August 17, 2003
A life in the day: John Shuttleworth, the smooth-talkin' singer-songwriter John Shuttleworth (aka Graham Fellows, actor), 56, singer-songwriter, lives in Sheffield with his wife, Mary, 53, and children, Darren, 20, and Karen, 17.
Interview by Ria Higgins
I get up at 7 - 7.05 if I'm feeling groggy. I wash down to the waist and put on my fawn polyester slacks and a polo-neck sweater - maybe a leisure shirt, weather permitting. My wife, Mary, likes to have a lie-in and watch Kilroy, so I'll take her up a cup of tea and a muffin. She's gone a bit cosmopolitan of late, a bit Sophia Loren. She even wears a baggy T-shirt in bed with a quirky motif.
I have a bowl of cereal - sometimes two. It's just that Karen and Darren abandon the cereal boxes when they get near to the end, so there's a pile-up in the back of the cupboard. I'm ploughing through Frosties and Ricicles that expired in 2001. Once I've cleared all surfaces, I take Kirsty for her walk. She's meant to be a guard dog, but she doesn't bark when someone's at the door - she raises her eyebrows. If she's got her back to you, you haven't a clue what's going on.
When we get back, Karen's left for college and Mary's up. I'll make us a coffee. We had one of those cafetieres, but I cracked it, so we're back to Mellow Bird's. I might have a Tracker bar. Or a Club. I once ate an entire seven-pack of Orange Clubs, and then fell asleep on the lay-by. I wouldn't mind but I nearly missed tea.
At 9.30, I listen to Ken Bruce's Pop Master show on Radio 2. I get frustrated when people don't know the answers. The other day, it was Lay Your Love on Me, by Racey - an all-time classic. Then it's Sally Traffic. I'd love to ring up and say: 'There's a car parked badly at the end of my street - try and avoid the area if possible.' Mary leaves for school at 10.45 - 10.46 if she's running late. She's a dinner lady. Her job is to break up scuffles in the dinner queue. I know her dream is to move to mixed veg, but her friend Joan Chitty works on that section. It's a prime spot - between the potatoes and the gravy.
Darren, who does the late shift at Victoria Wine, will still be in bed, so it's an ideal time to stand on the landing and listen for dripping taps. I'm also keen on home security; my latest show [at the Edinburgh Fringe, August 21 - 25] is about that. It was supposed to be called Pillar of the Community, but it came out Pillock of the Community and we couldn't afford a reprint.
I have lunch at the breakfast bar. I made the bar myself, but I positioned it too close to the cabinets. The view's dreadful. I'm facing up to my mistakes - literally. I'll prepare a bap, maybe a tuna mayo. The other day, I didn't see the margarine tub, so I foolishly opened another one. To rectify the situation, I wanted to take some from the first, put it in the second, smooth it off and reseal it. But Mary said: 'No, let's have two on the go at once.' It's crazy. It keeps me awake at night.
Sometimes Ken Worthington, my next-door neighbour and sole agent, treats me to a pasta bake at the garden centre. We were there the other day trying out the acoustics in the shed section. Then I popped into the charity shop and bought a Rubettes LP - Sugar Baby Love. Hearing it again has given me the confidence to attempt falsetto. When I get back, at say 3, 3.04, I might do a bit of songwriting. I've written a rap song. It's taking me in a new direction. Ideally, at this stage of my career, I'd like to be making more headway in the pop world. I mean, I get gigs at the old folk's home, but it's just petrol money. And as it's next door, there's no petrol. Occasionally I perform at the library - reference section only - but I have to play quietly, which can be frustrating when it's a falsetto number.
Sometimes I'll pop down to the supermarket. Cashiers are obliged to say hello now. But the other day I made the mistake of saying hello too soon, and it threw her completely. She ended up blanking me. There was no banter, no: 'Have you got a points card?' I was humiliated. We have tea around 5. It used to be quarter past, but as you get older, it moves forward. If Mary's not at her step class with Joan, she cooks. I might spin a lettuce for her.
After tea I'll watch the first half of Bergerac on UK Gold, and then at 7.30, 7.33, I take Kirsty out. We've got students in the house across the road and they've got no net curtains up. They sit down to a meal with candles. It looks like Santa's grotto in there. Later, I might help Mary change a pillowcase or pump up the duvet. I read Exchange & Mart in bed. Or, if Mary's finished her TV Quick, she'll get out the Argos catalogue and we'll look at the sovereign rings together. I'm relatively happy with life, but admittedly, I am still waiting for my big break.
So, if I have a motto in life it would be: if opportunity knocks, don't pretend you're in the bath.
DIARY By John Shuttleworth, comedian
Friday Arrive in Edinburgh with my Yamaha keyboard and a holdall containing 16 cans of "Lucozade Sport" - one for each performance of my show. It's isotonic, you see: kinder on the environment - which is what my show's all about. And saving the rainforests, although, as I always point out, the natives must require some open spaces for steam fairs, ball games etc.
Saturday On my morning stroll I pass the Gilded Balloon theatre situated in one of the dingier parts of town - and am impressed to see so many fellow early-risers. However, I sense they're not used to it, as most of them look as if they've been up all night. Stroll to Ali's Cave, where I purchase four dusters for 99p - they've gone up - and a talking parrot for £13.99. After a splendid fish-and-chip supper I compose a lyric which would work equally well in a service mess or at a beach party: In Edinburgh they have salt and sauce / in Sheffield, salt and vinegar. / My voice is getting a teeny bit hoarse /And Mary - I am missing her Sunday The only funny show I've so far encountered is the one performed under a viaduct with no proper seating. It stars a bloke dressed as a traditional tramp with blackened-out teeth and a dirty face. There is no plot to speak of but his drunken demeanour correctly achieved by pivoting on one leg and waggling his head slightly - is brilliantly observed. Indeed, his bawdy gestures have the audience in stitches. Well, me - I'm the only one watching for any length of time. Everyone else keeps leaving, which is a bit rude.
Tuesday Tell outrageously blue comedienne Jenny Eclair - with whom I am sharing a dressing room - that she's naughty to let her lovely bouquets wilt and die in the cellophane. If she doesn't want them she should divide them equally between the city's hospitals. She lets out a huge guffaw showering me with spittle and cigarette ash. Then she punches me playfully in the tummy, winding me slightly. Write a song about the incident called "The Vicious Lady" which I might present to her - but on a tape with normal bias I think, no Dolby.
Bounty Hunter
Philip Clark salutes keyboardist and singer-songwriter, John Shuttleworth, whose unique approach to his art offers a valuable lesson for musicians.
John Shuttleworth is a versatile singer-songwriter from Sheffield, South Yorkshire. He shuffles onstage with Bryicreemed hair, frayed slacks, herringbone jackets with the elbows out and the sort of heavy, black-rimmed spectacles that haven't seen the light of day since Jim Callaghan's time. As he greets his adoring audience he's bombarded with 'choccy' bars in response to Mutiny Over The Bounty, his song mourning the loss of the cardboard tray that until a few years ago held the two separate bars of chocolate together in the Bounty chocolate bar. He reprimands students for having their tea as late as eight o'clock in the evening, and sings of his struggle against depression in a number entitled Up and Down Like a Bride's Nightie (after apologising for 'the slightly blue lyric').
Shuttleworth is a man befuddled by the modern world, someone who sees the world's big issues refracted through the minutiae of obsolete brand names and his day-to-day Sheffield existence. He's a nerd and a harmless bore.Mauricio Kagel once told me in an interview for The Wire magazine that he'd accept an artist wanting to produce boring music as a philosophical point-of-view, 'so long as the boringness is interesting'. Luckily, Shuttleworth isn't real, but the brilliantly observed comic persona of the actor and comedian Graham Fellows. The level of mundane tedium that Shuttleworth oozes is so acute that, as he drones on about the marvels of shower gel and protests in song about the slaughter of the whale ('Don't be naughty Norway, to kill the whale's a crime. There are lots of other fish upon which you can dine. Have you tried a cod portion in parsley sauce - divine'), his downtrodden naivety flips over into an infectious fascination for his forlorn existence.
If he follows a lineage in British comedy then it's Peter Cook's monotone meaner EL Whisty ('I wanted to be a lawyer, but I didn't have the Latin'), but Shuttleworth's unique selling point is his talents as a performing musician.Not that Shuttleworth plays the piano as such, rather its Betamax cousin the Yamaha Portasound PSS68O. But as if dealing with such testy technology isn't tough enough for Shuttleworth, his fingers aren't up to dealing with the challenges of his tunes. He slips and slides like he's trying to scoop up notes that he's dropped on the floor. His sense of time is at constant odds with the unrelenting tick-tock march rhythm of his drum samples, and yet he remains gleefully unaware of his shortcomings and throws himself into playing with gusto. Shuttleworth's improvised breaks are best. Block chords meant to be heard as smooth tremolos are played with all the élan of Norman Wisdom, and he finds it impossible to get through the simplest of lines without tripping over his fingers.
Preset tempos on his keyboard suddenly accelerate alarmingly and leave Shuttleworth floundering, and at the end of I'm A Modern Man he admits defeat. 'It's too fast for me,' he confesses, 'a bit like Matt Bianco'. To complete the homespun image, his granddaughter Michela then bursts into the studio and whacks his keyboard.To say that Shuttleworth's playing resembles Thelonious Monk is not to condemn Monk's playing (far from it), but to praise the high level of Fellows's satire. Although they clearly have completely different rationales for existing as musicians, both Monk and Shuttleworth project an image of precious vulnerability that's becoming an increasing rarity in streamlined contemporary art. Look elsewhere in this issue and you'll see a debate about the desirability or not of Charles Ives's alleged amateurism. The sort of conservative professionals that Ives rebelled against are those same goons who took it upon themselves to remove the cardboard tray from the Bounty bar in an attempt (failed) to sex it up. Ives, Monk and Shuttleworth all pitch themselves against smokescreens of slickness and gloss. As pianists and composers, there's much to learn from their example. International Piano Magazine.
John talks to Mojo magazine:
What music are you currently grooving to?
Well, I listened to Supertramp on Ken Bruce this morning: "Take a look at my girlfriend What she got?/Not a lot." It's a fun track but a bit cruel, bit nasty. And The Alarm. I bought them from Sue Ryder. 50p. I never liked punk, mistrusted it, but they've got lovely, spiky blond hair, studded belts. All smiling, a lot of fun. What, if push comes to shove, is your all-time favourite album?
Well, I quite like Oliver!. The Lighthouse Family are very nice to drive to. They've only got four notes but he sings those notes very well.
What was the first record you ever bought? And where did you buy it?
Little Arrows by Leapy Lee. I bought it in Wilson Peck in Sheffield. You listened to the records in a special booth but I used to get distracted because I like pegboard. I'd wonder about the machines that could get such precise holes. I found a Bounty bar in there once. That was when they still had the cardboard trays to protect the fragile coconut filling. You used to throw them away? You're crazy, lad! They could be used as a nice bookmark afterwards.
Which musician, other than yourself, have you ever wanted to be?
Well, I wanted to do Richard Clayderman on Stars In Their Eyes. He smiles, doesn't he? About every eight seconds. I worked it out. I'd quite like to be in Racey. I don't see much coverage of them in your magazine. Or Johnny Hates Jazz.
What do you sing in the shower?
Maritime reels and shanties. On the tiles we've got a dolphin and a mermaid. Makes you think of the high seas.
What is your favourite Saturday night record?
On Saturday night I like to take it easy, maybe get a Chinese takeaway. One of those establishments where everyone stands up and watches the telly, lovely feeling of cameraderie. Saturday night's for telly, isn't it? Excellent programming. Very high quality.
And your Sunday morning record? Something like The Drifters, Saturday Night At The Movies, which is crazy isn't it, on a Sunday morning? And I'm rehearsing songs for my tour, One Foot In The Gravy, which starts at Leeds City Varieties on April 4.
Me and My Motor
What are you driving? An Austin Ambassador - Y reg, beige exterior, maroon interior.
What does that say about you? I have immaculate taste and a keen sense of colour coordination.
What do you like about it/not like about it? Roomy glove compartment - but the catch is broken, preventing access to the glove compartment.
Why did you buy it? I have asked myself that occasionally.
What kind of driver are you? Cautious, yet swift to react in moments of danger.
Any bad habits? I make soft clucking noises when measuring a piece of timber prior to sawing. Why do you ask?
Any driving-test tales? Of course not. I passed first time without incident.
What was your first car? A 1958 Ford Anglia. It was brown, which helped disguise the rust.
Have you ever crashed/got a speeding ticket/got any points? I was involved in a collision with an articulated lorry in the above vehicle. The car was a mess, but it spawned one of my finest songs to date, Incident on the Snake Pass. Fortunately, my injuries were superficial. Having said that, to me they were very real.
What do you use your car for? A shop at Netto, and daily runs to the reservoir to check the water level.
Have you ever experienced road rage? In Netto's car park I once saw a woman nutting the steering-wheel. I thought, Oh dear, she's forgotten a major item off her list. Then I realised she was just trying to pull her seat forward.
What sort of state is your car in? Frankly, it's beginning to niff a bit. I left a slice of gala pie in the glove compartment two weeks ago.
What else is in the glove compartment? A road atlas, spare batteries for my organ and a pair of wellies, just in case the reservoir requires a closer look.
Have you ever had any romantic encounters in a car? Once my wife Mary came with me to check the reservoir level. It was abnormally low, and we became concerned for our children's futures. I put my arm round Mary and gave her a reassuring squeeze.
What music do you listen to on the road? That's easy: Chris Rea. And, for high-speed motorway journeys, the Lighthouse Family.
What would be your dream car? A camper van like Doreen Melody's (She's a good friend of Mary's; they go to Bums, Tums and Thighs together on Thursdays) with a sturdy chrome ladder for immediate access to the roof, and a stove for brewing up during longer visits to the reservoir.
Who would be your dream passenger? Chris Rea. I'd like to drive him home for Christmas.
Caroline Egan, Guardian. Monday March 13, 2000
Radio Times Questionnaire
Sheffield's premier organ-playing radio presenter shares his wisdom on wrestling, guinea pigs, Puff Daddy and Charlie Dimmock
What is your all-time favourite programme? It probably has to be the classic flagship BBC production of The Brothers. I just liked seeing the big trucks being driven in and out of the warehouse.
What is your first memory of TV or radio? We used to have one of those pay-as-you-go TVs and I couldn't find a shilling, so I missed the end of an exciting Mick McManus bout on Saturday wrestling. I never discovered how Mick fared against Giant Haystacks: big lad. Do you know?
Which soap character do you relate to? I'm not like him, but I do admire the acting of Jimmy Corkhill in Brookside, because he obeys all the rules of how to get angry. This is one of my acting lessons in the show. He opens his eyes wide and waggles his head from side to side, which is correct. This is why guinea pigs look angry, because they're very wide-eyed, and with the rapid breathing, it makes their head waggle.
What is your favourite radio programme? I used to enjoy tuning in to local police on the FM frequency, but they don't broadcast any more. Get ready information on the crime, then go and watch some youths clambering over a garage or something. Lovely. Failing that there's a lady called Veronica who does the Sunday teatime broadcast on hospital radio and describes people's operations.
Which TV programme would you like to get rid of? Possibly Open University in the early hours. You could fill that with stock-car racing, Evel Knievel, that sort of thing - that's what people want to see. They don't want to be educated at 2am.
Which would be your desert-island confectionery product? It has to be the Bounty bar - even though there's no cardboard strip. I certainly miss it. I wrote a song about it called Mutiny over the Bounty. Clever.
Charlie Dimmock. Discuss, please. I'd rather not because Mary, my wife, is in earshot. Older men. It's like Cider With Rosie, isn't it? That's the appeal.
Who are your heroes? Chris Rea: his gravelly baritone voice, steeped in reverb. But I also like Sir Harry Secombe, because he uses the natural reverb of the shopping arcade. Doesn't need a microphone. Fantastic. Someone more recent? I punch the air to Puff Daddy.
Describe yourself in three words. Versatile singer-organist. Well, that's three words and a hyphen.
What would you most like to change about yourself? I'd like some spiky blond hair, like Howard Jones. The lad at the car-alarm shop, he's got it as well. But Mary won't let me - she says I'd look silly.
What would be your first act as world leader? Free milk for all, including adults. I used to love getting it as a child. I'd be monitor for our street.
As a child, what did you hope to grow up to be? I wanted to run a sweet shop. I've always admired the way the proprietor has to climb on a little stool to get the big jars of sweets. It seems easy but it's not, because there's only a one-eighth of an inch gap between each jar.
Surprise us with a fact. Nowadays I dream of being a paramedic. Mind you, who doesn't? Or I could work for Homebase. Either way, I'd get to wear green overalls.
'The further north you go, the nicer it gets'
Martin Parr is a renowned photographer. John Shuttleworth hasn't had a TV show in years. How did they end up making a film about the Shetland Islands? And are they still talking to each other? Brian Logan reports.
Thursday April 20, 2006 The Guardian
When artists from different disciplines collaborate, you expect to encounter a bit of a love-in, lots of talk about how much they admire one another's work. But it doesn't always pan out that way. "There's one big problem with this documentary," says the narrator of the film It's Nice Up North, John Shuttleworth. "You may have spotted it already. It's the cameraman, Martin Parr." To you and I, Martin Parr is the best known British photographer of the past two decades. But not to Shuttleworth. "He's not a professional cameraman - as you can see. He's just a photographer. And he can't be a very good one. He doesn't even do weddings." Shuttleworth, of course, is fictional. A retired security guard and amateur singer-songwriter from Sheffield, he is the creation of character-comedian Graham Fellows. Parr is the pictorial chronicler of suburban Britain who famously anthologised Boring Postcards; a retrospective of his work was recently held at the Barbican in London. The two are friends, who met a decade ago when Parr took photos of Shuttleworth for the Guardian. In their different ways - Fellows in comedy, Parr in art - both focus on, as Fellows says, "the minutiae of life". "There's a lot of empathy," says Parr, "between my photography of the British and his portrayal of this very simple, naive English character." Hold on, is this the love-in starting? Not quite. Because, although Fellows and Parr are both promoting the spoof documentary, which starts touring next week, it's not a film on which they exactly see eye to eye. It wasn't just the fictional John Shuttleworth who found it hard work collaborating with Martin Parr, was it?
"Well, it's confusing," says Fellows, evasively, "because there was me and Martin, and then there was John and Martin. And then there's me and John. It's a bit of a triangle. But I do think Martin found me a little bit difficult ... " The film was Fellows' idea, provoked, he says, by his "being ignored by all the TV companies". (Shuttleworth's last major TV series was 500 Bus Stops in 1997; he currently broadcasts on Radio 4.) Parr's participation, says Fellows half-seriously, "might make the film more saleable to TV. Because Martin's got a brilliant reputation, whereas John Shuttleworth is a bit of a has-been." The film itself was prompted by a visit Fellows made to the Shetland Islands while touring with the 2003 Shuttleworth show Pillock of the Community. "I had a fantastic time," he says. "I fell in love with the wind, and the moonscape, and the barren scenery." And the people. "We went to this bus shelter in Unst. It's this amazing bus stop that has a sofa and a budgie in a cage and a computer and a microwave. It's like someone's lounge. And it struck me this sort of thing wouldn't survive five minutes in mainland Britain. It would be trashed by disaffected youths." And so an idea for a film took shape. "It seemed to me a perfect symbol of niceness, the sort of niceness we'd been experiencing that whole week. I began to think that, the further north you go, the nicer it gets." Not everyone agreed. Fellows' wife and children were dragooned to Shetland in the first flush of dad's excitement, and "didn't like it, because there was no McDonald's and not many clothes shops". Fortunately, Parr was more keen. "I persuaded him," says Fellows, "to give up a week of his time, photographing vegetables or whatever he does, for nothing."
With a producer and a BBC sound man in tow ("we needed good sound because of the incessant wind"), Fellows and Parr set off for Shetland in December 2003. The filming didn't go smoothly. "We were on a tight schedule," says Parr, "and it was winter in Shetland, so our days were very short. We struggled to finish." So might Fellows have planned the shoot better? That's not, unsurprisingly, how he sees it. "There was a conflict between me and Martin, because we had different views about filming schedules. He'd like everyone to get together every evening for a nice meal, and I'd be working. There were only four of us and I was doing about 10 people's jobs." The film itself is a batty Shetland travelogue, which bears charming witness to its homespun means of production. Fellows recruited a co-star, a tour guide called Elma Johnson, who duly introduced him to her next-door neighbour, who went on to provide the film's fiddle soundtrack. (Fellows recorded the violin solos down the phone from Lerwick to Lincolnshire.) In the final feature, Shuttleworth potters around the islands interviewing the locals to roadtest his theory about latitude and likableness. One of the most seductive, and unsettling, aspects of the enterprise is that you're never sure to what extent it's a joke, and whether the Shetlanders are in on it. The same uncertainty applies to the disintegrating relationship between Shuttleworth/Fellows and Parr, which the film hilariously chronicles. Shuttleworth's voiceover is forever carping at Parr for pointing his camera away from the action, for shooting "arty" sequences of binbags flapping in the wind. At one point, we hear Parr's voice say "Got it!" in reference to a desired shot. And Shuttleworth responds: "No, Martin, you didn't get it. And I don't get you. Why did you come on the trip, Martin?"
It's a very funny running joke - all the more so because there is, it seems, truth in it. "Having done a bit of filming myself," says Fellows, "and certainly more than Martin has, I know there are rules you observe, like saying, 'Action!' But he didn't seem to want to go along with that. The other wonderful thing was that he kept leaving the camera running, because he didn't know how to work it. So we've got all these shots of the car interior, of the stitching on the back seat." And the case for the defence? "Filming is always a challenge because I'm not used to it," admits Parr, cheerfully. "But I approach it head-on. I'm not technically brilliant, but it's the spirit that counts. So I just dived in." Likewise, there were artistic differences. Fellows wanted the film to follow closely his own script, full of interludes in which Shuttleworth speaks to his wife and his agent on the phone. "This was an area of friction," says Fellows, "because Martin wanted to ignore my brilliant plotlines. I sound like I'm patronising him, but I don't think he really gets stories." Over to Parr: "Graham's very keen on plot. I would be much more casual and say, 'Let's go up and let things happen.' I think the unscripted bits turned out to be the strongest parts of the film." He's on to something: the film comes alive when Shuttleworth and the Shetland public are interacting on the hoof.
You can sense Parr enjoying these moments from behind the lens. His camerawork becomes more alert, more spontaneous. This, after all, is where he and Fellows' interests overlap, in real people and their unpredictable, unscriptable behaviour. Fellows admits as much: "We'd be walking along and we'd see a street cleaner up an alleyway, and we'd just go and chat to him. And you'd end up talking about the fact that some paint was flaking off a drainpipe. And that becomes quite riveting. It's what I love doing and Martin Parr loves doing, which is honing in on nothing, and making it dramatic." The final disagreement came when, contrary to Parr's advice, Fellows opted to edit the film himself, on his laptop. It took two years. "I couldn't work the software," says Fellows. "Or the computer." Now he's off on tour, presenting the film at arts centres and cinemas in England, Scotland - and Shetland. "It's brilliant," he says, "because I'm just taking a projector, a DVD and my own screen, sticking it up in the venue and giving a chat. It's like someone going to the library and giving a talk about their holiday. Or about butterflies." And are the two best of friends again? "When I got into the cutting room," says Fellows, "I realised lots of the shots he'd got, we'd been thinking along the same lines all the time. I often wondered, why's he pointing the camera there? And suddenly a little old lady pops into the frame, and he pans with her and he's on to something else. He really is remarkable in the stuff he latches on to." How satisfying that a film about people being nice needn't, after all, provoke nastiness between its two creators. "Oh, but it's not really a film about niceness," says Fellows. "That's a red herring. People are people, and there are nice people and nasty people wherever you go"
Comedian Graham Fellows and photographer Martin Parr, both brilliant observers of Middle England, have made a film about Northern niceness. It's a bit of a shambles, frankly - and utterly inspired. They talk to Marc Lee.
On the face of it, it's an unlikely alliance. Never before in the landscape of British culture have the paths of photography and stand-up comedy crossed - least of all in the Shetland Islands. And yet, when you think about it, the groundbreaking collaboration of internationally renowned photographer Martin Parr and gifted "character" comedian Graham Fellows on a film called It's Nice Up North isn't quite as surprising as it first seems. Directed by and starring Fellows - in the guise of his sublimely hilarious creation John Shuttleworth - and shot by Parr, It's Nice Up North is a quasi-documentary inspired by a premise as shaky as the camerawork - that the further north you go in Britain, the nicer people are. Shuttleworth is a bumbling, cheerily optimistic denizen of deepest suburbia with a penchant for writing endearingly naff songs (Pigeons in Flight, for example, and a paean to his beloved Y-reg Austin Ambassador). He also has a relentless fascination for the minutest details of everyday life. And, coming ostensibly from John's over-literal mind, the idea for the film takes this intrepid if vaguely baffled odd couple on an adventure to the most northerly of the British Isles, where they test the theory by pottering about between cafés and gift shops, the post office and an old folks' home, engaging the locals in joyously inconsequential chit-chat. It's very funny. Not that it'll win any Oscars for technical achievement. Although the video camera is in the hands of one of the world's best-known photographers, it often slips out of them. We get, for instance, long, unintended close-ups of the upholstery covering the back seat of John's car. Which makes it even funnier. The reason the project makes so much sense is that, for all their artistic dissimilarities, Parr and Fellows are both brilliant observers of middle England in all its quirky, eccentric glory. Seagulls scoffing chips on the promenade, dozing matrons squeezed into groaning garden chairs, the greasy delights of a hot dog stand - Parr's wryly affectionate images capture a world, a way of life which millions of people in this country would recognise instantly, but which is rarely celebrated. And John Shuttleworth's idea of heaven would be a quiet afternoon ambling around his local garden centre. Which is, appropriately, where Parr and Fellows first met during a shoot for a magazine feature. Or was it?
Despite Parr's certainty, Fellows insists it was somewhere else completely. Apparently, there was also a certain amount of disagreement - or "creative tension" - while they were making It's Nice Up North, largely because they didn't allow long enough for the shoot. "I did have a bit of a script, but we made it up as we went along," says Fellows. "We occasionally almost fell out because I'd say, 'John has to do this now', and Martin would say, 'Why?' And I'd say, 'Haven't you read the script, Martin?'" Parr agrees that he is not keen on scripts. "For me, the most enjoyable bits were when we'd go in and ad-lib it. The highlights of the film were when we didn't know what was going to happen. "That's where Graham's role-play and his brilliance at doing his character really come out. It's so deadpan that I never really knew whether people realised he was in character or not. That's the funny thing - you can't tell." Because they were in the Shetlands in December, the days were short and the weather was always a threat, which made the whole experience very stressful. "There was a lot of friction," says Parr, "but I think friction is good." How did it arise? "Well, I lost the tape. Which was rather unsatisfactory." "He lost the tape," adds Fellows briskly, "and blamed everyone else for having lost it. Then it turned up in his coat the following morning. And I burst into tears because I was so knackered. I got a bit emotional there." There was also some confusion about who was who. "I got very cross with Martin on about day two," says Fellows. "I was probably very unfair, but there was a problem. There was an incredible sunrise, and I said to Martin, 'Go and get the sunrise.' I thought I was being Graham, but he started filming me and said, 'What's the matter, John? You got a problem with the car?' And I said, 'Just go and get the f***ing sunrise.'"
Further tension arises in our conversation when I ask Parr and Fellows whether they were exploiting the people they filmed, inviting us to find them funny. Fellows is concerned that somebody might think this, but Parr interjects sharply: "By modern-day standards, this is so mild. Look at tabloid TV, reality TV. If you're looking for exploitation, I'd suggest you look there first. This is very mild, very respectful, very affectionate. But real life, real people can be very amusing, very funny. Why not celebrate that?" Aside from the film, the pair are busy with other, solo projects, and Parr's latest exhibition could hardly be further from the windswept wilds of the Shetlands. Fashion Show opens at the Rocket Gallery in east London on Friday, and he describes the exhibition catalogue as one of the most challenging undertakings of his career - a 220-page glossy magazine, featuring pictures from several fashion shoots he's done over the past few years. The twist is that he took every picture, including the advertising. The magazine also has a recipe page (beans on toast), travel pieces, and even a Dear Martin advice column. Meanwhile, Fellows has just embarked on a UK tour as Shuttleworth delivering the observations of a middle-aged everyman made dizzy by the modern world. It's a character as sharply defined as Al Murray's Pub Landlord and Ricky Gervais's David Brent. Yet Fellows admits to moments of doubt, when he wonders whether he should get an "ordinary" job - "like taking photographs". He then tells Parr he's just bought a camera and has started taking "arty" shots. "I'm sure I've been influenced by you. I know I have because I know your secret. Am I allowed to say?" "Yeah, go on, say it," replies Parr. "Give the Telegraph a scoop." "You just point the camera and shoot." But then that's exactly what one master of deceptive simplicity would say to another.