EDINBURGH FESTIVAL '99': The great rock'n'roll failure

Graham Fellows aka John Shuttleworth is back - and once again he's the perfect loser. By James Rampton

Brian Appleton, a man in a shockingly bland beige leather jacket, a cringe-making Hawaiian shirt and a bubble-perm reminiscent of Kevin Keegan circa 1977, is reflecting on his history of near misses in the rock business. He recalls as a teenager penning a tragically unheralded, Yes-style prog-rock song after accidentally getting high on Airfix glue: "I'd just finished doing the undercarriage of a Hercules and my bedroom- windows were closed." The result was "Lucy, You've Got the Wrong Wardrobe", heavy with Narnia allusions and interminable guitar-solos.

He goes on to lament how he coulda been a contender as a harmonica-player - but his career was devastatingly cut short when "I found that the nickel plating mingled with my saliva and produced a rather unpleasant enzyme which brought my lips out in a rash".

In the creation of Appleton, this wonderfully tragi-comic spoof "musicologist and part-time media studies lecturer", God is in the details. It's all highly specific references to melodicas and Caramacs because, as Victoria Wood has pointed out, "gypsy creams" are much funnier than "biscuits". This is a lesson that Appleton's alter ego, Graham Fellows, has learnt over 14 years meticulously constructing the character of another terminal showbiz failure, John Shuttleworth.

"I love detail," Fellows beams over a pint and a roll-up in the dressing- room after his show, Brian Appleton's History of Rock'n'Roll. The Hawaiian shirt now mercifully lying crumpled on the floor, he continues that "detail is what makes the world go round. Real people don't talk in generalised terms. They talk in specifics and reveal themselves as they do so. People never say `I went surfing on holiday and it was nice'. They use specific references like `this bloke on the beach was hacking me off because he trod on me surf-board which I'd bought from Wilco's on Tuesday afternoon - no, actually it was Tuesday morning, because I'd just called in on Barbara who'd been given the wrong insulin gun by the doctor'."

Audiences lap up these details. "If you use details, people can relate the character to their own lives," Fellows reckons. "When I started doing Shuttleworth, people were shocked that silly stories about Curly Wurly wrappers came under the banner of entertainment. They'd say `surely that's not what gags are made of'. But you can build a character with those little details. With Brian, I'm not interested in big events like Hendrix burning his guitar. I'd rather use little incidents like when The Clash stole a pillow-slip from a hotel."

The thread running through all Fellows's characters - including the splendid one-hit wonder Jilted John, who lamented that Gordon, his ex-girlfriend's new boyfriend, was "a moron" - is a sense of underachievement. Their life-stories are all catalogues of what might have been.

Appleton, for instance, reveals that he once contemplated a glamorous rock'n'roll road-crash suicide before realising that he didn't have a car. "I'd have had to borrow me mother's VW Polo," he moans, "and that has quite a good safety record."

"Failure is interesting. You've got something to get your teeth into. Success is boring. I'm drawn to these sad characters because life itself is basically quite sad. People like them because they can pity them and identify with them at the same time. Deep down, everyone enjoys feeling sorry for people like John Shuttleworth and Brian Appleton. Rock'n'roll is full of sad and bitter people who have lost touch with reality. Elton John once complained: `It's too windy today. Can't someone do something about it?'"

When Fellows started out as Shuttleworth in 1985, political comedians were all the rage. "At that time, there weren't any other character comedians around. Club bookers would say `characters don't go down well here', and they were usually right." Now every other performer seems to be masquerading as a security guard or a Page Three stunna. "People like Steve Coogan, Caroline Aherne and myself have opened it up a bit now and given people more confidence in character comedy," Fellows says. "It's so in fashion because people have realised that straight stand-up is boring. A lot of people think they can do stand-up, but it's not as easy as it looks and there are a lot of not very good ones out there."

A naturally shy man, Fellows has never fancied it himself. "Stand-up is 80 per cent bottle; I couldn't get up as myself and say: `Where are you from?' I'm too embarrassed about myself. It's bad enough being interviewed. It's much easier to perform in character. If a heckler interrupts me as Brian, I can reply: `As John Lennon said, you should be obscene and not heard.'"

But Fellows's characters are rarely heckled. Audiences just see them as cuddly. Like John Major, Fellows' creations hanker after a kinder, gentler Britain. They are to some extent a reaction against rat-a-tat ranters. "I knew Ben Elton at Manchester University, and I remember him being a mild-mannered youth. The next thing I knew, he was on the telly effing and blinding. Maybe I'm prudish, but I don't think swearing on stage works."

Fellows has another BBC2 Shuttleworth series planned for next year, but in the meantime he wants take it easy for a while. But don't worry, he hasn't forgotten about Appleton. Fellows is already working on his next outing in the Keegan coiffure. "Brian's next show will be a dissertation on the link between the orgasm and the prog-rock guitar solo. It'll be called Yes, Yes, Yes."

`Brian Appleton's History of Rock'n'Roll' is at the Pleasance, Venue 33 (0131-556 6550) to 30 Aug

Arts and Entertainment
Kate Bush: 'I'm going to miss everyone so much'
Arts and Entertainment
Boy George performing with Culture Club at Heaven

musicReview: Culture Club performs live for first time in 12 years

Arts and Entertainment
Princess Olga in 'You Can't Get the Staff'
tvReview: The anachronistic aristocrats, it seemed, were just happy to have some attention
Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing
books

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
News
Owen said he finds films boring but Tom Hanks managed to hold his attention in Forrest Gump
arts
Arts and Entertainment
Bono and Apple CEO Tim Cook announced U2's surprise new album at the iPhone 6 launch
Music Album is set to enter UK top 40 at lowest chart position in 30 years
Arts and Entertainment
The Michael McIntyre Chat Show airs its first episode on Monday 10 March 2014
Comedy
Arts and Entertainment

Review

These heroes in a half shell should have been left in hibernation
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North
books'The Narrow Road to the Deep North' sees the writer become the third Australian to win the accolade
Arts and Entertainment
New diva of drama: Kristin Scott Thomas as Electra
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
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.

    Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

    A new American serial killer?

    Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
    Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

    Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

    Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
    Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

    Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

    Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
    Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

    Wildlife Photographer of the Year

    Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
    Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

    Want to change the world? Just sign here

    The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
    Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals

    'You need me, I don’t need you'

    Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals
    How to Get Away with Murder: Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama

    How to Get Away with Murder

    Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama
    A cup of tea is every worker's right

    Hard to swallow

    Three hospitals in Leicester have banned their staff from drinking tea and coffee in public areas. Christopher Hirst explains why he thinks that a cuppa is every worker's right
    Which animals are nearly extinct?

    Which animals are nearly extinct?

    Conservationists in Kenya are in mourning after the death of a white northern rhino, which has left the species with a single male. These are the other species on the brink
    12 best children's shoes

    Perfect for leaf-kicking: 12 best children's shoes

    Find footwear perfect to keep kids' feet protected this autumn
    Anderlecht vs Arsenal: Gunners' ray of light Aaron Ramsey shines again

    Arsenal’s ray of light ready to shine again

    Aaron Ramsey’s injury record has prompted a club investigation. For now, the midfielder is just happy to be fit to face Anderlecht in the Champions League
    Comment: David Moyes' show of sensitivity thrown back in his face by former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson

    Moyes’ show of sensitivity thrown back in his face... by Ferguson

    Manchester United legend tramples on successor who resisted criticising his inheritance
    Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

    Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

    Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
    British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

    British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

    Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
    Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

    Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2015

    UK city beats Vienna, Paris and New York to be ranked seventh in world’s best tourist destinations - but it's not London