Graham Fellows: 'I can't do John Shuttleworth for ever'

Sean O'Grady joins Graham Fellows down the comedian's local Spar in Louth, Lincolnshire, for milk, pasties – and a heart-to-heart about the future of Sheffield's most versatile singer-songwriter

"I always thought I'd end up at the RSC." Graham Fellows has certainly ended up in a different place from that. The creator of John Shuttleworth – versatile singer-songwriter from Sheffield, if you didn't know – and, as a 19-year-old, of Jilted John – responsible for the one-hit wonder "Jilted John" – is based in the Lincolnshire market town of Louth. As I sit with him over a sunny cup of tea in his garden and meander through his life, work and plans, he sounds almost disappointed at times, reviewing the three decades he has mainly spent in the fawn slacks, polo-neck jumper and leather jacket of his alter ego. Thoughtful, equable and soft spoken, he joyfully lapses in and out of character too often for me to believe that he is that cheesed-off. But regrets, he has a few.

"I'm not very interested in comedy. I stumbled into comedy as a way of progressing. I started doing a few gigs, and the big one was supporting Robert Plant for the launch of "Big Log". That's a funny name, isn't it? Do you think he was trying to get into comedy? John Shuttleworth and Robert Plant. They took pictures of us but they wouldn't let me have 'em".

"I don't like comedy." Oof, as John might interject. "I don't like the branding of comedy as the 'new rock'n'roll', as some journalist did, and it sounded the death knell for alternative comedy. Is John Bishop alternative? No. He's old time."

Who, then, does he rate or make time to see? No one much, "which is my loss. But I'd have to wade through a lot of shit to see stuff I've got to see. I'd rather weed the garden." Panel shows? "I've not really been asked. I was offered £500 to appear on Never Mind the Buzzcocks for the indignity of appearing in the line-up as Jilted John with a lot of old men. I said you could add a nought to that. It wouldn't cover the petrol". He offers this reflection: "Performing, or creativity, is a form of sickness. It's a statement that you're unhappy with the world as it is, and want to change it in some way, as if it wasn't complete to start with".

Something in the hair: Graham Fellows Something in the hair: Graham Fellows What Fellows does enjoy is frolicking about in the "wonderfully malleable" world of audio. He tells me about a "free website" of sound effects where you can choose from about 10,000 different front door noises – "that's too many, obviously" – and even 27 sliding patio door variants. Liking the "whoosh" from one, but preferring the "clunk" from another, Fellows went to the trouble of combining them for the conservatory door effects in his latest radio series, John Shuttleworth's Lounge Music (Sunday nights, Radio 4). He also spent three and a half hours with Heaven 17 to get about 10 minutes of material for the programme, including a cover version of Shuttleworth's "Dandelion and Burdock", complete with an intro in the style of Ultravox's "Vienna". He spent hours getting the sound of a hand hitting the wall of a shed just right (for a scene in which Toyah Willcox has a scuffle with Ken Worthington, Shuttleworth's neighbour, sole agent and "TV's Mr Clarinet"). If he wasn't doing what he does now, he suggests, he might be very happy as a Foley artist, dubbing films or radio shows.

Still, he tells me, "I love doing John. It's a real escape. I've got a good brand," he adds, not quite able to take the phrase, seriously. Other remarks belie that sentiment, as we shall see.

He loves playing with words too. At one point, he becomes so excited he starts singing "Relatives in Rotherham". This is one of his latest "numbers" and will feature in his autumn tour, titled A Wee Ken to Remember, which promises to be as good as the excellent A Man with More Rolls. (Ken always slightly messes things up over the phone to the printers).

It is maybe less of a "fun track", as Shuttleworth might say, than his other, catchy hits. We all have our favourite numbers and lyrics: "Austin Ambassador Y Reg" ("You may be utterly sold on your Peugeot/ Your Proton/ A Mitsubishi Shogun") "Pigeons in Flight" ("I wanna see you tonight"), "Two Margarines on the Go" ("It's a nightmare scenario") and "I Can't go Back to Savoury Now" ("I'm halfway through my pudding").

"Relatives in Rotherham/ We don't see a Lorra them/ Tend not to bother them/ Those relatives in Rotherham.

When they come to our house/ The hours we have to suffer them/ The biscuits we have to offer them..."

The last line, by the way was contributed by his driver, Ian Leese. Fellows tells me that he was torn between "giving the song to John or Graham Fellows". He has an unnerving way of talking about himself and his comic creations with equal third-person status. Despite the clear affection for "John", the long run of radio shows, the live tours, and an upcoming range of new Shuttleworth merchandise, including flasks in a choice of blue or "champagne" and, possibly, travel rugs, reveals an urge just to be himself. "This sounds terribly Mike Yarwood, but 'this is me'" is what he has in mind, a more poignant, wistful and even more nostalgic version of Shuttleworth, which is basically what Fellows himself is. "I have a side project of working up some Graham Fellows gigs, and an album, and there's a few gigs coming up in September." As a long-standing Shuttleworthian, I find this a troubling revelation. "I'm in a little bubble. It needs bursting. I've carved a little niche, haven't I? Cosy and comfortable. I can't do John for ever. I don't want to do John for ever".

He mentions, proudly, that he played the lead in Ibsen's Brand at college, but that sort of thing went awry in 1978 when he went on Top of the Pops, got kissed by Debbie Harry and, by the way, met Jimmy Savile. As fellows relates it, with a convincing impression of the disgraced figure: "He said, 'Jilted John, will you come with me to meet some friends?' And he took me to his dressing room, presumably. It was full, jam-packed with disabled children in wheelchairs, with no adults at all, no adults at all. I do remember that. I don't think that they then came and saw the show, actually. After that, he referred to me as one of the nice guys of pop. Like everybody, I found him charming and weird. Wacky, really".

I try to discover who is 'me', or Fellows anyway. It's not that difficult. A 55-year old performer and comic genius, he divides his time between Louth, where some of his children and his ex live, his current partner's place in north London, and his new eco-friendly recording studio in a converted church in Orkney (available for hire – thespaceorkney.com). He doesn't mind talking about his private life, "I don't really get on with either of my exes."

Lunchtime comes, and he suggests a sortie into town to get a pasty and some milk. Ensconced in the local Spar, he cannot resist the temptation to buy three packets of own-brand baking potatoes on special offer, at 25p for a pack of four, and some chocolate digestives on at £1. Partly this is down to an admirable carefulness with money – "I like a bargain" –and partly an environmental conscience that extends to the facilities: "I don't flush the toilet very often. You can print that." He thinks we all waste too much water flushing. He is not mobbed in Louth even when the two of us wander past the Christian Science reading room and the Cancer Research shop performing Imagination's 1981 hit "Body Talk" in semi-Shuttleworth (A little impromptu gig inspired by Leee John's upcoming guest appearance on Lounge Music).

So why didn't he wind up playing Titus Andronicus at Stratford? "'Jilted John' is what happened." He wrote the song almost casually when he was a first-year student at drama college in Manchester. It sent him off in a funny direction, writing songs when he ought to have been learning lines. His most high-profile role was playing a would-be suitor to Gail in Coronation Street for a couple of months. After that, he spent a few years songwriting, for the likes of Five Star, "for God's sake", constantly unable to resist the urge to inject parody into the lyrics. A proposed ballad entitled "Road to Love", for example, carried the line "if you need a hard shoulder to cry on". "I kept doing puns. I couldn't help myself." It got rejected; he found the whole experience "pitiful".

It was during his time as a songwriter that he came across the world of "turkey tapes", bad demos sent in by ambitious but rubbish would-be pop stars. And so John Shuttleworth was born, in 1985. It's been a long run, as comedy characters sometimes tend to be – think Dame Edna, only now retiring, or the cult of Alan Partridge, to which Steve Coogan seems to be reconciled – and there's nothing wrong with that. I get the impression that Fellows was rightly miffed when one of the powers-that-be at the BBC referred to Shuttleworth as an "archive character" when he approached them about his latest project, and this may have strengthened a nascent urge within him to escape from the shadow of Shuttleworth. If so, then whoever runs BBC Radio comedy is even worse than John's hopeless agent Ken. It's time John Shuttleworth composed a song about them.

'John Shuttleworth's Lounge Music' is on Sunday at 7.15pm on Radio 4; his new tour, A Wee Ken to Remember, starts on 30 October (shuttleworths.co.uk)

Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tvReview: 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Hewer is to leave The Apprentice after 10 years

TV review Nick Hewer, the man whose eyebrows speak a thousand words, is set to leave The Apprentice

Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
    The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

    The 12 ways of Christmas

    We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
    Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

    The male exhibits strange behaviour

    A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
    Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

    Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

    Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

    The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'