Graham Fellows tells how a bus shelter complete with sofa and TV fuelled the comedian's love of Scottish life
I'M HAVING my electricity connected tomorrow, it's very exciting," announces Graham Fellows in a tone that could be genuine enthusiasm or, equally, gentle mockery. As his alter ego, the Radio 4 favourite John Shuttleworth, Fellows has perfected the bathetic championing of cosy, humdrum suburbia with memorable tunes such as 'Two Margarines On The Go (It's a Nightmare Scenario)'. Even so, you sense there's a significant part of the 49-year-old, Sheffield-born co
Nevertheless, when he takes a break from his national tour this week, Fellows will not return home to London and his "cottage industry" of creative production – recording in a cupboard and self-distributing albums through his website. Instead, he will journey to the remote, windswept Orkney island of Rousay, and a dilapidated, disused 19th-century church that he plans to turn into a studio and artists' refuge.
"I just fell in love with the property because it's a really tumbledown old building," he explains. "I only bought it this year and haven't spent much time there. But everyone seems nice."
By decamping to Orkney to seek creative isolation and inspiration, Fellows follows the precedent of Will Self, who spent several months writing there, as well as on Jura, where George Orwell composed much of Nineteen Eighty-Four. Under the pseudonym Jilted John, Fellows briefly became a real pop star in 1978 while still a drama student at Manchester Polytechnic, releasing an eponymous spoof punk record about a bitter, spurned teenager that climbed to No4 in the UK chart. As the completely distinct Shuttleworth, he has supported the likes of Blur and Belle and Sebastian on tour. But "it may end up just being a recording studio for myself to be honest," he admits.
"I'm not really a businessman and it could take three years. But I will definitely be touting for business. It'll be very tempting not to do anything for a few months and, because my kids are in Lincolnshire, I won't be dallying for too long. But I've got into sailing recently and Rousay is brilliantly placed to explore all of the other Orkney Isles and, who knows, maybe even make my way to the Shetlands."
Fellows' love affair with the Scottish islands began with a performance in the Shetlands in 2003. His family wasn't quite as enamoured, but he was inspired by a bus shelter on the most northerly island, Unst. Complete with a sofa, a TV and a stuffed parrot – "a cosy little place to wait" – he saw it as epitomising the islanders' "niceness".
He subsequently returned with the acclaimed photographer Martin Parr to shoot It's Nice Up North, in which Shuttleworth attempts to prove that people are nicer the further north you travel. The film was frequently very funny (a more respectful precursor to Borat, it was snubbed by the 2005 Edin burgh Film Festival because the documentaries quota had been filled ), with the locals comically puzzled by the bespectacled stranger in their midst. Unfortunately, the self-confessed "bloody-minded" Fellows and equally single-minded Parr suffered "creative differences" during the shoot, with the fall-out occasionally spilling on to the screen. Less amusingly though, in the 18 months that Fellows spent editing the Shetland footage and becoming obsessed with the landscape, he started feeling depressed and his relationship with Kathryn, the mother of his three children, fell apart. At the 2006 Edinburgh Fringe, Fellows endured persistent memory loss and was forced to cancel his run, though he's since recovered with the help of hypnotherapy.
His show at Edinburgh's Queen's Hall next month is his first live appearance in the capital since then, though he did screen test Southern Softies, a sequel to It's Nice Up North at this year's Fringe. Shot in the Channel Islands and working on the premise that people are softer the further south you travel, Fellows plans to release it on the film festival circuit next summer. As with its 10,000-budget predecessor, he hopes it modestly earns its outlay back a few times over on DVD and abandons him to cult obscurity. "Nobody in Rousay knows who I am," he reflects. "One or two might know John but they don't recognise me. That's the main thing for me, being able to walk around without being recognised, because I used to hate that as Jilted John. It's not conducive to being a creative person who draws on life. Being a pop star is when you're really cocooned and cut off." v
John Shuttleworth plays the Queen's Hall, Edinburgh, December 3 www.shuttleworths.co.uk
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