Isn’t it always the way? You wait for one Northern comedy hero and then two come along at once.
I was at Oldham Coliseum to see one of Sheffield’s greatest exports, John Shuttleworth, and, as I got settled into my seat, John Henshaw sat down next to me. A latecomer to the acting game, but absolutely brilliant as landlord Ken from Early Doors, it was great to get the opportunity to have a quick chat with him about the performance. I learned that John Shuttleworth was new to Mr Henshaw, but I assured him he was in for a treat.
John Shuttleworth didn’t let us down. He never does. He is, essentially, a character created by actor Graham Fellows in 1986, since when he’s been entertaining us on radio, TV and stage.
I first came across him on his Radio 4 series The Shuttleworths. He was interviewing TV presenter Peter Purves and offered him a sports biscuit, quickly apologising that they were “mostly high jump”. It probably doesn’t sound that funny in print, but John Shuttleworth’s genius lies in the way he delivers his lines with complete concern, together with that soft Sheffield tone. I nearly crashed my car laughing and have been a fan of his unique style ever since.
It’s tricky to do his act justice in words as so much of it is conveyed in his physical idiosyncrasies and nuanced speech. He describes himself as a “versatile singer/organist” and that’s primarily why he’s on stage. Fellows has got form as a talented songwriter. He had chart success in 1978 as Jilted John with Gordon Is a Moron and this has given John Shuttleworth plenty of excellent material. The tunes and lyrics are always catchy, memorable and funny. His mundane subjects make this all the more amazing and some of the song titles on their own are enough to make the crowd roar: his ode to paintbrush cleaning – Smells Like White Spirit being a classic example.
John Shuttleworth often tours the country and has built up a big following of ardent fans who know all the words to his songs. There are particular crowd-pleasers like I Can’t Go Back to Savoury Now and Pigeons in Flight, but my favourite is Two Margarines on the Go – a tragic lament about taking advantage of a two-for-one offer at the supermarket only to have both tubs open at the same time.
His only musical accompaniment throughout is his trusty Yamaha organ. With Les Dawson as the prime example, they say it takes a great musician to play his instrument badly. John Shuttleworth does this all the way through his act, constantly fiddling with the knobs and settings and providing us with a running commentary of his mistakes. Behind this foolishness is some sharp musical acumen. He’ll play a couple of notes incorrectly before informing us sorrowfully that it was a bit, China Crisis or Teardrop Explodes which is always followed by the wistful observation that “they’ve been a bit quiet lately”. He’s consistently spot on with his references and the crowd are clearly on his wavelength.
For me though, the real genius of the character is found in the bits between the songs. He’ll happily ramble on for 10 minutes, seemingly about nothing more interesting than the fact that he has a picture of two hares boxing on his shed wall or that he thinks pitta breads are called “Peter’s breads”. His tragi-comic lack of self-awareness and his fundamental decency always produce great comedy. At one point he became briefly animated when he thought his manager had landed him a gig with Billy Joel. It turned out he’d misheard and it was actually a gig in a village hall. This particular gag won him one of his biggest laughs of the evening, but he cautioned that he didn’t think it was particularly funny. His story about buying a toaster on ebay was even funnier.
Take the opportunity to go and see him if he’s ever playing your town. I caught him at the end of his 37-date tour, but he gigs solidly and is up and down the country every year. He really is a one-off and, in a world of homogenised comedy, I’m totally chuffed that that his originality still draws an appreciative audience.
Review by Charlie Bell
What: John Shuttleworth
Where: Oldham Coliseum, Oldham town centre
When: next date is June 22, 2013 at the Beverley Folk Festival (Comedy Club) (not part of tour)