IF EVER a year had the famous scuttling off for a health check, it was 2016. For Sheffield’s finest singer-songwriter it was a time of reflection. The procession of celebrity exits, together with a health scare, led John Shuttleworth to one conclusion – showbusiness is dangerous, so this might be the time to bow out.
Will My Last Will and Tasty Mint, the current tour, really be John’s swansong? Creator Graham Fellows doesn’t confirm or deny, but says that when the trademark leather jacket comes to the end of its useful life, it might not be replaced.
That doesn’t exactly pinpoint a date. Since Shuttleworth first sat behind his keyboard and found the light bossa nova button around 1985, there have only been three jackets.
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“When we started planning the tour, John was calling this the last tour due to a health scare – athlete’s foot and a touch of sciatica – but as the year progressed it was clear that staying in showbusiness might be too risky,” says Fellows.
It may seem strange to measure a career in jackets, but for 32 years Fellows has located a succession of perfectly pressed beige slacks, polo necks that shouldn’t be held too close to the fire (mostly red in colour) and that three-quarter length brown leather jacket.
“My brother-in-law gave me the current one about 10 years ago. He bought it in a charity shop because he thought it would be trendy, but it didn’t quite work for him. It’s perfect for John.”
John’s health problems are eerily close to those experienced by Fellows, who realises that although he created John in his mid-20s, he is now fast catching up in age.
“Sometimes I think John’s life is becoming more autobiographical by the year, but at other times it seems that the more I do him, the less I know about him. I don’t really know how old John is. It’s not a character that I inhabit.”
The tour began at the beginning of January and following 39 shows culminates in two Scottish dates and a hometown finale, where his fellow Sheffielders will not only see John but a support act appearance by Fellows’ first creation, punk pop star Jilted John.
The Scottish dates are highlights, however, as Fellows has a soft spot for Scotland. Hearing that his interviewer is Dundonian, he seizes the opportunity to talk about Michael Marra.
“I discovered him quite late. I love his lyrical recklessness… some I don’t get, but one that blows my mind is All Will Be Well. The imagery contained in that is incredible. I’m thinking of covering it for a Graham Fellows album that’s in the planning.”
As a resident of Louth in Lincolnshire, he became friendly with Barbara Dickson during her years living there, which was perfect for some inside Marra chat. The humour in some of Marra’s work is clearly of interest, too, and although Fellows is dismissive of comedy songs for the sake of comedy, Shuttleworth’s songs are an integral part of a much wider world.
“In a different life, I would have been Neil Hannon-type songwriter. The songs I was writing in the beginning weren’t a million miles from some Divine Comedy records.”
The young drama student, who was destined for the RSC, was sidetracked by the success of Jilted John’s Gordon is A Moron, and started writing for his publishing deal with Chappell Music.
The Shuttleworth albums have been successful, the latest being The A1111 and Other Ones, which features songs like Mingling with Mourners, an observational paean to the almost life-affirming experience of the funeral wake, and The Toaster Song, which details the lingering agony of bidding for an item on eBay.
“John’s a struggling songwriter. Although I’ve done well with his songs, in my heart that’s me. I do have some sad and serious songs.”
To that end, Fellows has opened The Space, a residential recording studio on Rousay, a 20-minute ferry ride from Orkney's mainland. “There’s still work to be done in getting it off the ground. There have been some great recordings done, but we need to take it up to the next level to get it on the map. Admiral Fallow showed an interest but it didn’t work out for some reason.”
His obsession with that part of the world began when filming It’s Nice Up North, John Shuttleworth’s first film. “I became somewhat obsessed with Shetland. I would sit and look at the footage during a time when my relationship was disintegrating and get depressed.
“I almost bought a ruined croft house. I was doing the Edinburgh Fringe and on a few days off went up to have a look at it. I ended up sleeping there, met a farmer called Roadhouse Jimmy, and got drunk with him on whisky. I had a bit of a meltdown and had to pull out of the Fringe. It was all to do with my relationship ending and my obsession with Shetland.
“Once I recovered I decided to get somewhere a bit closer so… it was Orkney.”
Radio has been a large part of the Shuttleworth success story, from The Shuttleworths to the more recent Lounge Music with John Shuttleworth.
“Although songs are an integral part of the act, I think it’s the incidental music and atmosphere that makes it work. When I started doing John and I listened to radio, all I could picture was a group of actors around microphones clutching scripts. I thought it should be more realistic and sound more like eavesdropping.
“I had recorded Willy Russell’s Our Day Out – but enjoyed just listening to the audio and hearing how naturalistic it was. Phil Davies then told me about a Mike Leigh radio play he did and how everything was recorded in situ. It made me think that radio could be different.”
Initially, the 15-minute episodes were made at home with a portable studio. When Ken Worthington, John’s sole agent, was introduced he added another track and used varispeed for Ken’s voice, before realising that he could talk like that anyway.
While recognising that Shuttleworth’s success and his affectionate picture of the north preceded Peter Kay’s deluded club owner in Phoenix Nights and Steve Delaney’s Count Arthur Strong by many years, he’s quick to point out that everyone is influenced by something.
“For me it was Mike Leigh plays like Grown Ups and Who’s Who. They had more impact than a lot of his better-known stuff. Also, Les Blair and his TV play Four in a Million about cabaret artists working at the butt end of the business.”
Primarily, however, it was demo tapes sent to Chappell by men behind a keyboard, samba on full speed, hoping their songs would light up Tin Pan Alley.
The irony is that John has greatest hits now and the balancing act of introducing new songs into shows can be tricky. He has found a way around it. No spoilers for those attending, but they can be sure of hearing extended versions of Two Margarines, Y Reg, and I Can’t Go Back to Savoury Now.
“Requests can be strange. Someone shouted for Fleece the World, which was unusual. Mind you, Nick Park picked that on his Desert Island Discs. I don’t think Kirsty Young was that impressed, but I was delighted.”
That was bettered by John’s radio shows being chosen as a specialist subject on Mastermind, even though he only did half as well as the contestant. He also appeared on Celebrity Mastermind as Graham Fellows (specialist subject: sailor Donald Crowhurst) and came a glorious third.
“I debated whether to do it as myself or John, but his subject would need to be something like ‘The reservoirs of South Yorkshire and their relative levels’. That’s a step too far.”
John Shuttleworth, My Last Will and Tasty Mint, is at Citizens Theatre as part of the Glasgow Comedy Festival on Thursday, March 23, and at Edinburgh Queens Hall on Friday, March 24. There will also be an Orkney appearance at Stromness Town Hall on Friday, April 14.