an award-winning feature-length documentary titled Critical Mass, the blurb for which says:

With the planet bursting at the seams, the intelligence and physiological traits that make us human are now crucial to mankind’s survival. This intelligent film interweaves a fascinating 1960s rat experiment with a slick snapshot of today’s urban jungle.

He wrote a book titled: The Revolution Will Be Improvised: Critical Conversations On Our Changing World.

So Mike Freedman is very serious, yes?

Well, he has played in various bands and was a founding member of the “invisible acoustic comedy minstrels” known as Chicken Tikka Masala: The Band.

“I recently finished making a comedy web series,” he tells me, “called The Incidentals, which we will be putting out near the end of the year. It’s about a group of musicians who are hired to write music for a sitcom and it’s done as a behind-the-scenes documentary.”

A week today – next Thursday – Mike is organising LonDADA at the Cinema Museum in Elephant & Castle.

“No-one nowadays,” I suggested to him, “knows what Dadaism is, do they?”

“I think that’s the point, isn’t it?” he replied.

“What?” I said. “That it isn’t?”

Mike replied: “I think it was Tristran Tzara who said that there’s nothing more Dada than being anti-Dada. It is the formlessness that appeals to me.”

“So LonDADA is celebrating 100 years of Dada?” I asked.

Cabaret Voltaire, Zurich, in 1916

An early Dada event at the Cabaret Voltaire, Zurich, in 1916

“Well, June 23rd 1916 was the date that Hugo Ball performed his Karawane at the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich for the first time and that was the birth of Dada poetry. The Cabaret Voltaire had existed since February and had had a couple of salons but they hadn’t really had their own work.”

“1916,” I said, “is right in the middle of the First World War.”

“Well,” said Mike, “Dada was, in part, a response to the First World War. The mainstream understanding of it is that the horror of the First World War and that wholesale slaughter and the bourgeois industrial capitalist mindset that had created the conditions that made this sort of madness possible was what they were rebelling against. Class structure, monarchy, commercialism, consumerism, industrialism. Dadaism was really a rejection of what came to be regarded as 20th century civilisation. Except they rebelled early.”

“Urinals,” I said. “That’s all people know about Dadaism.”

Marcel Duchamp’s original ‘fountain’ by R.Mutt in 1917

Marcel Duchamp’s original ‘fountain’ by R.Mutt in 1917

“You are referring,” said Mike, “to Marcel Duchamp who was offered the opportunity to submit an artwork, so he went to a plumbing supply store and purchased a urinal and signed it R.Mutt, dated 1917.”

“Why R. Mutt?” I asked.

“That was the name of the plumbing supplier.”

“That would make sense,” I said.

“He submitted it as a fountain,” explained Mike. “It is what is now called ‘found art’, but was called ‘readymade art’ at the time.”

“So,” I said, “reality in 1916/1917 was so shit that people went to the opposite extreme – the surreal?”

“Well,” said Mike, “Surrealism came later. It was effectively what killed-off Dadaism.”

“So what’s the difference between Surrealism and Dadaism?” I asked.

“To my understanding,” said Mike, “the distinction is that Surrealism sought to speak to or to touch the human by dealing with the language of the sub-conscious and the language of dreams. Surrealism deals with a different language that is only bizarre if one is looking at it in terms of waking life. If you look at Dali paintings as expressions of a dream landscape, they’re not strange at all. Surrealism is very much the idea that, in order for art to touch the heart, you have to bypass the conscious mind. Dadaism was several things that Surrealism never was.

“Dada was political from the outset, certainly in Berlin. Dada was born in Zurich at the Cabaret Voltaire. It spread to Berlin and to New York. There were brief flutters of it in other places. It became less political in Zurich and New York. The Berlin gang were very political. New York Dada was more interested in the bizarreness of this deconstructionism philosophy. The French obviously got in on the act when René Clair made Entr’acte with Erik Satie – a very famous Dada film. Also Dziga Vertov’s Man With a Movie Camera was considered a Dadaist film because it was intentionally nonsensical to what the structure of what film was at that time.

Mike Freedman with Duchamp’s urinal, not taking the piss

Mike Freedman – he is not taking the piss

“What interested Dada was shocking the observer in order to create a response that was not anchored in the mind. In that sense, it shares an intention with Surrealism, but it absolutely does not share a visual or artistic language.”

“I see,” I said. “A urinal is not surreal.”

“Absolutely not,” agreed Mike. “The famous example of how to Dada was to just take a newspaper and cut it up and re-order the letters and see what you come to.”

“Like William Burroughs later,” I said.

“Well, about 40 years later,” said Mike. “If you have any inclination towards Punk Rock or the so-called Underground in music and film – the idea of just making things happen for yourself and re-purposing what is around you, of re-interpreting reality by tearing it apart and re-building it – that aesthetic idea has its roots in Dada.

“If you have something that’s a little more Arthouse in that it’s about confounding the intellectual mind by presenting it with imagery or sounds that simply does not speak the language of the everyday life, that is more Surrealism.

Mike Freedman’s definition of himself...

Mike Freedman’s definition of himself in three words…

“Dada was very strongly anti-Establishment, deconstructionist and anti-itself. Its view was that it couldn’t be anything or it would be no longer the thing that it was meant to be. So you got announcements that DADA IS NOT DADA.”

“Why is it called Dada?” I asked.

“No-one knows for certain. One belief is that they chose the word because ‘Dada’ is the first word of almost any child in any language. I find that a bit spurious.”

“Isn’t ‘Papa’ more common than ‘Dada’?” I asked.

“You are assuming they mean ‘Dad’.” said Mike. “They just meant the sound. The idea was to move art away from established forms and disciplines  back to its most protean state where it literally could be anything and rejecting the encroachment of commercial society by intentionally making things that under no circumstances were saleable. Which, of course, is ironic, because now a replica of Marcel Duchamp’s ‘fountain’ is on display in the Tate Modern.

Hugo Ball performing at Cabaret Voltaire in 1916

Hugo Ball performs at Cabaret Voltaire, 1916

“At that time, getting up on stage, wrapped in cardboard and expounding in a fully-made-up language that was, on purpose, totally nonsensical – and taking it seriously… was… Well, they were very much invested in this idea that what they were doing was important. It was not just Let’s fuck around and see what happens because no-one’s done this before, which is what a lot of people tend to do today.

“What produced Dada in 1916 was a perfect storm of social tension and dissolution and disillusion. There was a beautiful synergy between artistic and political radicalism. Today, we no longer seem to have that visible thread of artistic radicalism.

“So, on June 23rd – European Referendum day – the exact 100th anniversary of Hugo Ball’s first performance of Karawane at the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich – we are putting on LonDADA at the Cinema Museum – the closest thing that I can muster to a recreation of a Dadaist salon. We are having live performance, theatre, poetry, music, film, art, clowning, short films, a 1968 documentary about Dada which has never been shown before in the UK and we are screening Hans Richter’s Dada film Ghosts Before Breakfast from 1928 on 35mm.

“When the Nazis came to power, they destroyed a lot of film as ‘degenerate art’ – including all known copies of Ghosts Before Breakfast which had the soundtrack. No-one knows what the soundtrack was. So I got Austrian composer Vinzenz Stergin to compose a brand new score which he will perform live.

“From 1.00pm on the day, a screening room will be open showing a looped programme of short films (about 90 minutes in all) by Helmut Herbst, Australian Dadaist Bob Georgeson, American Francis Thompson and John Smith, the award-winning British video artist and a few others. That loop will run all the way through.

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“At 6.30pm, the main event starts and goes on until 11.00pm. In the first half of it, we will mainly have live performance and a screening of Ghosts Before Breakfast with live musical accompaniment. Then there will be a theatrical performance and a screening of Germany-DADA: An Alphabet of German DADAism, which runs for about an hour. Before that, there will be a short video introduction from the director, Helmut Herbst. We will also show a very special animated film by Chris Lincé of Karawane voiced by Brian Blessed – he recorded it specifically for the festival.”

“Good grief!” I said. “I’ll go along just for Brian Blessed’s voice.”

“There are also a few ‘Easter eggs’,” said Mike, “a few surprises we are going to throw in. Tony Green as Sir Gideon Vein and a lot more. And live music.”

“Who is going to go to this?” I asked. “Students of Dada?”

“Basically, we have a 120-capacity and I need to sell it out to break even.”

“So you are a foolish man?”

“Yes. A very foolish man. I am banking on the desire of Londoners to experience an evening of out-of-the-box entertainment.”

“Banking might not be the right word,” I suggested.

“Perhaps ‘praying with white knuckles’ would be better,” agreed Mike. “Praying that the population of London comprises at least 120 people interested in the bizarre and the avant-garde.”

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