The drive to Louth in Lincolnshire has taken me five hours. I’ve come to interview Graham Fellows – comedian, actor, one-hit wonder – but it isn’t going well. His mind keeps wandering. As do his legs. He lives in a rambling old house – a former veterinary surgery – and seems unable to stay in the same room for more than five minutes. As he lopes distractedly from his ping-pong room to his kitchen, his mongrel dog, Molly, follows him. His seven-year-old daughter, Alice, who is off school because she has a cough, follows the dog.
An egg-timer rings, and Fellows wanders off to collect his other daughter from school. He won’t be long, he says. Would I mind babysitting for a while? Alice offers me a mince-pie and leads me over to the window to show me three brown hens pottering around the garden. These, she says, are named after her father’s three sisters: Lorna, Sally and Clare. Two of the sisters are older than Daddy; Clare is younger, and is married to Ainsley Harriot, the television chef.
We move to the drawing-room. I sit on the sofa, and Molly ambles over to lie across me. Molly is three, Alice points out. And she is a cross between a Labrador and a sheepdog. There is a lodger in the house called Rachel who works with difficult children and she, too, has a dog, called Pye. Alice spells it out for me: p-y-e. She now starts bringing me class photographs from her school, Kidgate Primary. ‘That’s Mrs Hall. That’s me. This is our teacher, Mr Bean. I’m in class 2H and that stands for Mrs Haughton’s class in year two. This is my sister Suzannah (s-u-z-a-n-n-a-h). She’s five and was born in a swimming-pool. My mummy is called Kathryn and she is a teacher. That’s Daddy’s mummy on the wall.’ She points to a black-and-white photograph. ‘She died ten and a half years ago. You can tell it’s an old fashioned picture because of the colours.’
Alice plays ‘Chopsticks’ on the piano for me and talks over her shoulder: ‘I once listened to one of Daddy’s shows, but not all of it, because it was my bathtime. My favourite television programme is Cow and Chicken.’
In the world of Graham Fellows – as in that of his comic alter ego, John Shuttleworth – all is not quite as it seems; the axis is at a slight tilt. It is appropriate that part of this interview should be conducted not with Fellows but with his seven-year-old daughter; and that this part should be the most coherent.
As the 39-year-old comedian points out, such success as he has enjoyed has been soundly based on failure. As a 19-year-old drama student at Manchester Polytechnic, he created the anorak-wearing punk-rocker Jilted John. His one hit – with its memorable chorus ‘Gordon is a moron/Gordon is a mo-o-ron’ – reached number four in the charts. He can still remember the three acts that kept him from the number one slot: 10 cc with ‘Dreadlock Holiday’, John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John with ‘You’re the One That I Want’, and Boney M with ‘Brown Girl in the Ring’. Jilted John was once the prize in a tabloid competition. The girl who won got to have a fish-and-chip supper with him in Leeds.
For the next 15 years, Fellows was partially successful as an out-of-work actor – his record of failure being broken briefly when he was cast in a bit part on Coronation Street. After this, he become an out-of-work musician, only to botch things by landing himself a recording contract in the late Eighties. To defuse the formality of the signing ceremony, the producer played some of the awful demo tapes sent in over the years. Inspired, Fellows recorded similar demos for his own amusement and began sending them in, anonymously, to the producer, who guessed who was behind them and insisted that Fellows forget about his serious song-writing and take up comedy instead.
So it was that ‘John Shuttleworth – versatile singer/ songwriter’ was born. Shuttleworth, a 56-year-old Yorkshireman, used to work demonstrating audio equipment for Comet, but now – dressed in his trademark turtleneck, leather car-coat and National Health glasses – he tours the northern cabaret circuit with his Yamaha organ. His dream is to persuade Norway to perform his love song ‘Pigeons in Flight (I Wanna See You Tonight)’ as its Eurovision Song Contest entry.
What Fellows tries to do with Shuttleworth, he says, is celebrate the mundane by showing it in relief. He is good at this, having Mike Leigh’s ear for naturalistic dialogue, and Alan Bennett’s for folksy pedantry. John Shuttleworth never just eats a chocolate, for instance: he has a Wagon Wheel from the vending machine at the swimming-baths. He goes on mini-breaks, shops in garden centres and eats in carveries. Shuttleworth, explains Fellows, doesn’t realise he is funny. He would never understand, for instance, why Jarvis Cocker and Reeves and Mortimer are his most devoted fans.
While John Shuttleworth has proved a hit with theatre audiences, as well as with Radio 4 listeners (he has a half-hour show on the station), his series for BBC2 (500 Bus Stops) and his one-off television special (Europigeon) were, according to Fellows, both pretty hopeless. And, consistent with his pattern of partial success, when Fellows (as John Shuttleworth) was nominated for a Perrier Comedy Award at the Edinburgh Festival in 1992 he found himself up against Steve Coogan (as Alan Partridge). Fellows has never quite achieved the transition from comedy cult to commercial success, partly because he hates to play the publicity game. He says he’s often asked to appear on such programmes as the Des O’Connor Show, but just can’t bring himself to do them.
Fellows’s predicament can best be summed up in a line from a Bob Dylan song: ‘There’s no success like failure, and failure’s no success at all.’ His character, meanwhile, can best be defined by recasting his own lyrics: ‘Graham Fellows is like Manchester, he has strange ways.’
When he returns from the school run, he makes a lemon-curd sandwich for Suzannah and takes me into his makeshift studio. It’s like a Yamaha organ graveyard. Aged keyboards are propped against all four soundproofed walls. The floor is carpeted with electrical cables and yards of quarter-inch tape, unspooled and tangled like brown spaghetti. There is a multi-track tape recorder, several full ashtrays and dirty coffee mugs, a mastering machine and hundreds of DAT tapes.
‘I don’t know what I’m doing half the time and I wish I had a script. This last series of Shuttleworth completely did my head in. These voices in my headphones. In my head.’ Fellows is feeling edgy and paranoid. He says he hasn’t slept for 38 hours. He rubs his face and adds, in his unhurried northern burr, that he is also feeling numb and disorientated. He has what he describes as a period face – dimpled chin, insomniac eyes and a dirty-blond fringe. On the strength of these features, his ambition is to be cast in a television period drama: an angry medieval peasant in an episode of Cadfael, perhaps.
He hasn’t slept because he’s been up all night editing the latest episode of Radio Shuttleworth (‘serving the Sheffield region, and a little bit further even’, as its jingle goes) which is due to be broadcast on Radio 4 at 6.30 this evening. It’s not that it’s a topical comedy show, just that its creator is a perfectionist who can’t resist making last-minute changes and so produces it later and later each week. Today, he has sent the recording of the show to Broadcasting House in a car. A friend happened to be driving to London, and anyway Fellows doesn’t trust the technology that would allow him to transmit the programme ‘down the wire’. His producers at the BBC will just have to hope the traffic isn’t too bad.
As he waits to hear if the tape has arrived in time, Fellows experiments with a Latin rhythm on the keyboard. Then a techno sound. Then a harp, and a steel drum, then a country-and-western slide guitar. He slips into the lugubrious, pancake-flat vowels of John Shuttleworth: ‘It seems simple, single finger playing, but you’ve still got to know which finger to put down.’ Molly walks in and starts barking. Alice follows and starts singing. Fellows finds a switch which produces the sound of a rap singer saying, ‘Peace’. He hits it several times and looks delighted. ‘Oof! Very good sentiment, that.’
Although he is not married, Fellows refers to Kathryn as his wife. Petite and dark, she arrives home and asks him if he got his programme away on time. When he says he is still waiting for the BBC to ring, she says: ‘Couldn’t they just use one of your old programmes?’ He gives me a look which says: my wife doesn’t understand me.
A few hours have passed, a phone call has confirmed that the tape arrived in London and Fellows, now in a much jollier cast of mind, is on his second pint. We are sitting in the Masons, a pub he likes because it reminds him of a waiting-room in a railway station. He enjoys watching the locals. ‘Here’s Norman,’ he whispers, ‘the travel agent. In a moment he will turn round and say hello.’ Norman does so. ‘Hello, Norman,’ Fellows replies and then adds in a whisper again. ‘See? One big happy family, Louth.’ The estate agent tells me that he has just been listening to Fellows’s programme on the radio. He adds that Louth is home to another celebrity, Barbara Dixon.
As Fellows gives a running commentary about the lives of the people in the pub, it becomes clear that he regards them as extras in the film of his life – which probably has the working title The In-Joke. I realise from the enigmatic half-smile that he has decided I, too, should have a cameo for the day. ‘The drama there is in every single moment of your life…’ he trails off wistfully. ‘I love watching characters like John Shuttleworth. Steady, practical older men who sit on their emotions but want to embrace life at the same time.’
Before this theme can be explored, he’s off on another tangent. After his mother’s death in 1987, Fellows says, he became clinically depressed – convinced that his life was futile. He saw a psychotherapist, and decided to become a milkman with Express Dairies. ‘I waxed lyrical in the interview about how I wanted to serve the community. They turned me down. I was really offended. So I applied to another dairy instead.’
Graham Fellows enjoyed the milkman’s life at first. ‘It was the golden age of milk delivery because it was just before people started buying from supermarkets. I went on a week-long course with 40 other prospective milkmen and we had to sit in front of a man with a baton who pointed at a blackboard and said things like, ‘Red top is the homo, got that? Homogenised. What’s the fat content of semi-skimmed? You there, at the back.’
His days as a milkman weren’t an unqualified success. He took to drinking the milk and, because he was never given his own regular round, he couldn’t strike up a rapport with the customers. ‘My money was 50 quid short each week because some of the regulars had some fiddle going which I could never work out. They would dock it from my wages.’ Hmmm.
It is difficult to get a hold of where Fellows’s comic personae end and he begins. With a straight face he will tell you things about himself which sound plausible enough at the time, but afterwards you wonder if he was indulging in self-parody. Jilted John wasn’t his first brush with fame, for instance. As an infant, Fellows won a pretty baby photograph competition. The prize was a fridge. He had an advantage over the other entrants because his father was an ‘incorporated photographer’. That, at least, is what the nameplate outside the family home in Sheffield said.
‘I often wondered what it meant but it was only when my father retired that I thought to ask him. It simply meant that he was self-employed – but he thought it sounded more impressive. He sort of pottered along, my dad. He was a bit weird because nothing really touched him. He could watch news coverage of some horrific disaster and be completely unmoved by it. As though he were a Martian. I’m a bit like that. An observer rather than a participant. Disengaged.’ His father is still alive, and Fellows says when he rings he never asks directly how he is. ‘He will say something like, “How are those hinges I put up on that door?”‘ His father’s main pleasure in life now, says Fellows, is naturism. He has a caravan in the East Midlands which he goes to with his new girlfriend, Graham’s old English teacher.
Really? Fellows doesn’t explain why, but he adds that his grandfather used to go to auctions and come away with a thousand bars of Fry’s Chocolate Cream or 500 bottles of Camp Coffee. These he would give to the young Graham to sell to the other children at school. ‘I was a bit of a bully at infant school,’ Fellows recalls. ‘Nasty. I used to extort ginger biscuits from the other children. I was demoted from the Cubs, from being a sixer to nothing. For bullying. My position became untenable. I had to leave.’
He went on, he says, to breed fancy mice for competitions in Yorkshire; for much of the rest of his leisure time he would tape his voice and play it back at odd speeds. At comprehensive school he became introspective but discovered a talent for fighting. ‘I was best fighter in school. No, second best. Kevin Scott was best. His dad used to beat him daily with a belt. I’m a shy bully. That’s why I only feel confident after a couple of pints. And why I can only perform when I’m hiding behind a character.’
Because Fellows’s mother was a marriage guidance counsellor, she was always asking him how he felt about things, trying to analyse him. The trouble was that she, like his father, was emotionally repressed. And this was why Graham didn’t feel particularly close to her. ‘She died of liver cancer, which is a horrible way to go because you shrivel up and go yellow. It was the first big death in our family and we weren’t very open about it. I certainly didn’t talk to her about her dying. Kept saying, “You’ll pull through, mother,” so it meant I didn’t get to say goodbye. I was playing my guitar and singing to her when she died: “Golden slumbers kiss your eye”.’
Here, I think, he is being earnest. But when he adds that the pain of his mother’s death was rendered worse because it followed two months after the death of his dog, a Great Dane, I’m thrown into doubt again.
Fellows’s manager, Richard Bucknall, tells me that his client has a morbid fascination with cemeteries. He wanted to buy a house alongside one, but Kathryn put her foot down. The humour of some of the Shuttleworth songs is certainly very black: the chorus to one jaunty tune is, ‘My wife died in 1970/ Peacefully in her sleep/Though she’s just a distant memory/Occasional tears I weep.’
When I go to buy the next round, Fellows talks into my tape-recorder. He records a little flight of fancy – I discover later – about my being a keen fellwalker and a DIY enthusiast. He suggests we go on for a curry, because he doesn’t get many visitors from London and he wants to make the most of me. When I protest that I have a five-hour drive back, he goes to the pay phone and orders a takeaway to collect on his way home.
But he can’t bear to let me go away hungry. Just as I am leaving he asks: ‘Do you keep chickens?’ I shake my head, he disappears back into the kitchen and reappears carrying an egg for me to take back. It is carefully wrapped in clingfilm.