Comedian and actor Graham Fellows is best known as his alter ego, keyboard-playing northerner John Shuttleworth. But his new documentary film project, Father Earth, sees him step out of the familiar beige slacks and trademark leather jacket into his own skin.
Fellows’ career has seen him perform a hit single on Top of the Pops at the age of 19 as Jilted John, before settling into character comedy with his genius creation John Shuttleworth, a retired Sheffield-based security guard who composes songs about the mundane minutia of life on his trusty Yamaha PSS. As Shuttleworth, Graham has made TV shows, two films, It’s Nice up North and Southern Softies, entertained audiences with numerous theatre tours and his sitcom The Shuttleworths has become a 30-year BBC Radio 4 staple. Soon to be the longest-running radio sitcom of all time.
With healthy measures of heartbreak and hilarity, his latest film, Father Earth, stars Graham Fellows as himself, and sees him attempt to help save the planet by converting a derelict church in the wilds of Orkney into an eco-friendly recording studio. It also features cameos from John Shuttleworth, Sooty and Sweep and most poignantly footage of Graham with his late father Derek as they tackle the long drive to go and see the church.
Currently on a national screening tour, we got the chance to sit down to speak with Graham about the reason for making his new film, how playing John Shuttleworth for over thirty years has taken its toll on him and why soon in a small way we may all be thanking Vladimir Putin.
The MALESTROM: Father Earth is a very honest, heartfelt film and shows a different side to you than fans may have seen previously.
Graham Fellows: People have mentioned about the honesty and the frankness and at times I’ve thought is it was wise to do something so personal? What happened was I made a film from the stuff I’ve shot over the years, but particularly in the periods of 2010 and 2020. Doing the more recent stuff made me realise I could finish the film. The resolution was originally a bit too bleak with a bore hole being drilled at my place in Orkney as a metaphor for man’s destruction of the planet. I was watching it the other night thinking this is very contemporary with what’s going on – fracking having becoming a big issue again.
I’d moved to Leicester in 2020 just before covid and a guy asked me if he could film me in a theatre and it was that filming which made me think I could pair it with my footage that had been gathering dust and carve something out. Then covid came about which was a nice little twist, and then my son came up to Orkney with me and I managed to pull together the film, but it wasn’t easy.
The MALESTROM: Anything with that much time in between filming much make the process of pulling a cohesive piece of work together difficult?
Graham Fellows: Yes. But I’m pleased with it. It’s the film I wanted. We had one review that said the film doesn’t really say anything about climate change and eco matters and in a way, that’s missing the point. The point is we all want to save the world, but we get overtaken by our personal loves, then we can somehow justify not getting involved with Greenpeace say, more than making a monthly donation. Or not reading more books about the situation and getting involved because we’re too busy. But now I’m touring this film, I feel more energised to get involved and try and do a bit more to save the world!
The MALESTROM: Aside from looking at the environmental issues, the film is about your relationship with Derek your father and themes of loss with you having split with your partner at the time. Is that fair to say?
Graham Fellows: Nothing’s delivered with a hammer blow. It’s all quite subtle and suggested. But yes, it is about loss. It’s also about getting a bit depressed and becoming inactive through that depression. Because I sort of gave up on doing up the church in Orkney.
You could argue I could have made it a bit more factual, explaining every process, but in the end I almost wanted to wash over people and make them think about their own lives. Yet, ultimately it became a homage to my dad, wanting to document him. I’ve got three sisters and they loved the film, mainly because there’s footage of our dad in it.
The MALESTROM: Of course. He seemed like a fantastic character. And you seemed to have a really good relationship.
Graham Fellows: Definitely. Although there were one or two arguments that I cut out (laughs).
The MALESTROM: I read much of the film was filmed on mobile phones?
Graham Fellows: I had to film myself on a phone or one of those Flip cameras. I was doing a lot of that backstage talking to myself as John. I had dozens of those bits, but I put in the ones that worked best for the film. One of the hardest things making the film was wading through all that footage and just trying to assemble them to make a story.
The MALESTROM: The scenes with John in the mirror were some of the highlights. Some almost seemed like a father speaking to his son, there was that dynamic.
Graham Fellows: It was meant to be mirroring my dad and me. And at the end I tell my son George off a bit. Ultimately it’s called Father Earth, the title presenting itself. Someone commented at a screening that there’s no women in it. And that’s right, it is about fathers and sons. I think they might be putting pressure on me to make a film about my daughters for the next one.
The MALESTROM: That’s it. Just going back to that mirror scene. It also felt reminiscent of Raging Bull. It was very filmic.
Graham Fellows: One of my favourite films. Maybe that was a bit of an influence, I hadn’t really thought about it. It’s just something I got quite adept at doing. My favourite one was one from 2010 when they almost have a fight and John in the mirror says give us a hug. It’s like there were two people there. It’s a bit schizoid.
The MALESTROM: One thing that came through from watching the film was that playing John Shuttleworth for so long had taken its toll on you. Having to be someone else for so long can’t have been an easy thing to do?
Graham Fellows: No, it had taken its toll and I was aware of that. I’d split up with the mother of my three kids and I was in the middle of this big tour. I was being quite creative, but I was also fed up. Some part of me said try and document this.
When you’re doing a gig, I can be playing John, but at the same time you’re also watching how you’re doing, how the gig’s going. When I was filming myself in the mirror I’m trying to be natural and real as myself, but at the same time I’m thinking of John’s performance. And thinking I’ve got to make this look good.
I also wanted to document how the relationship of a character comedian worked with his creation, because it can become complex. Especially when you’ve been doing it as long as I have. There’s that contrast in 2020 when you see how happy I am being John. When I came back after lockdown he was more fun. It’s like anything, if you do it for too long it gets a bit tiring.
The MALESTROM: As your alter ego – did you ever feel he’d taken you over in some way and you had to recapture your own self?
Graham Fellows: Yes. And I think that’s what that clip where he says give me a hug was about. I’m presenting John being light and saying “where’s me mint cake”. And I’m saying my dad is dying, leave me alone. At the same time I’m reliant on him as he’s my source of income. It’s quite complex when you analyse it.
The MALESTROM: Did you feel exposed taking centre stage in this film instead of as John?
Graham Fellows: I think I have exposed myself; I think that’s what the film is about. I’ve done two films as John, It’s Nice up North and Southern Softies, they were fun, but I thought let’s try something a bit different.
I don’t think I’m the most dynamic person on camera, I think my dad was far more engaging and funny. For me he’s the star of the film, but I think John’s a very essential comic interlude. And my friend Kevin the eco-sceptic, I loved his philosophical idea that when we die, the earth dies. Which you have to think about, that could be some people’s viewpoint.
The MALESTROM: Similar to the ‘if a tree falls in the forest’ notion …
Graham Fellows: Yes. It’s that. He’s wrong and then he admits it. I say, well I’ve got children and I want them to have a happier world to live in. He said, oh you’ve got me there.
There’s lots of little messages in the film and that’s why I’ve enjoyed doing the Q & A’s to spread the word about not flushing the toilet to save water and other things, like, and it might be slightly controversial with the awful fuel poverty crisis we have now, but I personally am going to try and keep my bill about the same. I plan to wrap up well, turn the temperature down and just get used to existing colder. Obviously it’s easy for me to say this as a bloke who’s fit and well. But that’s what I plan to do.
We’ve had it too easy for too long, if you think about our ancestors 200 hundred years ago, there was no glass in the windows, so they must have been cold all the time. Then you come onto the idea that we have to insulate homes better. The government are appalling, they’re pulling the plug on all the good schemes.
The MALESTROM: With the church in Orkney, how did buying that renovation project come about?
Graham Fellows: I went up to Shetland a few times and made a film up there and also made a few friends. I decided to try Orkney and went there with a girlfriend at the time, I didn’t exactly fall in love with it, but I fell in love with this church that was for sale and I got it for 50 grand, then I got a grant eventually to do it up. It was the property that took me there.
It’s too far away. Without an electric car you’re gobbling up C02 in getting there, whatever way you do it. The only way to square that for me, is either to live there or spend really long periods there, which so far I’ve not managed with work commitments. But I’ve just finished my last John Shuttleworth tour for the foreseeable future, and I plan to record a Graham Fellows song album up there in Spring and spend a few moths up there.
Weirdly, so far I’ve got the most joy from being up there by doing DIY. My father would be proud of me as he was a bit of a DIY man. Pointing the roof of these massive Orkney slates. Cladding the static caravan so it looks better. George my son has been helping me. I guess it’s just mindfulness, taking you away from your worries. You’re in the moment.
I planted trees that were little twigs and now they’re ten feet tall. People are very proud of growing trees in Orkney, because it’s so hard as they get blown over. I’ve also built a little boat house by the sea and I’m planning to make that totally self-sufficient. That’ll have a wind turbine and solar panels, so when it’s finished it’ll be totally carbon neutral with no impact on the environment.
The MALESTROM: Did someone instil the message of not wasting anything in you?
Graham Fellows: My mum who sadly died when I was only 27, was very into the environment. We grew up being eco aware. She was almost a vegetarian; she’d grow most of her own veg. So, these issues have always been on my mind.
I wish the government would say things like it’s illegal to sit in the car with your engine idling or stop flushing the toilet when you’ve had a wee, but it sounds a bit impolite, so they’re not going to say it. The energy crisis is going to see everyone turning their thermostats down, at the end of the day, and this may be overly optimistic, but we may look back and thank Putin … well just slightly.
The MALESTROM: You never know. One of the threads running through the film is about your G-Wiz electric car. The message coming out of that seemed to be that they’re a little bit rubbish.
Graham Fellows: Well the truth is they are a bit rubbish, but only because of the lack of infrastructure, the lack of investment. I’m probably like millions of people who want to get an electric car, but look at the price, the waiting list and then look on Facebook Marketplace and see an old petrol car that’s a good runner and go for that. There is an equation here because a brand-new electric car is going to use a lot of C02 to create all the materials. They say you have to run it for around five years to get that back.
The MALESTROM: And replacement batteries can cost more than the cars …
Graham Fellows: Exactly. And to run an old car modestly, because we can all drive less, that can be more environmentally friendly than buying a brand-new car. A system exists in Asia for motorbikes where you go to the garage and they just swap your battery. That to me sounds totally logical and better than all these charging cables which are worth a lot and get stolen. With the environment, every little disaster that happens is pushing us a bit closer to realising we have to act. Let’s all act now, even if it’s in small ways.
The MALESTROM: You mentioned before that your last tour may have been your last for the foreseeable as John Shuttleworth. The film definitely felt like a winding down for John as a character. Was that intentional?
Graham Fellows: I think so. Never say never. But i’ve kind of run out of steam I would say with the character. He’s probably an eco-sceptic himself. I have said environmental messages in my shows in the past, but he has to get it wrong. One of the gags was (in John’s voice),
“Building new motorways is surely a good thing, because it gives much swifter access to areas of outstanding natural beauty.”
So, that’s how he would approach it.
The MALESTROM: There must be pride in everything you’ve done as John? For one The Shuttleworths becoming the longest-running radio sitcom of all time – entering its 30th year of the series – that’s a big achievement.
Graham Fellows: That’s very kind of you. They feel like small achievements. I’ve always seen The Shuttleworths and in fact everything I do as a cottage industry. I paint on a small canvas and I don’t use much paint.
It’s that thing where you’re combining making a living with doing something that actually interests you. And if you can be genuinely inspired by that and think it’s great work, then your happy. I’ve got two more half hour Shuttleworths episodes going out on Radio 4 at the end of November, and when they go out that will make it the longest-running radio sitcom of all time.
The MALESTROM: That is a significant achievement.
Graham Fellows: I am quite pleased with that. It started with me mucking about on a tape recorder doing little voices. The beauty is now I’ve almost ended up back where I started, cause if you go on my website you can see John sells a BAG. Which is an acronym of a Bespoke Audio Greeting. People can buy a message from John and Ken. I do it on a mobile phone in one take with Ken in the background and it’s seamless if I do so say so myself. I take great pride in doing those little messages (laughs).
The MALESTROM: Talking of achievements, you got to work with Sooty and Sweep, now that’s something?
Graham Fellows: That’s it. When I got that job, Richard Cadell, who’s a lovely man, let me film when they were filming, and I knew that was some interesting and iconic footage. I mean they are amazing! When I grew up Sooty and Sweep were all around. So that’s the bit of glamour in the film.
The MALESTROM: What do you want your audience to get out of the film? Is it that message of us all doing our own small part?
Graham Fellows: I think it is. The other problem with programmes about the environment is they can make you feel a bit powerless and deflated. For years its seemed so hopeless. The icebergs are melting and we’re all going to die, there’s nothing we can do. But there is something we can do, we can all act in small ways. We can do it, and we can put pressure on the politicians. On my island in Orkney we have a community wind turbine that earns money and exports to the grid. Things like communities owning their own power are very exciting ideas.
The MALESTROM: We always like to finish by asking for a piece of wisdom. Does anything come to mind?
Graham Fellows: I worry a lot. It can keep me awake at night. When you think about it, worries always change every couple of days, so don’t worry. Because that worry will go and another one will come along to replace it. The conclusion of that is the worry that you’re worrying about isn’t that important, it’s going to be replaced.
Oh, and wash up. Ditch the dishwasher. They do my head in. There’s always something that comes out with crud on it and you have to wash it again. I get my best ideas when washing up.
For all the dates of the Father Earth screening tour and Q & A with Graham, visit: https://fatherearthmovie.com
And be sure to check Radio 4 at the end of November for two new episodes of The Shuttleworths
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