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
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

Arts and Entertainment
The Baker (James Corden) struggles with Lilla Crawford’s Little Red Riding Hood

film...all the better to bamboozle us
Arts and Entertainment
English: Romantic Landscape

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
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


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

Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

Arts and Entertainment
William Pooley from Suffolk is flying out to Free Town, Sierra Leone, to continue working in health centres to fight Ebola after surviving the disease himself

Arts and Entertainment
The Newsroom creator Aaron Sorkin

Arts and Entertainment
Matt Berry (centre), the star of Channel 4 sitcom 'Toast of London'

TVA disappointingly dull denouement
Arts and Entertainment
Tales from the cryptanalyst: Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Imitation Game'

Arts and Entertainment
Pixie Lott has been voted off Strictly Come Dancing 2014

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

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

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

    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

    Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

    As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
    The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

    The Interview movie review

    You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
    Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

    How podcasts became mainstream

    People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

    Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
    Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

    A memorable year for science – if not for mice

    The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
    Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

    Christmas cocktails to make you merry

    Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
    5 best activity trackers

    Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

    Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
    Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

    Paul Scholes column

    It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
    Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

    Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

    2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas