Rychard Carrington reports on John Shuttleworth – The Junction, Cambridge 24 November 2008

John Shuttleworth
John Shuttleworth

John Shuttleworth, versatile singer-organist from Sheffield, South Yorkshire, came on stage wearing exactly the same clothes as always, but with a bull's head sticking out of his red roll-neck sweater. This memorable sight signals another leg of John's ‘Minor Tour'. The bull's head and mythological themes don't last long, however, as John is eager to return home to help his wife Mary make paper chains for Christmas. But then next-door neighbour and sole agent Ken Worthington telephones to inform John that he is being considered for the part of Jack's Mum in the local pantomime Jack And The Beanstalk. John is tempted, but worries that learning lines might take him away from paper chain duties.


Does the above sound odd, or is it a beloved familiar world to you? Over the last fifteen years, I have known no more comforting and oddly charming environment to inhabit than that of John, Mary and Ken. It's related to us by character actor Graham Fellows, a man with such a keen eye for social observation and character that I think of him as something of a genius. Every word is just perfect. It's a comedy that appeals not through exaggerating into the preposterous but through a precision that comes with a delightfully subtle undertow of absurdity. This isn't hit-and-run comedy: some contemplation is required to savour the sublime potency of it all.


The two film interludes don't succeed so fully: in one, nouveau riche concreter Dave Tordoff attempts to catch the beast of Goole Moor, whom he believes has killed his peacock, purchased at a bargain price of £3. Tordoff is two-thirds a Yorkshire Loadsamoney, one-third John Shuttleworth. One doesn't warm to him in the same way as one does the full John: funny, but not great. In the second film, an excerpt from the forthcoming Shuttleworth movie Southern Softies, John bemuses inhabitants of Jersey. Again, funny, but such unwitting contributors are hard-pressed to entertain in the way that Shuttleworth does went left fully to himself.


Another interlude featured rock musicologist and part-time lecturer in media studies at a further education college in the Newcastle-under-Lyme area, Brian Appleton (Fellows again, of course), explaining how his ‘role in the history of rock and roll was quite benign':


I didn't make the sandwich that choaked Mama Cass

Or pilot the plane in which Buddy Holly crashed.

I didn't fill the pool in which Brian Jones was drowned,

Or plant the tree Marc Bolan's car became wrapped round


Brian stuck to old material, but his Smiths pastiche It's My Turn To Be Poorly is certainly a classic.


As for Shuttleworth's own songs, accompanied by his ever-sturdy Yamaha organ, we got a satisfying mixture of new and old. Highlights included Unaccompanied Lady, Fish And Chips, Incident At Snake Pass and, perhaps best of all, God Bless The Fleece. Encores were firmly-established favourites, Eggs And Gammon, I Can't Go Back To Savoury Now, Y Reg and Pigeons In Flight, plus the saga of Two Margarines inhabiting the same fridge concurrently as the result of a supermarket ‘two-for-one' deal, with horrendous consequences:


Two margarines on the go,

It's a nightmare scenario.

Two margarines in my life,

Two margarines to butter my knife.

Two margarines, but which one

Should I use to butter my scone?

It's a dilemma second to none.


Yes indeed. While entertainers customarily sell us extravagant fantasies, John Shuttleworth sings about real life. Away with you rock and roll poseurs, here we have a light shone upon unassuming contemporary existence, in all of its horror and its humanity. Shuttleworth is the greatest comic character I have ever encountered.


Writer: Rychard Carrington