Interview With Graham Fellows
I spent an enjoyable night recently with Graham Fellows, sipping Guinness in the Broomhill Tavern. Here’s what he had to say about what’s going on in the world of John Shuttleworth, ahead of his appearance at the Crucible on February 24th 2015.
What can we expect from the forthcoming show?
We’ve done a few preview shows, and they were a bit ropey but with John, everyone assumes the mistakes are part of the show, they never are, but I’ve learnt to run with mistakes and not get anxious about them.
You don’t build them in?
No never, because I know they’re going to happen. In Nottingham I was offered a hot meal instead of sandwiches, and I foolishly had curry and rice at about 6:30. It weighed a bit heavily on me and my mind was mush by 8:00. I forgot a lot of my words. I was even more forgetful than ever but they still seemed to like it. I felt a little bit out of control and there are quite a few new wordy songs. Next night I was back to the sandwiches and my secret ingredient: walnuts. I have a plentiful supply which I munch just before I go on.
Do you keep them on the Yamaha keyboard?
No, although I do take a banana on stage with me, but I keep it hidden, to one side, because it’s a bit eye catching. I don’t want people to be looking at that rather than me so I hide it. There are two new songs that are going down very well. One in particular, called ‘Late Arrangement for an Early Tea’. It seems to have that instant recognition with the audience that ‘Two Margarines’ has.
Everyone knows, if you have an early tea, you’ve got to do things early. In the song, John’s wife Mary finally reveals that she doesn’t have to go out early after all, so they’ll have a late tea. The other song that’s going down very well is a ballad, called ‘Visiting Time’. When my dad was ill, before he died he was in the Northern General, and I used to visit regularly. When you visit someone regularly in hospital there’s something comforting about the routine, and I make a joke about that. In the song, John says he was visiting Alan, the opera singer, but now he’s out of hospital he feels bereft because his routine is gone.
I miss visiting time/The smell of boiled carrots as I approach ward 9/To a new arrival, I say Hi/He’s still under general anaesthetic so he doesn’t reply
The nurses got to know me well/As I’d always apply anti-bacterial gel
All these things are familiar stuff to anyone who’s visited someone in hospital.
What about the more familiar ones?
I’m doing an old one from 2009 ‘Mingling with Mourners’, which I’ve never done live.
Mingling with mourners/some sat down in corners/others at the table/eyeing up the quiche
Which I think sums up funerals. I think I am drawn to writing songs about death; at least half the Shuttleworth songs do have a death element. It’s a very rich seem, writing amusing songs about everyday life, and it comes very natural to me. It’s harder to write a song like Three Times a Lady, or Easy. I cannot write songs like that. I’ve tried but I can’t, so the thing is you’ve just got to write what comes naturally. My shows are all about the detail. People love that. I think it undercuts people’s expectations. They expect to be zapped by the show, and I just do the opposite, and just shuffle on. I remember Norman Lovett doing stand up and he’d come on with a miniature carton of orange juice, and a straw, he’d have a few sip and then ask where am I going to put this? It was very funny.
Getting the merchandise right fascinates me. In the past we’ve had oven gloves and tea towels and the big hit this year is a Shuttleworth travel flask. You can get them on line too at www.shuttleworths.co.uk and I actually do use mine all the time. They were discontinued at Wilco’s, so I sourced them wholesale and we sell them on the tour. They’re only £8. You can also get a Gingerbread Ken, complete with the startled expression he had on New Faces in 1973.
Has your audience got older with you?
No, I would say about half of them are under 40 these days. They don’t want autographs anymore, they now want selfies. They’re second generation, and they tell me things like, ‘My dad forced Shuttleworth on me in the car all the way to Devon.’ I’m on Twitter and we’re approaching 50 000 followers. I contribute but the guy who runs it can mimic the way John speaks, better than me sometimes. When I write something myself, I often give them to him to improve. He knows a lot of the back material that I’ve forgotten. It makes me laugh as he’s pretending to be someone who doesn’t exist. Imagine how anyone could get away with that?
You’ve been doing John Shuttleworth for a few years now. How did it all start?
I’ll let you into a secret. I don’t think John Shuttleworth would be here now if it wasn’t for the Job Enterprise Allowance Scheme. In the late eighties I was doing a few tapes as John Shuttleworth and putting them on audio cassette (still John’s preferred medium). Although I was writing a few songs and earning a crust, I was on the dole. I found I could get more money if I registered my business so I got a bank account as John Shuttleworth, printed business cards and that encouraged me to start taking it a bit more seriously. Though it hurts me to say it, I have Margaret Thatcher to thank for John Shuttleworth.
There was an exciting Sheffield music scene at that time, but you were never part of it.
No, I left King Edwards school at 18, went to Manchester and that was the city I was in love with. The first gig I played in Sheffield was the Leadmill, and then the Memorial Hall then the Crucible. Look North and Calendar were there. I used to be on there all the time.
How do you write your songs?
I don’t force it. I wait for idea to arrive. Someone talked about a late decision for an early tea, so I refined it to become a late arrangement. When we had two margarines open it was my daughter who said ‘ooh, it’s a nightmare scenario’, and perhaps the most famous of my songs, was something my ex-wife said. I offered her some of my son’s meal after she’d started on her pudding, and she said the line ‘Oh, I can’t go back to savoury now’. My favourite line in that is ‘… and cabbage as an additional green’, which is a ridiculous line really.
So it’s usually the lyric first, but I often have a tune playing in my head, or at least the rhythm. I’m a real magpie. I pinch ideas off people all the time. One of my daughters is a Christmas elf in the Arndale centre, which I’ll probably give to John’s daughter Karen.
You’ve talked before about how you write songs as Graham Fellows, but they get ‘hijacked by John’.
Yes that’s true. One early song, ‘You’re Like Manchester’ is about my love for Manchester and ‘She Lives in Hope’ comes from when I went camping in Hope, and they are not really John songs.
You’ve said before you’re planning to do some songs as Graham Fellows. Is that still a project you’re pursuing?
I think it is a natural progression. When I started doing John Shuttleworth, I was trying to immerge as Graham Fellows, singer and performer. I did a few gigs around the country and I’d signed a publishing deal with Chappel Music, who were very excited by my songs as Graham Fellows, and then I created John Shuttleworth as a joke. Everyone got even more excited, and my career as Graham Fellows went onto the back burner. It’s off the back burner now and on the middle burner. It’s a big cooker. I nearly did something as Graham Fellows for Sensoria, and I did end up providing the narrator’s voice for the recent Kafka Chic radio docu-drama as part this year’s festival. When I started I thought John was 20 years older than me. I was 26, and I had John at 46. Now I’m 55 and I reckon John’s 58, so it’s only right and proper that John should take a back seat. I want to do an album as myself, and tour as ‘An Evening with Graham Fellows’, perhaps with a few musicians, chatting about John Shuttleworth and Jilted John too, perhaps even perform his solitary hit once more. I performed it at the Big Chill recently, and it went down well. There’s a whole album of Jilted John stuff from back then. I might do the ‘Paperboy Song’, which was all about my paper round in Broomhill. I used to deliver the Daily Telegraph to Sebastian Coe’s house. I miss that. Now the market’s gone out of the newspaper industry there aren’t as many kids with paper rounds. It’s all on-line now.
You were filming in Sheffield last time we met. Can we expect another film sometime soon?
It’s still a film project which I want to finish, some of which, you’re right, was filmed at dad’s sheltered accommodation in Broomhill, where John turns up to entertain the residents. Sadly my dad died, so my enthusiasm for it went, but after this tour I do want to get it finished. At the moment it’s about too many things. My relationship with my dad, my son, and even my relationship with John Shuttleworth, but it needs a better edit.