Independent on Sunday Magazine
Independent on Sunday Magazine
Somewhere in Borehamwood, a tall fairhaired man is sitting inside a wardrobe, towels and curtains draped across the doors and a digital recording deck perched securely on the hotel safe within. His decrepit old headphones hang limply around his neck while he leans forward and closes his eyes in concentration.
The man is Graham Fellows, whose alter ego is the long-suffering comedy legend John Shuttleworth. He is recording the fourth series of his Radio 4 show to a punishing deadline: four completed, two to go. To make matters worse he is balancing his radio commitments with filming a children's television series. He's on set from 9am to 7pm each day and recording in his hotel room until the early hours. He looks shattered.
"While I remember, I just want to stop there and add two words in the middle," he suddenly announces, treating me to a rare glimpse of how he puts his radio shows together. Then he rewinds the recording and listens to Shuttleworth's quiet Sheffield tones, a voice quite unlike his own: "Well Joan, it's just that you're in my bedroom at night, dressed in a leotard. It could be misconstrued."
"Curtains open," he says with a glint in his eye. "If I don't add 'curtains open' the picture won't be complete. I want the listeners to get the fact that John is suddenly worried about his reputation with the neighbours."
It is by turns entertaining and excruciating to watch 42-year-old Fellows write, record and engineer an episode of his series all in the same moment. But, he insists, the recording must be created by improvisation. In fact, he often begins to lay down dialogue with just a rough idea of plot. Many of his episodes have finished in ways he himself did not expect as the characters drove it forward.
He jokes that he must be the highest-paid person in radio drama by dint of filling so many of the production roles himself. He's probably right, but he earns it - it can easily take two weeks to record a single 15-minute episode. Every now and then he sends a tape to his BBC producer and it comes back with suggestions and some extra sound effects to add. This process between the two is repeated until it reaches near perfection and finally it is broadcast to 1.25 million smiling listeners.
That's "smiling" rather than "laughing". For The Shuttleworths is humour that tends to elicit a wide grin. It is homely domestic nonsense, peopled with pedants who regularly make mountains out of garden benches or a song and dance over broken central heating. It's an eccentric peek into the life of a Sheffield singer/ songwriter who used to work as a Comet warehouseman, but who now plays variety nights in old people's homes with his Yamaha keyboard. The cast of characters includes Shuttleworth's wife Mary, her friend Joan Chitty and his manager Ken Worthington, who came last on New Faces in 1976. Graham does all the voices and has built a comedy of failure with a sizeable fan base through radio, television and live tours.
"My father-in-law told me he took a group of disadvantaged youngsters to see a horse in a field," he says, illustrating the way he gets his material from things he has overheard. "I thought, 'I'll have that for John, that's good.' But no self-respecting writer would ever put that in a script, because it isn't mad enough or strange enough. I embellish it with a flow of nonsense and I think that's what people like. It's all a bit like a natter over the garden fence and it makes them go away and think, 'I say things like that - maybe I'm all right after all.'"
This is the sort of material that has made Shuttleworth famous, far more famous than Fellows, who invented him 17 years ago. But the gags only work and resonate when done in character and Fellows is content to remain in the shadow of his creation. Sometimes when people come to see him backstage, the staff on the theatre front desk don't register they have a man by his name in the building. As far as they are concerned, the dressing room belongs to a "Mr. Shuttleworth".
Rewind to one week earlier. Graham Fellows is on set at Elstree Studios recording an episode of the new Children's BBC series Bad Penny and having extreme difficulty with his lines. It's admittedly a bit of a mouthful.
"It will revolutionise social gatherings," he proclaims in a voice close to his own. "Never again will there be a vile breeder of wind bunnies... I'm sorry what was it again.
"...a vile breeder of wind bunnies fouling up the air on the sly," calls a voice off-set. There is the muted sound of the director talking and then, "Take 10 ... Action!"
"Never again will there be a foul breeder of wind bunnies viling up the sky!" he declares. "Erin... that wasn't right, was it?"
The cast and crew are in apoplexy at this Auntie's Bloomers moment. Fellows is being accidentally funny, which might serve as the motif of his comic career. Not that he doesn't expend effort when it comes to his performances, far from it (his attention to detail borders on the obsessive), but he finds most of his best material on the spur of the moment.
"Kids' TV is the future - the last bastion of intelligent broadcasting," he says later in the canteen. It is impossible to tell whether he is being serious or pulling your leg. (The fact that his eyes pop and those eyebrows seem to lift with a life all their own merely accentuates the impression that everything he says is a bit of a joke.)
Bad Penny is about a family ever on the lookout for unusual ways to make money (except Penny, the teenaged daughter who looks upon her parents' antics with disgust). The producer of the series tells me he snapped Fellows up because he was "perfect for the part" of Penny's father.
The scene I have been watching is one in which the family announces to the press that they have conceived the winning entry for an inventors' competition - a fart detector. It provides a perfect excuse for Fellows to ham it up, but he thinks that 17-year-old Anne Foy, who plays Penny, steals the show.
"That girl's got balls," he confides. "She was last seen in Stitch Up, the kids' version of Candid Camera. She did really courageous things like sitting in a cinema ticket booth telling customers the plot of the film they had just paid to see. You've got to be good to get away with that."
But Fellows has clearly got balls himself. John Shuttleworth is due to go on tour in two months and Fellows hasn't had much time to think about new material for the show. He's surprisingly relaxed about this - he has learnt to trust his own improvisation.
"I've got the title and what its about - security. There will be four security cameras on stage and a video screen projecting the various images. John will have a carbon-monoxide detector on stage and he'll be giving the audience little updates on the carbon levels as the show goes on. It has a little red zero on the front, which is a bit depressing really because it looks like you haven't got any messages on your answer-phone"
He rolls a cigarette as he talks, though he begs me not to mention this because "it's a dirty habit". Besides which, he's not at all sure his life-insurance company would be happy to know. He's been giving it up for years, he says, but things are a bit stressful at the moment and it calms his nerves.
If you're old enough you may remember encountering Fellows in 1978 when he recorded a one-off single, "Gordon is a Moron", and reached number four in the charts. He went by the name of Jilted John (even in his teens he was already creating false personae). He wishes now he had made more of that success, but he followed advice and decided to return to drama college.
"I was confused after the success of Jilted John," he says. "I should have blown the money on a rock'n'roll lifestyle, but I didn't - I bought a house and became a landlord. I think I grew up too quickly and missed out on my wild period."
He next surfaced on our television in Coronation Street in the early 1980s as Gail Potter's boyfriend Les Charlton, having already chatted her up a couple of years earlier as another character. "I didn't mention I'd had a similar part already and they didn't notice. I'd like to go back a third time and do it again - I think she's very attractive."
But it was when he created Shuttleworth that he found something enduring. He began with stand-up and had to battle against the received wisdom that realistic-character comedy was confusing and audiences wouldn't get it. "The character hasn't changed much over the years and I'm concerned I'm not updating him enough," he confesses. "Should he not have a job now? It's a bit odd he doesn't work. I'm not even sure what age his children are."
Fellows is missing his own children right now. He's been living in a hotel Monday to Friday for two months and only goes home at weekends to Louth to see his partner Kathryn ("Do I call her wife or girlfriend? I don't know..."), his daughters Alice and Suzannah (11 and nine) and his baby boy George.
"I think I go a bit mad when I'm doing John. I can come home still thinking about it. My wife doesn't fancy him at all and our sex life can suffer when I'm recording the show. I'm alone with my headphones and this man, who sometimes feels more real than I do."
Fast-forward to Follows, in his wardrobe, recording the show. The sense of focus is exhausting - one man is creating a tapestry of voices and characters, constantly returning to add responses from each one to prove that they haven't suddenly disappeared. He's got to the point where Mary's friend Joan Chitty is making a pass at Shuttleworth.
"Do you know it appals me to think of John having sex?" he suddenly says. "I can't be dealing with it. Is that revealing something, do you think?" Only that he has probably based the character more on his father than he cares to admit, In previous interviews he varies his reply to this common question from "not much" to "only a bit". Today, he is happy to admit that he looks up to Shuttleworth, at 55 the older man, as a father figure.
"I went with my dad to Brussels on a cheap flight the other day," he says. "He loved it and I got him drunk for the first time. He's so sensible, my dad, but I did a bit of bonding with him. Like a lot of blokes my age you have to keep working at your relationship with your father, and now I've got a son you think more profoundly about it.
"I can hug him, but I can't be open and frank with him. He doesn't listen. He claims to have Asperger's syndrome and that makes him insensitive to people's feelings. When he rings you up he doesn't say, 'How are you?' he says, 'How's that door I mended?'"
Fellows goes back to fiddling with his recording and is suddenly worried. He's not sure he's doing the right thing in deciding to play the scene as if Shuttleworth doesn't notice Chitty is propositioning him, when he could just as easily have him reprimand her for being inappropriate.
Why does he care so much? After all, no one knows the characters better than he does. If either response seems OK to him, wouldn't they work equally as well? "I can do my head in over this kind of thing," he says. "I suppose I want to know I'm doing the right thing by the characters. I don't want to sell them short. But it's mad - I'm worrying so much about someone who doesn't exist. I've got my own family back at home I should be concerned about."(back a page)