Separating the man from the myth, the creator from his creation, is notoriously tricky in the acting profession. For Graham Fellows – responsible for honing the marvellously pithy, beautifully observed homely orator, amateur musician and accidental comedian John Shuttleworth – the line dividing real-life traits and comic invention is, perhaps understandably, slightly blurred.
“I like to think there’s very little of me in John, but friends or my kids will sometimes tell me I’m being like him. It usually happens when I’m a bit unsure of myself,” Fellows explains, his voice ever so steadily edging toward his character’s distinctive, slightly quizzical timbre, “and I start to do that intake of breath thing. That’s something I gave John rather than he gave to me. But who knows, maybe John gave it to me.”
Cue a Shuttleworth-style sharp intake of breath, coinciding with a little confusion creeping in on my part. “It confuses me too,” he confirms, eventually adding a contemplative: “It’s all a very odd thing to do.”
That said, there are worse people to resemble than Shuttleworth. Since his emergence 25 years ago the bespectacled, Austin Ambassador-driving showman has become one of comedy’s enduring individuals. Inspired in particular by Fellows’ decidedly non-cosmopolitan home town of Louth – “there’s nothing like a stroll around the indoor market to get me in the mood for a new John story” – for all his peculiarities and foibles, John remains a benevolent, thoroughly decent chap. Plus, with the possible exception of Caroline Aherne’s Mrs Merton, Shuttleworth is perhaps the only figure of fun toward whom audiences neither bear malice nor feel an ounce of sympathy for.
“He’s content and optimistic so I don’t want people to feel sorry for him. You might even envy his security and lack of self-awareness. In fact,” Fellows expands, “he’s a lot like my dad, who sadly passed away last year.”
Is that sense of contentment and optimism something that Fellows Senior and Shuttleworth shared?
“Oh no,” the 53 year-old, Sheffield-born actor explains with a laugh. “My dad used to get fixated on very John-things, like power-washing the wheelie bin. But the best thing is my dad never really got it. So despite him asking ‘are people really going to pay money to see this?’ he and John were the same as they never seemed prone to the ordinary knocks of life.”
Just then Fellows, speaking from Orkney where he’s currently constructing a recording studio, politely puts me on hold while he takes another short call as it’s “probably someone ringing about a shed”. Moments later he’s back with a fuller, suitably Shuttleworth-esque explanation.
“I brought a flat-pack shed up here and it’s remained in a cardboard box ever since. Now, there’s a lot of demand for certain large items in Orkney because of postage costs, so I’ve just sold it to a gentleman who’s going to come and pick it up at four o’clock.”
That is, frankly, an extremely Shuttleworthian anecdote; did Fellows intend it to be that way? “I just wanted that to go in for context,” he half-heartedly explains, perhaps a little sheepishly.
Fellows the man, it appears, finds it incredibly easy to slide into his Shuttleworth alter ego. “I do, but I try not to do it as it’s not healthy. Someone said last night, when I told her I’d been on tour, ‘do a bit of your act for us now’. And I just said no,” he recalls with a laugh.
But, you have to wonder, with other comedy creations such as “rock musicologist” Brian Appleton, Goole-based concrete flooring expert Dave Tordoff and late 1970s punk creation Jilted John in his acting arsenal, will the real Graham Fellows ever stand up?
“I wouldn’t mind doing a gig with just myself and a guitar, doing Jilted John songs and John Shuttleworth songs but” – he pauses for a familiar sounding intake of breath – “it takes a lot of courage to be yourself.”
John Shuttleworth: Out of Our Sheds, Crucible, Sheffield, 1 Feb; Playhouse, Liverpool, 2 Feb; City Varieties, Leeds, 12 Feb; Opera House, Buxton, 15 Feb
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