An Interview with Graham Fellows
For the uninitiated, John Shuttleworth is a fifty-something man with a rare gift for observing the minutiae of life and capturing it in song, which he then performs on his Yamaha PSS keyboard.
So Graham, what’s John been up to since we last saw him?
Well, he’s had a bad back and he’s coming to tell everyone about that. And he talks about his car a lot. But I don’t want to spoil the show…
I understand John has written a book. My husband’s hoping it’s a guide to A roads in the UK, because you’ve made it okay to talk about roads.
Well, I talk about the A1111, I think, but John prefers B roads. (laughs) It’s kind of a day in the life of John and he tries to give advice on household dilemmas but, of course, being John he doesn’t know the answer to a lot of the dilemmas! You know, for instance, the dishwasher door – how do you avoid bashing your ankles on it because you forget it’s there? But John fails on that one; his advice is just to wear a pair of shin pads. Like all John things, it’s not really about the content; it’s about the detail. And it’s detail that’s nonsense really, but that’s what I think people find comforting.
I was just going to use the word ‘comforting’. There are so many situations when John’s words come back to me, like recently when I was at a funeral ‘mingling with mourners’ (one of John’s classic songs) and eyeing up the quiche, and his words made me feel better.
Bless you – I’ve had similar things said to me after gigs. I guess, although I’m doing it in the character of John, most of it is about my pre-occupations as well.
“Putting on the jacket is quite significant”
So, what percentage of John Shuttleworth is you?
Ooh, well, I’d say it’s about 30 to 40 per cent. There’s quite a lot of my father in there, probably 60 or 70 per cent John… It’s very hard to work out where inspiration for these things come from isn’t it, sometimes? When I created the character I was living in Manchester and perhaps a little nostalgic for my Sheffield youth, cycling around to Ladybower reservoir, but my dad used to go on about checking the level of the reservoir, which is where that comes from, and it’s such a funny thing to do.
Your Northern references crack me up – I grew up near Sheffield too and we used to have to go to Toad’s Mouth Rock in the school holidays with a flask, and it was always cold and wet. How does it work down South? Do people laugh at different things?
Well, I don’t really change it for down South – I think people get the idea that it’s a local reference and assimilate it, and put it into their own reference. So, I talk about Toad Mouth Rock and they probably just go, yeah, I get it because we’ve got a rock just down the road too.
Do you dream as Graham or John?
I’m glad to say I’ve never dreamt as John. That would be worrying, I think. The only dreams I’ve had about John have been where I’ve had to go on stage, anxiety dreams, where I’m supposed to be doing a show and I haven’t got any of the songs ready or the stories ready, so I’m totally unprepared. But no, I never dream as John.
Okay – I’m slightly disappointed to hear that.
Do you have a set routine for transforming into John before a show or does it happen as you slide your feet into his practical shoes?
It’s not the shoes, it’s the glasses! Once I put the glasses on… I wear glasses now, but I didn’t used to. When I started playing John I used to have the frames but with clear glass in because my eyesight was perfect but gradually I’ve had to introduce magnification. Yeah, it’s John’s frames and when I put them on I’ll just sort of, perhaps, do a little (as John) ‘Oof! Are you alright tonight, Graham?’ You know, in the mirror, have a little word with Graham and then John’s there. And then putting on the jacket as well is quite significant and, you’re right actually, the shoes and the trousers, it all helps to move me out of myself into John. But of course, when you’re performing as a character, you’re just acting, so you’re always monitoring, you’re always there yourself – there’s two things going on.
“I’m overtaking John in age”
And are there things that you like about being John or are there things that really annoy you?
(laughing) Well, he doesn’t really pull the birds, does he? He pulls the fellas – well, sort of middle aged paunchy bald men. But no, I’m joking, I’ve got a lovely girlfriend, I’m fine but he’s very unsexy but that’s safe, it’s a safe world that you enter. Also, I’m a green liberal, I would say, but John’s stance on that doesn’t work if he comes out and says ‘We’ve all got to save the planet!’ but I have introduced that to the show – I talk about Greta Thunderberg [sic] and you know, subvert it all – ‘President Trump, he’s an experienced businessman, surely he can’t be wrong’. And the audience will sigh ironically or laugh.
I know you were saying that John doesn’t pull the birds but Joan Chitty (one of John’s neighbours in Radio 4 sitcom, The Shuttleworths, written and performed by Fellows) is terrifying and I think she’s got a bit of a thing for John.
Well, she must have, yeah, and I suppose it’s quite worrying that that character’s me! She is like some women I’ve met… quite scary. My girlfriend is a proto-feminist and she likes the way she (Joan) just goes for a man – she doesn’t give a sh*t. She’s a bit naughty… She still marries Fred but she’d be happy to give Tom one. I do like Joan.
I do – I wouldn’t like to meet her but I’m very happy to listen to her from a distance.
(As Joan) ‘Aw, thanks, love’ – (Graham again) There, you got a bit of Joan there. My pancakes are nearly ready!
Sure – just one more question: has John taken your life in a different direction from what you expected?
That’s a very good question. I guess the answer is, I don’t know because I didn’t really think about which direction it was going to take. I certainly didn’t think it would become my bread and butter, my career for 30 years, and I’ve not really had much chance to do other things. Years and years ago, I trained to be an actor and I thought I was going to work in theatre and TV, and be a character actor, and I suppose I’ve become a character actor it’s just that I mainly play one character. I wouldn’t mind the odd extra guest role in films and stuff but I guess I’m so identified as John Shuttleworth that people rarely give me the chance to do anything else. The hardest thing, I suppose, is that I’m 60 now and I’m overtaking John in age – it’s a weird thought. His kids are still in their early twenties. Thirty years ago they were in their early teens – how does that work? And the dog’s still alive, Kirsty! But I’m very grateful to John Shuttleworth because I think he’s a very nice man and I love slipping into his shoes and playing him. And the sort of feeling I get is that there is a permanent place for him in British comedy.
I think people need John more than ever with the current state of the world; it’s nice to be reminded about the little things, like having two margarines on the go, instead of always worrying about the bigger picture. Anything else coming up for you?
The next project is hopefully finishing off a film I started about eight years ago which is about me and my relationship with John, and also my father. But you get a bit lazy as you get older… Well, I’d better go and eat my pancakes now.
John Shuttleworth’s Back at Scarborough Spa on March 8th as part of his UK tour.
The tour also visit Sheffield City Hall 16 April & Barnsley Civic 17 April
For full tour details visit shuttleworths.co.uk