In on the Joke

We had the pleasure of attending an odd little gig recently, one of those events where you kind of hope everyone there are in on the joke, because otherwise they would be very confused indeed. I was not even sure about going in the first place, as largely all I knew about the artist was regular surreal appearances on BBC 6Music’s Radcliffe & Maconie show.

The artist in question was the redoubtable John Shuttleworth, out on his farewell tour. Basically, this titan of the music business has decided to hang up his Yamaha organ on health grounds – 2016 having shown just how dangerous it was to be a famous person had convinced him that, regretfully, it was time to step down from the limelight and the lucrative gigs at Nursing homes and keep his head down for his own survival.

John Shuttleworth, for those do not know, doesn’t really exist. He is a comic character created by a chap called Graham Fellows (who was also responsible for one hit wonder punk star Jilted John, for those who like such trivia).  Shuttleworth is stuck in the 1970s in terms of attitudes and dress, and is entirely deluded about his own level of talent. Which of course is the point and as the performance goes on the carefully scripted mistakes in playing the organ, or forgetting the words just underline the point.

John is a buffoon, albeit a likeable one – none of the comedy is cruel or rude, very much certificate U material you could take your granny to. In fact, as I said to the Lovely Wife as we were making our way home, it was a real shame that my Nana is no longer with us, because she would have found this sort of thing hilarious. This kind of stuff is antithesis of satirical comedy. Nothing is relevant to the present situation, nothing is of any importance at all. The character exists in his own micro world where the worst thing that can happen is that you wife has opened another pack of margarine so there are now two open in the fridge (I mean, which do you use? It’s a ‘nightmare scenario’), or that he has started on his pudding when there was still shepherd’s pie to eat (the classic ‘I can’t go back to savoury now’ ). In place of weighty discussions about the state of the world and society you instead have a tirade – well, a gentle grumpiness – on why Mars removed the piece of cardboard from around a Bounty bar. After all, that fragile coconut bar needed protection and it made a good bookmark or sturdy shopping list afterwards. Sadly, his campaign to have it reinstated (‘Mutiny over the Bounty’) has yet to bear fruit.

I love this kind of comedy, because it is terribly clever while appearing to be amateurish and simple. The absolute key is that the character never slips so the illusion is never disrupted. That happily allows the audience and the performer to share the joke, and it actually gets quite weird later in the performance when he starts to play a melody of his ‘greatest hits’ and you do find yourself singing along as though it were an actual gig, which I think is the moment I realised how good Fellows actually is.

Do catch John Shuttleworth if you can, just remember to relax and let the man quite deliberately fail to meet your expectations for musicianship and professionalism hilariously.