John Shuttleworth’s last will and tasty mint!
Bad news for fans of eccentric, nerdy singer-songwriter John Shuttleworth, the man responsible for such tunes as One Foot In The Gravy and I Can’t Go Back To Savoury: his upcoming tour will probably be his last.
The good news: although his creator Graham Fellows is taking a complete break from the character, he reckons Shuttleworth will still pop up occasionally.
My half-hour chat with Graham turned into quite a surreal experience: some of the time he was interviewing me about my musical tastes and occasionally he suddenly became his fictional character Shuttleworth, bursting into song to illustrate his unique lyrics.
Graham, a comedy actor and musician, was trying to be a professional songwriter back in the 1980s when he came up with the idea of John Shuttleworth. Graham was signed to Chappell Music in London and heard a number of demo tapes which he says were “awful”.
“That inspired me to create my own demo tape which was deliberately bad but had some pathos. A lot of those tapes were like that. People were pouring their heart and soul out.
“Sometimes they’d be quite good and the people could be incredibly confident. The bits linking the songs were better than the songs themselves. That inspired me to have the same kind of confident, deluded delivery because John Shuttleworth is deluded.”
Graham thinks the first “really dreadful song” he wrote was Mary, Mary, when I met you I was wary, you said my arms were hairy, now that was unnecessary.
He admits he could not do that kind of song all the time, “so then I started writing songs which had more depth and better tunes, things like I Can’t Go Back to Savoury.
“I can’t believe 30 years on from when I started doing those demo tapes I’m still knocking it out in theatres. I’m very lucky. It’s great.”
Graham Fellows was a drama student at Manchester Polytechnic when he came to prominence in 1978 as Jilted John, singer of the novelty record of the same name. The punk anthem features the often chanted line “Gordon is a moron”.
His acting career involved roles as Paul McCartney in a play called Lennon at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield; an appearance in Coronation Street as Les Charlton, a biker chasing a young Gail Tilsley; and as Eric Sykes in the BBC4 drama Hattie in 2010.
He created John Shuttleworth in 1986. Shuttleworth has fronted several radio and television series and has usually been supported by other characters – also voiced by Graham – including his agent/manager Ken Worthington.
Shuttleworth’s current tour is called My Last Will And Tasty Mint. So what can anyone who goes to one of the tour venues expect to see?
“I usually say the same old rubbish – and I say it proudly because that’s what it will be,” says Graham candidly from his home at Louth, Lincolnshire.
“Those who know Shuttleworth won’t be disappointed and I’m hoping it’ll be a nice mix of the old songs that they know and some cracking new ones.
“It’ll include a song called the A1111 which is a real road in Lincolnshire.” He puts on Shuttleworth’s voice as he sings “Like the A1 but four times as good is the A1111”.
“It’s a sort of folky song which John is embarrassed about – he doesn’t like folk.
“Audiences love it when I mess up. They don’t worry when things go wrong and a keyboard falls off a stand.”
“When I do a 30- or 40-date tour, which this is, it’s great to mix it up a bit. Almost every night I try to accept a challenge – I’ll put one song in or not do one – you keep yourself on your toes.”
John Shuttleworth has a reputation for being clumsy and his gigs do not always go to plan, something which Graham cultivates.
“Audiences love it when I mess up. Even when I’m supposed to know the song I’ll forget the tune, forget the lyrics and stop the song. I get people coming up afterwards and they say ‘that was deliberate, wasn’t it, when you completely fell apart there?’ and I’ll say ‘No it wasn’t.’ They don’t worry when things go wrong and a keyboard falls off a stand.”
Talking of his keyboard, Graham says his Yamaha is an “integral” part of his act. “I’ve always used the same organ since 1993 because it’s got animal sounds. I don’t experiment very much with new organs because everyone knows the songs on that keyboard. It’s available on eBay for about 30 quid. They still pop up second hand.
“Every now and again I buy one. I’ve had about three. Occasionally they do pack up. They have small keys because they’re meant for kids.”
Even Graham finds it difficult to put into words what characterises a typical John Shuttleworth song: “Hopefully a catchy tune and a lyric that’s about something fairly mundane like eating your tea or the lack of cardboard in a Bounty bar.
”Sometimes the scansion won’t be that good so John will try to cram in a few too many words, some unlikely rhymes. My favourite’s probably Mary had a little lamb, green beans and new potatoes. And the middle bit goes We had a carafe of sweet white wine and Ken had a gin and tonic. There was a giraffe for children to climb though no children were on it.”
John Shuttleworth has been in the business for a long time, so does he still think he’s going to make the big time? Yes, according to Graham.
“But making it big is a relative term. One of my stories is John thinks he’s going to get a gig with Billy Joel but his agent Ken reveals he actually meant a gig in the village hall.
“John’s initial disappointment turns to excitement as he realises a village hall will have a tea urn which he can have all to himself and a designated parking space. He’s eternally optimistic and he’ll turn really boring events like cleaning his wheelie bin into something exciting.”
On the last date of the My Last Will And Tasty Mint tour John Shuttleworth will somehow be joined by Jilted John who is experiencing a bit of a revival. A couple of music festivals are lined up for Jilted John in the summer and then there will be a tour in 2018 to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the record’s success.
“There’s a lot of things to surmount before I pop my clogs.”
“It wasn’t an amazing act,” says Graham, “but that song was very memorable and there still seems to be an appetite for it. It’s just a bit of fun really. It’s very different to John Shuttleworth. I get up and posture a bit.”
Without being prompted Graham talks about his musical influences. “When I wrote Jilted John I was into Lindisfarne and things like that. I really like John Otway. I was quite eclectic – I used to like Tavares. I can remember being in discos hopelessly falling in love with some girl dancing to Heaven Must Be Missing An Angel. That song’s on my jukebox. Like Barry White it’s got some sort of primeval schmaltzy thing going on.”
He stops to admire the phrase he has come up with: “I’m going to write primeval schmaltz down – before you do!”
So what does the future hold for Graham Fellows? He says he may not do much more acting because he is afraid that he cannot remember all the words. He wants to concentrate on various musical projects and is converting a church in Orkney, Scotland into a recording studio. He also has a boat there but in typical Shuttleworth fashion he does not know how to sail.
“There’s a lot of things to surmount before I pop my clogs,” says Graham.
That triggers a memory of one of John Shuttleworth’s songs, Mingling With Mourners. “It’s silly and funny but there’s a serious message, I think.”
It is about a man called Thomas who lived to the age of 89 and was fondly remembered, judging by the hordes who went to his wake.
Graham ends our conversation as he sings: “Mingling with mourners, some sat down in corners. Others by the table eyeing up the quiche. I’ve had days more jolly but never lived more fully than when mingling with mourners remembering the deceased.”
There is just no way you can follow that.
* This article appeared in the January 2017 edition of Country Images magazine