When I last saw Graham Fellows in character as northern singer-songwriter John Shuttleworth, back in 2015, I felt – after years of adoring the act – that Shuttleworth could use a break and Fellows could use something new to do. It turns out that was already happening, as now documented in Fellows’ new film. Father Earth – a follow-up to his previous DIY documentaries, It’s Nice Up North and Southern Softies – traces the comic and his ageing dad’s trip to Orkney, there to convert a tumbledown church building into an eco-friendly recording studio.
That was the film Fellows thought he was making back in 2010, when most of the movie was shot. It’s not entirely the film with which he’s now touring venues around Britain, and which is released online next month. It’s hard to pin down exactly what story his final edit is telling, not surprisingly given its convoluted journey to the screen. Idea #1, Fellows explained at a Q&A in London on Tuesday, was to film his effort to drive to Orkney in a dinky G-Wiz electric car. That idea was shelved when Fellows twigged to the logistical difficulties, but also when his 82-year-old father offered to join him on the trip. At which point, Father Earth became a buddy movie about a depressive comic and his dad trying to get a dream off the ground in the windswept wilds of northern Scotland.
That’s what you think you’re watching, for at least the first half of its 83-minute duration. In a series of fuzzily shot home videos, we see Fellows and dad set off from England, picking up a boat and a giant water butt en route. Shacked up in a caravan next to a ruined chapel, Fellows attaches his loo to his rainwater cistern, paddles in circles in a rowing boat three feet from the shore, and films his dad fiddling with his glasses. Charming, it sometimes is. A rollercoaster, it is not. My mind wandering, I thought of Johnny Vegas’s Channel 4 show last year, in which he assembled a fleet of vintage vehicles for his new glamping site in Yorkshire. Artificially or otherwise, TV can pack these “celebrity chases a dream” formats with incident and drama. Suffice to say, incident and drama are not Fellows’ USPs.
The film’s real, if diffuse, strengths, are as a meditation on ageing and purpose, as the footage leaps forward 12 years to find Fellows and his teenage son revisiting the Northern Isles. Fellows’ dad died in 2012, and he left the film – too difficult for him to watch – untouched for years. The finished edit, with its up-to-date coda added, doesn’t offer much closure to the tale of the church’s transformation. But it does show you a brown-haired son transform into a grey-haired dad – which can be what happens when, as Fellows is here, you’re busy making other plans.
The other compelling feature of Father Earth – the most compelling, for comedy aficionados – is its depiction of the relationship between Fellows and his lifelong alter ego, John Shuttleworth. Fellows’ Orkney endeavours are intercut with excerpts from Shuttleworth’s stage act, and with backstage footage of Shuttleworth and Fellows, conducting split-personality dialogues with one another in the dressing room mirror. There’s behind-the-scenes footage, too, from Fellows’ appearance, as Shuttleworth, in a 2011 episode of The Sooty Show, and a less glamorous peek behind the curtain of the entertainers’ life it would be hard to imagine.
To say Fellows has (or had, when the footage was shot) an ambivalent relationship to his fictional flipside, then, would be to understate the tension animating this folie a deux, as Fellows – staring dolefully into that dressing room mirror – etches deeper lines on to his face before disappearing completely behind Shuttleworth’s winces, “oofs” and NHS specs. “You should remain silent,” says Shuttleworth to Fellows, as the creation – optimistic, charismatic, popular – once again puts his creator into eclipse.
Of course, all this could be an act too. Fellows is filming it, after all. But it’s a very compelling one. And it feels like the key to Father Earth: a film revealed, in the light of that Jekyll and Hyde psychodrama, as Fellows’ effort to assert himself, to be worth something other than his Shuttleworth success. Saving the world from the eco-apocalypse would fit the bill – but the film can’t convince us, nor Fellows either, that that’s on the cards. But being a decent son and dad, and finding something on a rocky North Atlantic beach that you can’t find on a West End stage? Well, that’ll have to do, in a film that – like many a road movie before it – makes a stronger case for the journey than for the destination.