Friday August 8, 2003
A love for all things provincial: Graham Fellows. Photo: Pete Millson
Before The Office and Alan Partridge put the spotlight on middle England,
Graham Fellows was making a career out of the humour of little things and the
gentle tragedy of British parochial life. His most famous character, John
Shuttleworth, is a failed songwriter from Sheffield who represents pop stardom
at its most microscopic, although since his BBC2 special 500 Bus Stops, and the
Radio 4 series The Shuttleworths, the ex-security guard's success has far
outweighed his talent. Fellows also has the rock musicologist Brian Appleton,
another manifestation of all things provincial, and for this year's Edinburgh
festival he is unveiling Dave Tordoff, a self-made businessman from Yorkshire.
"Do you want a Tracker bar or a Bounty, courtesy of Mars?" asks Fellows. We are
at his house in Louth, Lincolnshire, and the kitchen cupboards are filled with
boxes of both. "John Shuttleworth mentions them on stage - he's got a song
called Mutiny on the Bounty, about how we should all rise up and demand the
reinstating of the cardboard strip that Bountys used to come with - so someone
from the marketing department sent us crates of the stuff," says Fellows, who
looks younger and hipper than you might imagine. The presence of his beautiful
wife gives him a touch of sophistication entirely lacking in his characters.
But there is something about him - almost an air of sadness - that suggests an
empathy with them.
"I had a dream recently about three men who were born with sheep's faces," he
says, as we go outside to the garden table so that he can smoke a roll-up. "The
only jobs they can get are in the local swimming pool, collecting money. I
remember I was going to say something to them about their faces, but they
looked embarrassed - sheepish - so I didn't."
John Shuttleworth's cadences came, at least partially, from Fellows' father-in-
law. "He came in one day and said: 'I've just taken some disadvantaged youths
to see a horse in a field.' It's that stilted language, a bit like 'team
leader' or 'outreach worker' - all the things that The Office picked up on so
brilliantly. It's comedy in the way things are phrased, and Joe Orton pioneered
it with Entertaining Mr Sloane. Joe Orton was a big influence on me, and Alan
Bennett, and Mike Leigh with films like Nuts in May and Meantime, but he lost
it. He began to take himself too seriously."
Fellows has pulled out some of his favourite books, including an old-fashioned
volume of nursery rhymes with exquisite if slightly sinister illustrations. "I
love Solomon Grundy in particular, because it is so competent: his entire life
is boiled down to a week. I can fire off from things like that, but it can be
anything, really. The other day I was cycling in Skegness and I passed a place
called Swan Lake Caravan Site. It wasn't named after the ballet. It was called
Swan Lake because there was a swan there. I knew that was going to begin a
story for me."
Inspiration also comes during the periods between touring and writing, when
Fellows sits around at home and wallows in gloom. "When I finish a tour I'm
exhausted and I need a rest," he says. "Then after about a week I think I'm
never going to be creative again and go slightly mad. At which point I always
read The Strange Voyage of Donald Crowhurst by Nicholas Tomalin and Ron Hall."
Crowhurst was a single-crew yachtsman who cheated in a 1969 round-the-world
race by hanging around in the Atlantic in his catamaran for six months. He
pretended he been sailing around the globe with his radio broken. "He went
mad," says Fellows. "He started to think his brain was a computer pitted
against God and the elements, and he jumped off into the sea and was never
found. And another guy in the race went mad - a Frenchman who would have won,
but he fell so in love with the sea that he couldn't return and just carried
on. The French have disowned him. Whenever I'm feeling a bit lost, I have to
read this book."
Herman Hesse's Steppenwolf has also been a huge inspiration. "It's the
perennial student favourite, isn't it?" he says. "Steppenwolf is a man who gets
so wound up with being erudite and intelligent that he can't enjoy life, and
then he takes some LSD or whatever it is and goes off on a wonderful trip where
he has sex with young women." Hunger by the Norwegian writer Knut Hamsun is
another favourite novel. "He won the Nobel prize for literature in 1920 for it.
It's a story about nothing, which was remarkable for the time. When he was 90
he sided with the Nazis and he was disgraced because of that, but he was senile
by then anyway."
A quick flick through another beloved book - The Guinness Book of Hit Records,
with which Fellows makes us test his knowledge of chart history - leads to the
comedian's other main form of Home Entertainment: standing around the jukebox
his wife gave him and listening to 45s. Dominique by the Singing Nun, Something
in the Air by Thunderclap Newman and King of the Road by Roger Miller are on
it. "I like having these old records, and our kids like them, too. The singles
have a romance that's lacking in convenience-led modern life. I remember when I
went to Center Parcs a couple of years ago - you know, the holiday the weather
can't destroy. It was jam-packed with people but I've never felt more alone.
You're conditioned to be a placid robot in those places. We're going again this
A Yamaha PSS680 Musicstation, as used by John Shuttleworth.
Future Music Issue 10
Graham Fellows/John Shuttleworth
John Shuttleworth, armed with a Yamaha organ (with MIDI), has spent a long time honing his act on the club circuit. Dave Robinson sees what lies behind the specs.
Heartbreaking, int it? You spend hours recording and sending off demo tapes, only to have your Jiffy bags returned. John Shuttleworth, versatile singer-songwriter and champion of demo preparation, has a few tips to improve your chances: Always use a high oxygen cassette, he advises, in his reassuring and gentle Sheffield tones, And, er, chrome position, yknow. Press the thingy down on the tape deck.
But even John has made
mistakes. He sent a copy of one song to Paul Young, but forgot to put the
Dolby on. It was a bit hissy, so he sent it me back.
in blue turtleneck and leather coat, is an act that is simply unmissable.
With the aid of his Yamaha organ (with MIDI, and Tone Banks) and
a penchant for the cheesiest synth sounds and sambas, he entertains you with
songs such as Pidgeons in Flight (Its so catchy, I advise
you to cover your ears) and Incident at Snake Pass (Not
for the squeamish). These are mingled with tales of life in Sheffield,
help for those seeking representation, and advice on staying in trim when
performing: Have a jacket potato for your tea, and keep a fun-size Snickers
or Lion Bar in your tunic, in case you get low on energy.
Rave reviews at last
years Edinburgh Festival led to John clinching a regular slot on Saturday
Zoo. The cult status achieved here should make his forthcoming Edinburgh
show, Miditations - subtitled Relaxation through the MIDI channel
- a sellout.
Second Time Lucky
Its fame a second time around for Graham Fellows, Shuttleworths creator. His first taste was only of the 15-minute variety: he was Jilted John in the70s song of the same name. Funnily enough, the two Johns have their similarities: both are jokes and pastiches, and where punk John agonises over unrequited teenage love, the mature Mr Shuttleworth articulates the angst of unrecognised middle-aged talent.
Its a character
founded on personal experience, as Graham, now 33, relates: I got a
deal with Chappell Music as a songwriter in the 80s. On the day that
I signed, an A&R guy came in with a tape of bad demos. A lot of them were
middle-aged people, introducing themselves like this: He slips into
an accent not a million miles from that of Shuttleworth, and says nervously:
Hello, here are some songs which I hope you will consider with your
professional ear, you know, to imagine the musical notation that can be placed
upon these lyrics. Ive not got a very good singing voice, but please
bear with me. Then, back to Graham: Theres something very
noble, magnificent and honest about these attempts.
Graham made his own tape, complete with assorted clunks, guitars falling over and shouts of Dont touch that!, and mailed it to Chappell. He didnt fool them - the rewards were unexpectedly much greater. I was encouraged to pursue this character and abandon my other songwriting! he laughs. Using events from his life and actual quotes from others, he has made Shuttleworth an utterly authentic, believable personality. Graham summarises this success: Shuttleworth is a celebration of how real people speak.
All Johns songs
(apart from the a cappella Paul Paul, which was, alas, rejected by
a local school) are driven by his trusted keyboard, a Yamaha PSS-680. I
think its quite brilliant, Graham enthuses.
All the songs are played back live, with John adding distinctive, and highly comical, latin percussion. No-one elses cuica sounds so funny.
The Sheffield showman
is very fond of preset no. 98: Musical saw, its gorgeous int
it? Fwooaar! You can use that on everything. Which is ironic, because next
door, 97 - ni, ni, ni, ni, - rubbish, int it?
How did Graham select
the 680 for John? I wanted him to have a slightly racy one with digital
sounds, says the creator. The cliché would be for him to
have a Bontempi with the old analogue drum sounds, but thats been explored
by Frank Sidebottom. The 680s got a high-pitched squeal, so its
not ideal for recording, but, as John says, Its got MIDI!.
John may even attempt
to use this facility in Edinburgh. Hell probably try a five-pin
DIN instead of a proper MIDI cable though, says Graham - But,
as John would say, It doesnt matter. Doesnt matter. Just
The awesome power of digital sampling will also be there. Ive got a wonderful Casio keyboard with two seconds of sampling on it, says Graham. Ill be using that for samples like Relax, everybody!
I tested the PSR-5700
quite recently - very nice, Graham continues. I went in for a
demo, and the guy was showing me all the good sounds. I got bored, cos
I wanted to know how Shuttleworth could get a laugh from it.
Top tips from the top
Graham is currently working on a six-part series, The Shuttleworths, for Radio Four. Its being recorded on an ADAT in his shed, with Graham playing all the parts: John, Mary (Johns wife), Darren and Karen (the kids) and the ubiquitous Ken Worthington, Johns agent and neighbour (and TVs Clarinet Man, dont you know).
There are plans to release
a video, and maybe a single, later this year. No doubt John would be impressed
with Grahams deserved success. But what final advice can he offer to
all those who are still struggling to have their pop standards accepted by
the A&R villains?
Put some echo on your demo if you want to, John replies thoughtfully. Add a bit of flange or something. Bit of phase on the vocals. Bit of tremolo on the drums. Do a proper vocal warm-up. Open a window. Oh, and turn the telly down before you start recording: ideally off, unless theres something coming on that you want to watch.
"Oooh," says Graham
Fellows, in his breathiest John Shuttleworth voice, "I thought you said you
were John Craven." You can understand the disappointment. Craven is prime
Shuttleworth territory: a C-list personality long past the cool gurus' sell-by
date. "Have you heard his scrambling commentary?" he purrs. "Oooh. And his
Crufts . . . ?" But it's said without malice, and you can't help feeling that
somewhere along the line, Fellows has morphed into 55-year-old John Shuttleworth,
the former Comet warehouseman and security guard from Sheffield who dreams
of Eurovision glory and his Yamaha organ but is more at home in his Y-reg
Austin Ambassador, musing on the merits of leaf tea, carveries, garden centres,
table tennis and Bombay mix. A man whose failure is his success. When Fellows
created Shuttleworth eight years ago, he was living in a bedsit in London
and was best known as a jobbing actor and one-hit wonder pop star, Jilted
John. "My neo-Marxist record company. Rabid Records, advised me to baffle
the industry by not producing a followup," he confides. "So I didn't."
These days, Fellows, 40, tucks himself away in Louth, making his children's packed lunches and feeding the chickens. The previous day, he had taken his family to the local garden centre for lunch, and his neighbours include a man who can smell foxes more than a mile away and a boy who has to interrupt class to have a glass of water at 9.30am. The humour is all in the details. Wearing his National Health specs and dressed in a black turtleneck and brown leather car coat, Shuttleworth appears as an innocent abroad, a man whom life has deliberately bypassed. Not unlike Alan Bennett, in fact. And the comparisons don't end there, for Fellows has a similar gift for picking up the cadences of dialogue and finding humour in the everyday. Shuttleworth's song book reads like the heartbeat of middle England. So we get the protest song Mutiny Over the Bounty, about the change of a chocolate-bar wrapper, beginning, "Mars of Slough, you've really done it now'': we get the existential "Life is like a salad bar, you only get one visit'"; and we also get the bleak bathos of "'My wife died in 1970, peacefully in her sleep / Even though she's a distant memory, occasional tears I weep."
Fellows crafts the biography for his characters from real-life quirks and nuggets he has observed himself and read in the local paper. The nerve centre for his operations is a small studio at the back of his house, converted from a vet's operating theatre, with packing from apple boxes on the wall for soundproofing. It is his pride and joy. "Listen to this," he says. "I can break the sound of a door closing into its component parts." He proceeds to do so, over and over again, until he is sure he has got it just right. After a few minutes, he senses my eyes are glazing over and looks up. "You're not really terribly interested in all this, are you?" he says dejectedly. Fellows is a perfectionist. His radio and live shows come across as stream-of-consciousness rambles through the parallel universe of John, his wife Mary, his neighbour and sole agent, Ken Worthington, and Joan Chitty, but they only work because he has spent days and days structuring them to appear unstructured. He worries about the sound effects; he worries about the pauses. "It has to sound unscripted," he explains. "It has to feel like real conversation, as if I am searching for the right words."
He worries a lot, in fact. But then he has a lot to worry about. He's behind schedule with his radio show, he's behind with new material for his tour and the BBC is anxious to prise a sitcom out of him while the Shuttleworths are still hot. "I started as a cottage industry, playing around with tape," he says mournfully. "Now I feel a constant pressure to deliver. Take the new radio series. I'm contracted to do six shows, but what I'd really like is to be able to say that you can have four but you can't use two as I'm not entirely happy with them." I suspect the last statistic may have more to do with Fellows having completed only four of the shows as we speak, rather than any genuine worries about lapses in quality, but he does look stressed and worn out. "I get so involved in creating Shuttleworth that I sometimes forget how to be me," he says. "I find myself on the outside of the family looking in, wondering what will make good material. Occasionally, I even have to ask myself how I would react to something if I were me." Partly to shake off Shuttleworth, Fellows has invented another character. If it's not exactly the solution to the problem a shrink would have recommended, it's good news for the rest of us. Brian Appleton is a fortysomething media studies lecturer from Solihull, a man who has been cheated by his life, whose contribution to rock'n'roll has passed unacknowledged, who pre-empted the Smiths with his classic 'My Turn to be Poorly Now' and who lives an increasingly isolated existence in the cellar of his home because he's allergic to his wife's aromatherapy candles.
Appleton is by no means as fully rounded a character as Shuttleworth, but it's not hard to identify him as yet another Fellows alter ego, the hivedoff nerd without. Although Appleton has previously done a couple of warm-up gigs for Shuttleworth at Edinburgh, this is the first time the pair have toured the country together, and Fellows is anxious about how Shuttleworth fans will react. I'm more interested in how Appleton and Shuttleworth feel about spending so much time together. "Dunno," says Fellows. "You'll have to ask them."
"John's a lovely man," says Appleton, "but his Old Spice aftershave does get to me. His songs are mildly amusing. I suppose, but he's deluded. He thinks he's a star, but he's sub-Clive Dunn meets Chris de Burgh. For me, it's the final insult to be supporting someone who can't even get a gig at his local hospice. Playing to a comedy crowd is not funny; John's oblivious to the laughter, but it hurts me. But at least my message is going out to the world."
"He's a very bitter man," confides John when Brian pops out of the room. "He's got a lovely purple afro comb, though. We did come close once when he burnt his finger on the bulb of his projector and I sterilised his wound with my aftershave. He's deluded, of course. He thinks he's changed the face of rock' n'roll. He hasn't, but he shouldn't give up. He should get a band together and play some nice fusion." Fellows says that this tour might be the last any of us see of the Shuttleworth household. "I think I've said what I wanted to say," he explains. This may well be the tiredness talking but, if true, what happens next? "I've been thinking of appearing as myself," he says. "Now that really would be scary. And sad." But his fans needn't worry. Because sad with Fellows is never less than funny.
Sunday Times, March 2000
Where did John Shuttleworth
I got disillusioned with the acting work I was getting and I didn't manage to get a proper record deal. I'm a failed actor, a failed pop star and I'm just trying to make ends meet. There's your headline. I created the character as a bit of fun. It was a comforting way of getting back to the Sheffield of my childhood.
Did you want to be working class?
I envied people like the Royle Family. There was a kid a year older than me who left school at 16. I'd go round to his house and he had a girlfriend, nice clothes and some fags on the side of his chair.I used various working class blokes I'd seen when I worked behind the bar in a working men's club.
You were a milkman briefly. Were you a self conscious, bacon-turning type?
Yes, and a lot of people mistrusted me. I was cracking up, basically, because of various things in my life. I was writing songs and had just started doing Shuttleworth but I thought it was all meaningless. I went to see a shrink and decided to do something useful like be a milkman. At my first interview I said worthy things like, 'I want to help people'.They didn't want me. At the second one I just went, (sniffs) 'All right mate?' and got it. I felt I was helping all those little old ladies who'd half open the door on the latch and say 'Have you got any Nimble on board, milkie?'.
What horrifies you most about John?
The idea of him having sex. The other night, for a joke, I pretended to be John having sex. It was awful. I was embarrassed. He's a totally asexual person really, which I hadn't realised.
What's his favourite power tool?
I think it's a drill. It wouldn't be a Bosch because that's too expensive. It might be a Power Devil which you get from a catalogue for about £20. He might say 'the vibrations are very pleasant through me hands.' But I don't know much about DIY. I 'phone my father if I want to know things.
Difference between yours and John's shopping?
He has a thing about 'taramasalata-there's a lot of exciting products coming in. Bombay Mix is now freely available.' I think it's quite funny the way supermarkets, about ten years late, are just getting into Greek dips. But I eat white bread now. Twenty years ago I never used to. My parents used to make their own bread. My mum died and my dad carried on.
Where are the richest pickings for material?
A lot of stories-like the girl who needs a glass of water at eleven o'clock-are from my girlfriend who's a reception class teacher. Local papers are very good. The language is so rich- 'Child's glove found with bunny motif'. We have 'Cops Corner' where you can read things like 'A car was broken into on an industrial estate. Six Biros and 14 Easter eggs were stolen.'
So you steal from life?
One of my jokes that always gets a laugh I got from Chiltern FM. It's about 'Joan Chitty who recently qualified as a physio....Congratulations, Joan.'
What are you reading?
I'm trying to develop my new character, Brian Appleton. He's supposed to be a rock'n'roll expert so I think I need to become one. I'm reading rock'n'roll anthologies and at the moment a Jim Hendrix book, Electric Gypsy. I haven't got a great memory so I'll make notes as I read.
Who do you admire?
I'm a huge fan of Mike Leigh, particularly his mid-Seventies films like Grown-Ups, Who's Who and Kiss of Death. I also watched Kes about 20 times when I was about 13. I thought it was wonderful. I've always admired Victoria Wood-she's a brilliant writer and Harry Enfield because he does so many characters so well.
Will you write a novel?
I'd love to. I'd like to think it would be something like Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, full of observations. I won't be describing the shape of the eyebrow of the heroine. I did one of those awful creative writing courses once. I lasted about two lessons. The notes about character development included things like explaining that if your heroine is a generous, warm person then her eyebrows might be arched.
Interview by Victoria Moore, Metro
John Shuttleworth - organ playing veteran of five radio series for Radio 4, whose latest offering Radio Shuttleworth kicked off on 24 February - has finally embraced modern technology for his tour 2000 & John. He also has new support in the shape of Brian Appleton, and embittered lecturer who continually seeks the recognition he deserves for helping to shape rock history. Toby Venables talked to the actor/musician behind the wigs and voices, the relatively little known Graham Fellows, about fame, cups of tea and the joy of extractor fans...
A lot of people will already know John Shuttleworth, but Brian Appleton is a bit less well-known. Where did he originate?
Well, a couple of years ago I was trying to get together a new character, and I hit upon this idea of a recording engineer - not wishing to move completely away from music or stuff I know about, because I think it's important when you do a character to have reference points that you understand or have knowledge of, to give it the depth. But I wanted to swot up on rock history because I thought he'd know a lot about bands and stuff, and I didn't really. So I started reading all these rock history books and became totally immersed in these wonderful stories about Jim Morrison and Hendrix and Janis Joplin. Interestingly enough all those people died when they were 27... Interesting facts like that started to emerge - like reading about Rod Stewart's early life as a grave digger. And I suddenly saw a way for the character to have been there at a lot of these events and influenced these rock stars. So I changed slightly from him being a recording engineer to being a media lecturer at a college, who is very frustrated at the fact that he can't deliver his true history of rock, he has to deliver the official history of rock otherwise he'll get the sack - 'cause he did try that once and he was given a warning letter.
That's how he's justifying these gigs; he's there giving the true history of rock, and tells all these stories of how he helped Rod Stewart and Phil Collins, Culture Club, right up to... Howard Jones. And he freely admits that the quality of the acts he was influencing was beginning to wane... He basically rails against the world, and tries to elicit the help and the sympathy of the audience. In fact at the end he says 'Don't you believe me? You bloody should do after all the documentation I've provided. Because I've been dumped upon from a very great height. I've been to Hell and back. And I'm sure I'll be going to Hell again one of these days, and next time I think I'll take some of those buggers with me... Because it should have been me, Toby. It should have. As Yvonne Fair said in '76. It should have been me. I beg your pardon, '75. It reached No. 6. 11 weeks stay in the chart. Enjoyed silver status; went silver for Yvonne...' So he drops rock facts, but delivers it a bit like a lecture.
But the point is that he is totally unrecognised...
Yeah, because probably it's all in his head! Well it must be mustn't it? I haven't quite worked that one out. But he totally believes in it. He does sing and perform songs, of course, on a crappy old acoustic. Because he had to sell his electric, you know. I did think about doing a parody of every rock idiom - a country song, a rock'n'roll song - but I decided against that. He did write the first progressive rock song, under the influence of Airfix glue. He thought he saw Lucy from The Lion The Witch And The Wardrobe come through his wardrobe when he was six, and that song's called Lucy, You've Got The Wrong Wardrobe. He claims that's the first progressive rock song. He says 'I would play it on melodica, but you wouldn't hear the words very well...' And then there's a Smithsian song called My Turn To Be Poorly. 'My turn to be poorly / She said get out of bed / you're better now, surely...' And he claims that he wrote it ill in bed, and because he was so weak his voice kept trailing off in a Morrisseyesque fashion. And it's a very self-pitying lyric, of course, which echoes The Smiths. And he thinks 'You know, it's quite possible - it's only half an hour from Manchester down the M6 to Newcastle-Under-Lyme. He could have been listening outside my flat. I don't know, the jury's out on that one...'
When it comes to recognition, you've already had a major hit of course...
Yeah, that bloody Jilted John... Wonder what Brian would think of that...?
You were on that one hit wonder show with Phill Jupitus
Yeah! I was very proud to be there...
Do you like the idea of having another hit or does the idea of having just the one excite you even more?
I don't think Jilted John will be having any more hits, but it would be nice if I had another hit at some point. Or even a hit album. I don't know, it seems pretty limited these days. I don't think records like Jilted John or Shaddap You Face or whatever - not that I'm linking those two together - but anything remotely novelty I think struggles these, because it's so dance orientated. But it would be nice.
Is there a real Gordon out there who's still smarting?
My friend Bernard who played Gordon he obviously seemed a little bit pissed off that he's been branded as Gordon. I've had a few Gordons in the last twenty years come up and say 'You made my life a misery...' They haven't punched me in the face. They've been pretty good about it.
And then there's John Shuttleworth who is a star in his own right. What brand of organ does he play, by the way?
He plays a Yamaha...
I hear he's got a new one
Well, he's got a Roland, so I'm hoping to have that on stage. The only problem is the Yamaha that I've used for a few years has got the funny noises in and it seems very versatile. I've got about ten different keyboards, but a lot of them only have one sound that's funny or good. Whereas this Yamaha - it cost about sixty quid second hand - it's fantastic, it's just got everything. And an eight track sequencer.
I was just surprised that this man who claimed not to know what a MIDI socket was for is now embracing new technology in the shape of a satellite dish, a mobile phone...
Well, it's all going to backfire, I suspect. Because things are going to go wrong. Perhaps on stage. I think this will cause John to start celebrating earlier technological achievements, so he'll start talking about those telephones where you used to be able to dial. [As John Shuttleworth]'There was a lovely purring noise, when it went back. Especially the nine, because it was long. I remember once I rang the police to complain about some youths loitering near a garage, and after three of those nines I felt really relaxed and withdrew my complaint...' And then he starts talking about those little phones you used to make when you were a kid, with two tin cans and a bit of string... 'Very reliable they were. I think once I got cut off when me friend went past a rose bush.' That sort of thing. The thing about technology is only a theatrical device; it will actually just be the usual stuff about his family, with a few new songs and some oldies.
How did such an ordinary man, who won't go to concerts because they're on a bit late, blossom into this singer songwriter?
Well, the inspiration for the character was demos that people used to send through when I was trying to be a songwriter myself. And I always remember, the girl I was going out with at the time, her father had one of those keyboards like John. And he showed me once, very proudly, and it was just very funny. And a lot of dads or uncles or middle-aged men have those keyboards, and they don't have a great musical skill, but because they have such brilliant rhythms built in - probably designed by Japanese engineers - nevertheless they sound great, and just with one button you can get a great sound. So I think that gave John the confidence. Because I think that's what's so funny actually - and important - that people who do send tapes that are terrible to record companies obviously have some kind of confidence. And in a way I'm sending that up, but I'm also celebrating it because, in the end, that's often what makes a hit anyway. It's just front and a good beat.
Do people ever stop you in the street saying 'Hey, aren't you John Shuttleworth?', wanting you to be him?
Very, very rarely. I don't really get recognised at all, no.
That must have some advantages...
Yeah. The only time I was really recognised was back in the Jilted John days, and I really didn't like it. Because I like to observe to get my material, and if you're being observed you can't really observe back.
The Mail On Sunday said of you 'the worse he gets, the better he gets, and he can get a lot worse yet.' What on earth do they mean by that? To the untrained ear it sounds like gibberish.
I assume it's a compliment. I assume it's a compliment. I don't know. They're trying to be funny aren't they?
What does make you laugh?
More real life things make me laugh than comedy. I don't like the way comedy's branded these days, and packaged. It is sort of the new rock 'n' roll, and that does annoy me because I like my comedy a little bit gentler. I used to love Nuts In May and all those Mike Leigh films, which were just films, you know? Real life things make me laugh, like my father in law saying he took a group of disadvantaged youngsters to see a horse in a field. I just think that's funny. Recently somebody told me about little boy who came round and he started crying because he didn't have a cup of tea after the meal. It was his routine, you see; they'd always have a cup of tea after the meal, and er... Well, it's only really funny if you say it as John... [John steps in...]'He started roaring, you know, because he was disorientated, having to have fromage frais instead of that cup of tea...' But what I'm saying is that a writer would not, I don't think, sit down and think 'What's funny? I know: a little boy who starts crying because he doesn't get a cup of tea after his meal...' But if someone says that kind of thing to me I can take that and then develop it.
Are you more of a writer than an improvisor?
I'm more of an improvisor than a writer. I suppose I do write, but I very rarely write it down. I do like to just mull it around in my head and them memorise it. And then if you keep it on the tip of the tongue then you do get that realistic conversational flow.
You were at Manchester weren't you? Was that before Ben Elton and Rick Mayall?
Exactly the same time. They were at the University and I was at the Poly, in the same years. In fact, if I'd got into the University of Manchester drama course - and I didn't; I was told to reapply the following year - but if I'd got in there then I'd have been in the same year and the same college. But I'd got into Manchester Poly, so I went there instead. But I never really knew them. I met Ben Elton - at the end of college he was trying to do a bit of directing, and coming out with these comments and everyone was saying 'Shut up Ben, what do you know?' But I thought he was a really nice guy. I could see he was a clever man. Very softly spoken at that time...
You're obviously doing a lot of interviews at the moment...
Quite a lot. And also trying to do a radio a show, and trying to master a live tape and trying to do my tour...
What question do you wish you were asked, but never are asked?
That's a nice one... Um, one thing people don't realise is what's involved with the multitrack recording for the different voices on the radio. I'm kind of most proud of that, in a way. I'm sure it's been done before, but I've not really heard anyone do it, and I think that's what I'm proudest of having worked on - the illusion of having several people chatting to each other and it's just me. But I think people perhaps can't really appreciate how it's done. They kind of say 'Oh, how do you do that?' and leave it at that. But perhaps I should as well...
Presumably that's the recording engineer in you coming out.
Yeah. I must say, the more I do radio and muck around with sound effects the more I think sound is a bloody amazing, palpable thing. It's a substance. The way you can go in and edit sound effects... I was cleaning up some sound effects the other day which had a bit of noise on them, and there was the sound of a patio door being locked. And I thought the lock took a bit too long, so I just chopped a little bit of the middle out. Still sounds like a patio door locking but it's quicker, you know?
Can you see yourself going down the Laurie Anderson route with this?
I'd love to! If I do any more radio with Shuttleworth, I would want to go down a more experimental route, rather than a populist route. When I was in Edinburgh, I remember, in my little bedsit, the Xpelair in the toilet was incredibly musical - real kind of drum'n'bass. In fact I taped it because I want to use that as the basis for a song. It's brilliant. Perhaps it's a bit mad, but I can hear music in all sorts of sounds. I've got this new 16 track recorder. Took me about a month to work it out, but it is brilliant. Having said that, I lost six hours work last night by pressing the wrong button.
I just cried my eyes out! It's my own fault because I wasn't storing regularly. You have to do that don't you? You just have to...
Tuesday January 25, 2000
Graham Fellows trades in nerds. First there was his creation John Shuttleworth, the 55-year-old demon of the Yamaha keyboard who still dreams of rock'n'roll glory. Now there is Brian Appleton, the 40-something musicologist from Solihull, seething at the injustice of his insignificance. The humour is all in the details; you either get the joke or you don't. Most do, thankfully for Fellows' credit rating. And you can't help feeling he picked up all he needed to know about the basics of nerd-dom while at Manchester Polytechnic School of Theatre.
"I was quite lazy," he says, "and through my idleness I learnt how to observe people while I was strumming my guitar in the coffee bar." The strumming proved just as useful as the observation, and during his first year he had a hit record in his guise as the classic 70s nerd, Jilted John.
"I came back for my second year while I was still riding high in the charts," he continues, "but I immediately regretted it. I went straight into a student production of a Greek Tragedy that was all papier mache masks, with loads of crying and groaning thrown in."
Like most other pop stars riding high in the charts in the late 70s, Fellows had also learnt a thing or two about smoking, drinking and getting off with women. The consequence was a warning letter from his tutors for repeatedly being late for rehearsals and a growing realisation that the life of a full-time thesp was perhaps not for him.
"In retrospect I should have cashed in on Jilted John," he says. "But my neo-Marxist record company, Rabid Records, advised me to baffle the industry by not producing a follow-up. So I remain a one-hit wonder and all I had to show for it was a house that was falling down."
Even so, he graduated with a 2:1 and got a job with Manchester Youth Theatre before joining Coronation Street as lorry driver Len Charlton. "I fell in love with the town," he sniffs, "I arrived as a 17-year-old on a Honda 50 and the roads all seemed so big. Then I ran out of pubs to go to and now I view the city with a certain sadness." But maybe that's the price of swapping a Honda for a Yamaha.
IT'S HARD holding a
conversation with rock star and raconteur John Shuttleworth. He has just completed
his first day working at Ken's Karvery - an offshoot of the Pleasance run
by Ken Worthington, Shuttleworth's long-standing agent. He's busy practising
the production he has been developed for his residency - the snappily titled
'If music be the love of food ... tuck in!' - and I'm trying my best to find
out what's he's planning. Apparently the name is a long-overdue correction
of Shakespeare's howler (he did, I am informed, have deadlines to meet), but
the organist declines to make further comment when I ask him about it: "It's
just a title, something we dreamed up in April."
The Karvery residency is clearly an exciting project, but Shuttleworth is not overcome with enthusiasm for the Festival City just yet. For starters, his night's sleep had been interrupted by a noisy lovers' tiff in a neighbouring flat. That said, the would-be Eurovision star did admit he had enjoyed a fish supper and (in spite of the lack of Catherine Wheels) an entertaining fireworks display at the Castle.
When questioned further, John admits that he was 'devastated' at his failure to reach this year's Eurovision Song Contest, but professes to be 'over it' now. The contest itself was something of a disapointment, he suggests, citing host Terry Wogan's uncharacteristic sobriety as evidence of its decline. Fans who have followed John's career from his '500 Bus Stops' tour to his tilt at Eurovision glory with 'Pigeons in Flight' might share my feeling that a carvery residency is not very rock 'n' roll. Shuttleworth, however, is undeterred. "I'm just doing my usual thing, playing some songs and telling some stories about my life."
Despite my doubts, I catch the show and have to admit that Shuttleworth on stage is magnetic. A tall, striking figure, sharply dressed in leather jacket and tasteful chinos, he makes up for his frequent technical blunders with a sincere, expressive manner and engaging between-song banter. He may lack the caustic wit of fellow Sheffield man Jarvis Cocker, or the flamboyance of a Liam Gallagher, but he sets out the reasons why Festival-goers should attend his show in matter-of-fact terms. "You'll have a lovely meal, hopefully, in Ken's Karvery, with a chance to meet Brian Appleton (the Karvery's own resident rock musicologist and lecturer in media studies), who's never performed before, and to hear the resident organist play some of his finest numbers." Things are getting more confusing by the minute!
Meanwhile, in another bar across town, things are a little clearer when I talk to Graham Fellows, creator of John Shuttleworth. This is not his first visit to Edinburgh. Nominated for a Perrier award in 1992, he has since returned to Edinburgh as part of the BBC's recordings season. However, this year is his first full run here for three years, an exciting prospect for those impressed by his numerous television and radio excursions. For Graham, the Festival is a valuable opportunity to catch up with the latest developments in the world of comedy - leading a peaceful existence in rural Lincolnshire with his wife and two kids stops him from keeping as up to date as he would like. Graham himself is busy working on a new persona - the aforementioned rock musicologist Brian Appleton, a character inspired by reading reams of rock trivia.
Generally, Fellows puts his inspiration down to eavesdropping - listening in on the conversations of ordinary folk in garden centres, and embellishing anecdotes told by friends or in local newspapers. Often, the more mundane, the better. Nowadays, Graham prefers 'the music in the trees' to professionally recorded stuff, although he admits to a liking for Radiohead. He's been a music fan in the past though, and his ear for the ridiculous in the world of rock has produced not only wicked anecdotes such as the story of Howard Jones, the man who, only three weeks before his first hit, made a living in a cling-film factory in High Wycombe, but some musical pastiches to die for. Of these, only 'Y Reg' has so far been released as a single, but the other Shuttleworth numbers can be obtained from the John Shuttleworth Appreciation Society.
John Shuttleworth will continue to assail us from all directions - on Radio Shuttleworth on Four, and via projected TV specials and another series. The most likely format is a music magazine programme, with John as host and Brian Appleton as guest commentator. It's a mouth-watering prospect, but for those who want to catch him live, now is the time. In John's own words:
"Life is like a salad bar, You only get one visit, Take your bowl and follow me, I'll be your guiding spirit, Life is like a salad bar. Or is it?"
John Shuttleworth - If Music be the Love of Food ... Tuck in!
Mike Morrison, August 98
I asked Graham if he
had been to the Bath Fringe before?
" I've been to Bath before, it's a very pretty place...and I would like to come back again. I went to the Fringe Club last night...although I am not sure how many of the people there knew they were at the 'Fringe'...however they were making plenty of noise and having a good time."
Graham showed interested in my digital camera, so I quickly explained it.
" I went into the town today and bought myself a new camera lens, a 80 - 200 zoom Pentax K fitting... I've got a Pentax K1000 camera...they're all right aren't they?"
(I agreed they are)
What will John be doing over the next few months, I asked?
" Next he will be doing the Kilkenney Festival , in Ireland and the Edinburgh Festival at the 'Pleasance Venue' 9 - 20 August." " I also have a new show coming up called, 'If music be the love of food-tuck in!' also... Autumn Radio 4 - a 5 part 30min comedy sketch series. UK Tour - 3 months starting Jan '99 BBC Video for the BBC Internet Corp. video filmed in a Virtual Reality studio"
" So this interview will be on the Internet?" Graham asked.
" I did a live chat on the Internet for the BBC; questions and answers. I answered questions that were typed up on the screen by someone who typed in my answers. A phone-in would have been better? In a way it's just justifying technology? I agree it's a great idea in theory but in practice you've just got loads of idiots just setting up their own websites....that's good though I suppose! All the time you've got, just busy on the Internet...isn't it just spiraling in on itself? because the information is just... should'nt people be looking at life really?" Graham commented.
You mean it's insular?
" Yeah, I suppose so really yeah."
Further info about John from 'The John Shuttleworth Appreciation Society', PO box 17, Louth, Lincolnshire, LN11 9GF please send an SAE. Loads of stuff: tapes, tee shirts, badges, etc.
I felt a bit guilty when I began my interview with Graham Fellows, the performer and creator of John Shuttleworth and a host of other characters, as he was called away from playing with his daughters, Alice, who is 11, and nine year old Suzannah. Judging from their shrieks of laughter they were all clearly having the time of their lives.
Risking giving away my age immediately, I began by talking about his big pop success back in 1978, when, as the punk singer Jilted John, he went to Number 1 (sic) with Gordon is a Moron. I was a big fan of this record - it was so true to the tragi-com of seventies' teenage life.
But even this early work establishes two of Fellows's trademarks-understated, observational, real-life comedy and an adopted persona.
I asked if he had enjoyed his period of pop stardom? "I'm sorry to have to say the answer is no," he answered ruefully. "At least, not once I was a hit. I enjoyed the bit before, all the gigs and the punk scene in general. The writing and the recording were great experiences, but all the 'pop star' stuff was a bit of a drag really . What interests me is the creative side-that's the best bit."
He has certainly gone on to exercise his creativity extensively over the intervening years, on radio, television and in the theatre. I wondered which media he enjoyed and which gave him the most artistic satisfaction?
"I like them all in their own way. Perhaps TV not so much as the others, becuase creativity takes second place to other pressures, except kids' TV, which is absolutely great.
"But l guess radio has to be my real favourite. It's a very sympathetic medium for what I do. I even recorded a show in a hotel wardrobe once."
I couldn't easily imagine how this came about, so he explained: "I was away filming 'Bad Penny' (a great television comedy show for kids in which Fellows stars as Penny's father) but I also had to record a sequence for my radio series. So I had a brilliant idea. I got into the wardrobe of my hotel room, used the towels and anything else I could find as extra soundproofing and did it from there. And I tell you what - you'd never guess when you hear the show that I was in a cupboard at the time. Radio is great like that, lots of messing around with tapes, which I love."
This month sees Graham on the road for an extensive nationwide tour of his new show, 'John Shuttleworth, Pillock of the Community'. I wondered if live performance was daunting for him. He considered the question for a moment then said: "Live performance is a whole other world. It's great because every night is different, which is very exciting. But, on the other hand, your show really does need to be very well prepared, the material has to be ready. It is really hard to wing it otherwise."
The show will feature the eponymous Shuttleworth, the much loved versatile singer/organist from Sheffield, who's a whizz on the Yamaha keyboard, and available for instore promotions, theme nights and old people's homes.
He lit up when I asked which other characters would be joining him from the quirky world created from Fellows's fertile imagination.
"I'm really pleased to be bringing in a new character called Dave Tordoff. He's a self-made northern businessman, a builder, a kind of northern Loadsamoney." He grows more and more excited as he talks about this new character. It is clear that he gets a real kick out of the process.
"In fact he is a concrete flooring magnate specialising in laser screeding - but he's trying to break into the after-dinner speaking circuit. He has a house near Goole - it's more of a mansion really - he enjoys scuba diving, and his daughter has a pony."
I asked who of the many established old favourites were on board for the new show. "John's agent and next-door neighbour, Ken Worthington, is of course very involved, and you'll know of Brian Appleton, the rock musicologist and part time lecturer in media studies in the Newcastle-under-Lyme area. He'll be there too."
So there are some old friends and some new for the audience to meet? "Yes, it's a good balance, I think. I am very excited about introducing Dave Tordoff - it's great working on a new character and discovering new things about him."
I ask how his relationship is with his most famous alter ego, John Shuttleworth. "It's good now. I have been a bit fed up with him in the past. In fact, I hung him up and did other things for a while. It was a good idea to have that break, it was refreshing, and now I am raring to go with him again."