At the end of 2015, musician and comedian Graham Fellows appeared as a contestant on Celebrity Mastermind. His specialist subject was amateur sailor Donald Crowhurst, on which he managed to score a decent nine points (with one pass). In this respect, though, he was outshone by Rachael Neiman, who had appeared on the traditional Mastermind back in 2011. Her specialist subject was Fellows’ alter-ego John Shuttleworth, on which she scored a mighty 13 points (with no passes).
Still, there can’t be many people who have appeared on the venerable show as both a contestant and a subject. Speaking exclusively to Northern Soul, Fellows says: “I know! That’s got to be some kind of record, hasn’t it? I was very proud to be on it. Probably more proud to be the choice of subject, actually. That was great. Well, you can imagine. It just makes you feel good, because it’s being taken seriously, isn’t it? A comedy being taken seriously. The joke there though, of course, is that I watched it and I reckon I only got about six of the answers right.”
Fellows is currently touring as John Shuttleworth in a new show entitled My Last Will and Tasty Mint. It’s billed as Shuttleworth’s farewell to show business, but fans probably don’t need to stock up on tissues just yet.
“It is essentially about John planning to retire, but he’s not going to,” Fellows reveals.
For one thing, there’s some confusion about that tour title, which is the fault of Shuttleworth’s sole agent (and neighbour), Ken Worthington.
“Ken’s cocked up the title again, so John’s kind of going to be investigating mints. That will lead on to other chocolates and sweets. I do like talking about sweets. I’m obviously going to talk about the Toblerone now, because [adopts Shuttleworth voice] the gap’s got bigger. At first I was really excited when I heard that news, but then I realised it was a trick.”
“What have I written down recently? Oh yeah, things like contactless cards. The first-time John paid with one, he was very frightened. He wasn’t sure what was going to happen, the whole shop fell silent. I’ve just written that down, but I’ll work that up into more of a story. Or Judge Judy – I’ve noticed she’s getting quite aggressive recently. She never says ‘please’, she just says ‘sit down’ – too dictatorial.”
For those who have never had the pleasure, John Shuttleworth is a retired security guard who lives with his wife Mary in Sheffield (where Fellows himself was born). Armed only with a Yamaha keyboard and a bottomless well of optimism, John forges a sort-of-career as a singer-songwriter. Peerless Shuttleworth classics include 500 Bus Stops, Pigeons in Flight, Two Margarines and I Can’t Go Back to Savoury Now. Through a keen-eyed observation of life’s little details, his daily doings provide plenty of cherishable good-natured humour and odd poetic flashes. The character has been a long-running favourite on BBC Radio 4, with shows in which Fellows writes and performs everything, from the songs to the voices of John, Ken, Mary, their children and anyone else they might meet.
The character of John Shuttleworth first emerged when Fellows’ career was at a crossroads. In 1978, while studying drama at Manchester Polytechnic, he wrote a single, Jilted John, poking fun at the self-pity and anger of punk. Produced by Manchester music legend Martin Hannett, it featured the ageless refrain, ‘Gordon is a moron / Gordon is a mooo-ron’. Against all expectations, the song became a national hit, reaching number four in the UK Singles Chart. Fellows found himself playing live shows as Jilted John and making TV appearances in character.
“Initially it was fun, but then it became a bit serious,” he says. “Doing Top of the Pops and all that, which I didn’t enjoy. It was scary, really. I ended up being quite sad about it. I don’t know, having a hit record when you’re 19 isn’t that much fun, actually. Especially when it’s only one. You’re thinking, ‘oooh’, and then it all goes. It is all meaningless, really, fame.”
There were follow-up Jilted John singles and a full album, True Love Stories, which is actually something of a lost gem. It’s a bitter-sweet concept album around the theme of teenage romance, which manages at times to be genuinely affecting. But sales were disappointing and once the Jilted John project capsized, Fellows moved towards a regular acting career. He kept his hand in with music, though. During the mid-1980s he recorded a fine solo album, Love at the Hacienda, and started performing as his new character, John Shuttleworth. The latter caught on like wildfire and his career has never been quite the same since.
In practice, though, there’s plenty of fluidity between Fellows’ various personas. His current plans include “making another Graham Fellows album and maybe a John Shuttleworth film, or a Graham/John film. A lot of the time there’s a little battle going on between me and John, because I’ll write a song and think, ‘I can keep that one for Graham’ and then I go, ‘oh, no, I’d better let John have it’. A case in point would be [Shuttleworth classic] You’re Like Manchester, which was not really a John song. It’s a ‘me’ song, but I couldn’t resist him having, really. He could probably sing [solo Fellows song] Denise from Doncaster, couldn’t he? But then maybe so could Jilted John.”
In fact, Jilted John is due to make a live appearance on the last night of the current John Shuttleworth tour at Sheffield City Hall. Having revived the character occasionally since the 1970s, Fellows now has hopes of taking him out on a full national tour to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Jilted John single. The reservations that he had about the song back in 1978 seem to have evaporated over time.
“Then, I was a little bit torn between thinking, ‘do I go out and exploit this’, or ‘do I just be cool and say, this was just a silly novelty song’, and never sing it again? I think that’s the dilemma I had. Now, because I’m well into my 50s, I don’t really care. It’s quite silly, it’s funny, to be up there singing a song I wrote when I was 18. And actually, people like it and that makes me think, ‘yeah, this is fun’.”
There also appears to be plenty of mileage left in the John Shuttleworth character. BBC Radio 4 recently broadcast a new series of John Shuttleworth’s Lounge Music, in which he meets a different real-life singer-songwriter each week, from Chris Difford and Nick Heyward to Clare Grogan and Mari Wilson, during which they share their musical wisdom. And there’s a pilot for a potential animated series of The Shuttleworths now available online.
So, any fears that Shuttleworth, or Fellows, might be about to retire seem groundless, at least for now. “I think if I’m going to go, I’ll go quietly. Then I’ll come back noisily for the comeback. But ultimately, of course, I will retire. Just as long as I retire before John.”
Fellows pauses for thought. “No, I should have said ‘as long as he retires before me’.”
John Shuttleworth’s My Last Will and Tasty Mint is on tour until the end of March 2017, taking in dates in Leeds, Sheffield, Manchester, Salford, Buxton and Lancaster. Click here for details.
Assorted Graham Fellows treats, from Shuttleworth CDs and the animated pilot to Jilted Jam, a new Jilted John rarities set, available here.