Terry Grimley finds age is taking its toll on optimistic comedian John Shuttleworth...
In one of those odd moments of simultaneity that help make life worth living, I recently found myself arranging interviews with comedian John Shuttleworth and architect Ken Shuttleworth on the same day.
What is even spookier is that I discovered, when reporting this to John - or more accurately his creator, Graham Fellows that John was very nearly called Ken: "And, in fact, sometimes he gets called Ken, because his agent, who always calls him during the show, is called Ken Worthington."
Confused? Well, so is John, who apparently is suddenly starting to feel the years catching up with him. His children are leaving home and his wife, Mary, is soon due to retire from her job as a dinnerlady.
The sense of impending old age is the central theme for John's new show, Fawn Again.
"This is what the show's all about - age is getting to him," explains Graham. "His memory is going. There will be stories about suddenly finding yourself in a room and forgetting why you went there. John turns it into a challenge and holds his ground and waits until he remembers: sometimes this may involve waiting for an hour.
"There's a song about an AC adaptor. I seem increasingly to write songs about objects rather than people, which is a bit worrying. I wrote a song about a glove on the wall: 'rain-soaked and small/some little child must have let it fall...'
"Now I've written a song about an AC adaptor. It's indicative of the age we live in. More and more things break and you're left with an AC adaptor that doesn't fit anything. I think John would feel sorry for that adaptor. It's a very emotional ballad."
I was curious about the significance of the word "fawn" in the show's title, wondering whether there was some reference to its meaning of being obsequious, but Graham dismisses this as "archaic".
"I didn't come up with this one, it was given me by the guy who runs my website. What does it mean? It's obviously a pun on Born Again. The show titles are always puns, like The Beast of John Shuttleworth. It was meant be the best but there was a missprint and they couldn't afford to get the flyers reprinted, so John decided to explore his dark side.
"Fawn is John's favourite colour. I think the main message is it's time to put colourful clothes away and put on elderly colours.
"But, like in all my shows, at the end he realises that getting old is quite a joyous experience. For example, finding an AC adaptor is wonderful - you wouldn't have time to do that when you're younger."
John now has to carry Rennies with him all the time, and other props will be ready to hand to help get him through performances if necessary.
"John's going to be on stage with his keyboard which will double as a zimmer frame should he collapse during the show. He'll have medication on the side of the organ which he may have to take."
The show will also include a sneak preview of It's Nice Up North, the feature film on which Graham and John have collaborated with the distinguished photographer Martin Parr. It seems a natural partnership since both Parr and Shuttleworth find inspiration in a certain kind of British dreariness.
Graham explains: "Martin Parr is a man I met when he photographed me for The Guardian a few years ago. We seemed to really get on and and I saw some of his pictures. We both half-like, half-hate things, but I think Martin's a bit posher than me and he maybe pokes fun a bit more.
"What happened was I wrote this script because I did a gig in the Shetland Islands and found I loved it. John has always had this thing that the further north you go, the nicer the people are.
"I saw a bus shelter decorated with a TV and a settee and I wondered if that was in a city on the mainland, how long would it survive? John would see that as a symbol. There's a slight problem of working out where you are: John thinks he's come to the most northerly bit and then he unfolds the map and realises there is more.
"Martin Parr has made a couple of short films before. We shot it on DV and we're hoping to get it into the Edinburgh Festival. In the end I directed it because I kind of knew what I wanted and Martin didn't, but he filmed it and hopefully his distinctive style will be evident."
Ironically, as they got further north and the people they met became ever nicer, relations between John and Martin, whose presence behind the camera is quite evident in the film, became somewhat strained.
"A lot of that is quite organic because he did wind me up, being rude about my car. At one point a wiper fell off.
"It's been 16 months since we filmed it and we've been back a couple of times to add things. I edited it on a laptop. It's all a big con, these big studios. The same thing is happening now that happened ten years ago with audio recording.
"I remember paying £12 an hour in 1979 to go and do demos in an eight-track studio. You can now have a 24-track for £10 an hour, and for £500 you can buy a wonderful digital set-up and you can master CDs on it. The same thing is now happening with video, but editing houses are trying to hang on to their jobs."
At some point It's Nice Up North will be available on DVD.
"I used to have stuff out with the BBC but I tend to do it myself now. That's the other change: if you put stuff out yourself you control output and do better financially. A general release is unlikely, but we want to get it into as many film festivals as possible, and then let's see."
* John Shuttleworth presents Fawn Again at MAC, Cannon Hill Park (0121 234 53280 on May 7 (almost sold out) and Warwick Arts Centre, Coventry (024 7652 4524) on May 22.