Graham Fellows was 26 when he created a character that, he jokes, ‘stole his youth’.
It was the mid-1980s and he had just released an album under his own name called Love At The Hacienda, but assuming the richly-drawn persona of John Shuttleworth – a middle-aged, retired security guard turned singer-songwriter who performs whimsical numbers on a tinny Yamaha keyboard – changed all his musical plans.
Sheffield-born Graham had tried character comedy before, scoring a chart hit as stroppy teenager Jilted John, but Shuttleworth has seen him through multiple tours, albums, radio programmes and even a TV series, 500 Bus Stops.
But now he is setting his best-known alter ego, and his unchanging wardrobe of polo-neck jumper, fawn slacks and leather jacket, aside – for the time being, at least. He is touring a new show, Completely out of Character, as plain Graham Fellows, and has recorded his first solo album in more than 30 years.
The LP, Weird Town, has shades of the familiar. A glance at the tracklist reveals such song titles as Hum of the Fridge, Car That Makes a Bus Sound, The Man Who Sits in a Chair and A Night In Beverley, and the press blurb promises music ‘infused with mournful pad chords thumped out on a gasping harmonium.’
“I do still like songs about little things, rather than big subjects. I don’t tend to write a song about nuclear war; I write a song about a bit of paper on the floor in the Army General’s office,” he admits, adding with perfect timing: “I haven’t done that.”
Details matter to Graham. It’s a busy time and he has to delay our interview the first time I call as he remembers he’s going for a haircut.
“It was a nice cut actually, the hairdresser’s was very interesting. There was a big boxer dog lying in the main seat where the customers are supposed to sit and it didn’t intend to move.”
Speaking to him in non-Shuttleworth mode takes some getting used to. His accent is more refined and less gruff, and he speaks about John in the third person but can’t help slipping into his voice without warning.
“It’s a collection of songs that are not really Shuttleworth songs,” he says of Weird Town. “There are slight crossovers occasionally, because some of the songs I’ve written for myself I ended up giving to John to sing. I thought he’d have a better chance with them than me, which sounds a bit odd.”
Love at the Hacienda appears to have developed a cult following over the years. It’s been reissued on CD and has gained popularity in Japan and America among aficionados of 1980s indie music. The belated follow-up addresses marital break-ups and other personal travails, but the penultimate track, I Had An Egg With My Son, sounds less deep. “That’s just about having a boiled egg with my son one morning.”
He’s always jotting down ideas, and usually starts his songwriting with the lyric. “I tend to wait for a bit of inspiration. The idea of sitting down at a piano with no ideas is a bit naff.”
The title song of the new album is about a former girlfriend.
“We went for a walk and she was being a bit weird, and we happened to be walking around a bit of town I always think is weird, where the 30mph speed limit starts and on the other side it has the national speed limit where it goes to 60mph. It’s kind of a hinterland. So the lyric is ‘It was the weird part of the weird town where the 30 miles per hour speed limit starts and brambles cover discarded prams and old motor parts.’ It’s quite a poetic little number, that one, with progressive rock overtones.”
He is viewing the tour as an experiment, having mostly booked small venues, and is doing two sold-out nights at the tiny Lantern Theatre in Nether Edge next month.
“I’m doing this show not because I want to stop doing John Shuttleworth. I’m doing it because I’d like to carry on doing him, if that makes sense. I just want to do something different. The character is there, he’s not going to go away. He’s got 50,000 Twitter followers.”
On tour, Graham plans to talk about his past work – not forgetting permed West Midlands ‘musicologist’ Brian Appleton – and his experiences of growing up in Sheffield.
The former King Edward VII pupil originally wanted to be an actor; he took part in school plays, studied drama and had a role in Coronation Street as Les Charlton, a young biker smitten with married Gail Platt.
“I don’t really consider myself an actor any more because I can’t remember lines very well,” he says with a sigh. “That’s one of the major prerequisites. I think I prefer to be on my own, on stage, doing a character, than in a big group where you have to say lines in the right order. I prefer to say lines in the wrong order.”
Suddenly, he says: “Hey, that Jamie musical’s doing well, isn’t it?”
He means Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, the show that started at the Crucible and is now playing at London’s Apollo Theatre.
“I was up for one of the parts in that but didn’t go to the audition. I knew it would stop me doing my LP and my tour. I just didn’t think it was me. It was nice to be checked out for it. I’m not sure I had the right discipline to be an actor.”
In his early days he did amateur dramatics with the Lantern’s Dilys Guite Players, of which he is now a patron.
He went back recently to see a production of Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor and left impressed. “It was really good. There was a lot of confidence and exuberance. The theatre is clearly thriving under my patronage,” he says, tongue in cheek.
“I don’t have to do anything, to be honest. I just turn up to the odd show and have a glass of free wine. And meet the Lady Mayoress and tell her she shouldn’t be chopping the trees down.”
Graham is firmly on the side of those who believe Sheffield’s street trees are being wrongly felled by the city council and its contractor, Amey.
“They’re a bunch of crooks aren’t they, that’s what it seems to me. The population should be up in arms but they’re not.”
As John Shuttleworth, he changed one of his songs, Save The Whale, to Save The Trees, and sang it at the launch of a fundraising beer. The chorus ran thus: ‘Save the trees, the rustling of the leaves, stop the chainsaw, don’t you think we ought to save the trees.’
Graham is also a patron of Ben’s Centre, a Sheffield charity for street drinkers and homeless people. He has lived in Louth, Lincolnshire, for many years, but still has a sister in Broomhill.
Did growing up in Sheffield colour his performing career? In replying, he adopts Shuttleworth’s voice again.
“They say those seven hills make you very introspective, because they’re all around and you find yourself looking inward.”
More seriously, he says: “I grew up and lived in Sheffield until I was 18, so it’s affected me. I’m not saying it’s affected me any more than if I’d grown up anywhere else.
“I’ve always been drawn to the west side - Fulwood and the posh bits. I used to fall in love in Crookes and Walkley and went on bike rides to the Ladybower reservoir. I tend to use those places in my head when I’m doing John Shuttleworth, he talks about going to the plague village of Eyam, the bits on the doorstep.”
His parents fostered in him a love of nature and the countryside, taking him out to Forge Dam and the Peak District.
“Hathersage – lovely, beautiful. I live out in boring Lincolnshire. But in a nice bit, on the edge of the hills, the Wolds. There’s shades of Sheffield there, really.”
Graham, 58, has a son who lives with him in Louth, a daughter in Manchester and another in London. “They’re all over the place.”
Ten years ago he bought a derelict church on the Orkney Isles, intending to open a recording studio, a project that is still ‘hobbling along’.
“I rent it out for holidays, really, at the moment. My big dream of having lots of bands up there is very difficult. But it’s a lovely place. You’ve got to really live there, so you can be hands on.”
One of the next Shuttleworth ventures is a book ‘in John’s words, talking about the world’. The fictional performer has aged very slowly, he remarks.
“He was 46 when he started and I guess now he’s about 60. I’ve just about caught him up. I’m not quite sure what his kids are doing or how old they are, that’s why I talk less about them and more about him having two margarines on the go in the fridge, things like that.”
Staying with that train of thought, at heart he knows Shuttleworth is his bread and butter. “But I’ve got other musical ideas and hopefully another character inside me as well. It’s silly to keep trotting out the same things without a little break.”
Weird Town is out now on Boss Tuneage Records. Visit www.grahamfellowsmusic.com for details.
‘Mark Rylance was my lodger’
Graham Fellows’ new album contains a typically offbeat song about buying a packet of bread sauce with Oscar-winning Shakespearean actor Sir Mark Rylance.
“He was my lodger when I lived in Manchester,” says Graham.
“We went out to Tesco’s to buy some ingredients for a Sunday roast, and bought a chicken and stuffing, and I picked up a bread sauce sachet and he grabbed it off me and said ‘What the hell, what’s this? My God, bread sauce mix, I didn’t know this existed.’
“I said ‘What, are you mad?’ It just stuck in my head, it amused me. Mark Rylance Is My Lodger, it’s called.”
On a past Shuttleworth jaunt – the One Foot In The Gravy tour – T-shirts stained with gravy were sold on the merchandise stall. Will he be following suit this time? “What, some mini bread sauces with Mark Rylance’s face on? That’s a brilliant idea.”