Remembering Frank Sidebottom, ‘the court jester of the Manchester music scene’

Steve Sullivan, director of the wonderful 'Being Frank: The Chris Sievey Story', tells us about his seven years immersed in the surreal world of the man with the papier macher head

I have flashes of memories of Frank Sidebottom’s public wake, which took place in Manchester’s Castlefield Bowl for an audience of 5000 following Frank’s – or rather Chris Sievey and Frank’s – death, in the summer of 2010.

I vaguely remember them throwing Little Frank, Frank’s ventriloquist dummy, in the Manchester ship canal. I think I remember there being an Egyptian-style sarcophagus on stage which purported to contain the mummy of Frank. It had his face painted on the outside, with those beautiful blue eyes mooning out at the crowd. At one point, I’m sure Elvis and Jesus came down from heaven to assure the crowd that Frank was settling in just fine. There were videos of his animations, and a film of Frank breaking into Smiths drummer Mike Joyce’s house, and there was a performance from a band called The Refreshies, after Chris Sievey’s own group The Freshies. Mostly, I remember thinking: is he really dead, or was this all a dead brilliant prank?

“I know what you mean,” says Steve Sullivan, director of Being Frank: The Chris Sievey Story, a masterful documentary about the cult figure and the man behind him, which is in cinemas now. “I half expect Frank to turn up at a screening saying [adopts familiar nasal whine], ‘Don’t watch that, it’s bobbins, watch me instead. Come outside, let’s have a fantastic show…”

Frank Sidebottom occupies a pretty unique position in British culture. An artist, comedian, musician and prankster, he achieved fame in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, a period in which he would pop up on your TV with alarming regularity, like a leak from a parallel dimension where surrealism ruled. “And it wasn’t just kids telly,” says Steve. “I don’t know if you remember The Hitman And Her, which was a late night telly show with Pete Waterman  and Michaela Strachan in a nightclub in Leeds or Halifax or somewhere like that. Frank Sidebottom would be there dancing away in his suit, probably sweating buckets. He could pop up anywhere at that time”

Beloved of the music scene, particularly in Manchester, Frank introduced both The Smiths at Manchester GMEX and Bros at Wembley while each was at the height of their fame. He performed at Reading Festival, toured around the UK and released a series of records in which he’d cover songs in his own inimitable style – one particularly illustrative example was called ‘Frank Sidebottom Salutes The Magic Of Freddie Mercury And Queen And Also Kylie Minogue (You Know, Her off “Neighbours”)’.

Frank Sidebottom by Dave Arnold

His rise preceded the boom in Manchester music and the reframing of Manchester as – for a few short years – the capital of cool. He was beloved of bands and music fans in the city, possibly because he embodied that point of difference that bands like Happy Mondays had to the mainstream culture. Steve puts it neatly: “I’ve come to think of him as the Court Jester of the Manchester music scene.”

But as the film reveals, that role had its own tension; Sievey, primarily, had wanted to be a pop star with his band The Freshies who almost – almost – had a hit with a song about fancying a girl who worked in Virgin Megastore. It was called ‘I’m In Love With The Girl On The Manchester Megastore Check-Out Desk’. Steve tracked the individual down for the film – though her contribution sadly remained on the cutting room floor, along with hundreds of hours of footage. “She’s called Helen, and she’s holding hands with Chris across the counter on the cover of the single,” says Steve. “What she remembers most is his hands being really sweaty, but that he was really nice and gentle and just a lovely guy. She also didn’t reckon she was the original girl he fall in love with – she said there was another girl who’d worked there who was quite foxy but she’d left by the time of the photoshoot.”

Chris’s daft sense of humour was evident in The Freshies, but so was his innovative, artistic spirit. In a pre-YouTube age, he was a very early adopter of the camcorder, which he’d use to produce longform Freshies videos. When fans ordered them, he’d personalise each one with messages from Frank, who was invented as a demented Freshies super-fan.

“Someone said to me that Frank dressed in such a way that he looks like a bank clerk, which is what the character started out as: he was supposed to be a bank clerk for a little while when he was really embryonic. I think of him like the surrealist artist Magritte: Magritte would wear a suit so he could blend with the bourgeoisie Frank can never can be part of the bourgeoisie because he looks respectable but he’s completely mad.”

Frank would support The Freshies at gigs, and – to Chris’s frustration – would go down a storm with the crowd. Eventually, Chris gave in, and started performing as Frank full time. When he did so, he remained resolutely in character – Frank was a method piece, and the papier-macher head gave him perfect anonymity.

“I think the mystery was a big part of the appeal for his audience,” says Steve.

Did he feel like he was blowing the mystery with the film, revealing the man inside the mask? “I did think long and hard: is this going to ruin it for anybody? But I thought, well, I’ve seen him without the head on and I can watch Frank Sidebottom now and take it at total face value, and that’s because of the level of individual personality Chris brought to the character.”

Frank performs with Little Frank, by Dave Arnold

Steve’s personal interest in Frank began when he was working at a comic shop in Preston, Lancashire, in the 1990s. Frank had been booked to make a personal appearance at the shop’s other branch, in Blackpool, and called the shop to check the arrangements. It was Frank, not Chris, to whom Steve answered the phone. Having just had a brief conversation with “the most famous person I’d spoken to at that point”, Steve watched as his boss discussed arrangements.

“He got about a minute into the conversation then just looked at the receiver in a really weird way and put and put it down without saying goodbye, which back in that day was quite unusual,” says Steve. “He told me: ‘I would have said goodbye but we were in the middle of the conversation and Frank just shouted, ‘Oh, I’ve got to go, my mum’s just come in!’ and slammed the phone down.’ It just stuck with me: why would a creative person just be messing about making it harder for themselves? And he’s fascinated me from that point onwards really.”

Later in life, when Steve was an established film maker and Chris – or Frank – was on the comeback trail following a number of wilderness years lost to drink and drugs, Steve contacted Frank by the only means possible: a PO Box in the Cheshire town of Timperley, much-eulogised in Frank’s music. “I wrote to him on a Tuesday, he must have got the letter on a Wednesday and I got a reply on the Thursday from Frank Sidebottom, all in his lowercase handwriting. It just said: ‘Come on Sunday, bring a fantastic film crew.’ and that was it.”

When Steve turned up, Frank was hosting one of his Magical Timperley Tours, in which fans would be guided through the village. “The joke is it’s just a village same as any other village” – albeit one now boasting a statue of Frank Sidebottom – “but he shows you what’s magic about it, like the fact that the Post Office has two post boxes – one for left-handed people and one for right-handed people. He wanted to take us into the chippy when I was there and break the British record for the most people in a chippy. On one tour he did a lock-in at the pet shop.”

That experience – for a small audience, and absurd in every way – is the essence of Frank. “He took the mundane details of everyday British life and turned it on its head,” says Steve. “He wanted to make boring stuff subversive and magical.”

READ MORE:Being Frank: The Chris Sievey Story film review

Chris had always been a prankster – one of his childhood best friends told Steve that a favourite trick of Chris’s was to slip off at house parties and switch the labels on every tin can he could find – but Frank allowed that side to run amok. “People tell me he’d do something outrageous as Frank, reappear as Chris and people would be furious with him. He’d say, ‘Well, don’t blame me, I didn’t do that – Frank did it,’” says Steve. “A woman emailed the other day to say that Frank did a personal appearance at her husband’s record shop in the Northeast. He turned up to sign stuff but he just started picking up random 12-inch singles and snapping them in half and flinging them around the shop like frisbees. It’s like, You’re destroying property and your wrecking somebody’s record shop!”

A big theme in the film is that struggle between the artist and his creation. Chris would always maintain the illusion that Frank was a separate person. Going through the archive material that was the basis for the crowd-funded film, Steve couldn’t help but question how real the schism was to Chris and Frank. “One of the strangest things I found was two copies of an audio cassette single of [1990 single] ‘Birthday’ by Paul McCartney. One copy had ‘Frank Sidebottom’ written on it in silver marker pen, and the other had ‘Chris Sievey’. So, you know, what do you make of that? Did they each have to have their own cassette single?”

The Beatles, oddly, were a point of conflict for Chris and Frank. “In Chris’s dreamworld he would have been John Lennon, which is why Frank became a big Paul McCartney obsessive,” says Steve. “Frank always thought he could have been in The Beatles. He used to do a great routine about [pre-fame incarnation] The Silver Beatles where there was 128 of them at John Lennon International Airport going over to Hamburg, and Paul turns around on the gangplank and says, ‘I think we’ve got too many members, we need to get rid of a few,’ and Frank says, ‘Well this is basic five, obviously, but Pete shotton we can let go of…”

Steve speaks warmly about Frank, but even more warmly about Chris, who seemed to be able to turn his hand to anything. As Frank, he had a beautifully drawn comic strip in the comic Oink (also home to early work by Black Mirror’s Charlie Brooker), he programmed video games (even, pointlessly, putting one on the B-Side of a Frank Sidebottom single, which required the user to tape it themselves) and took up a latter-day career as an animator before his death at 54.

Steve has been immersed in the film for seven years, during which time he’s heard countless stories of personal encounters with Frank. In the spirit of Sidebottom, who would reply to all communication from fans, he’s tried to answer everything. But the most poignant reflections come from Sievey’s own family and friends, and particularly his ex-wife, Paula. “She still loves him,” says Steve. “I think she always will and that’s what really comes across, which is what makes it more heartbreaking.”

Frank Sidebottom by Phil Fletcher

Sievey’s family gave Steve carte blanche to tell the warts-and-all story in his own way. But mostly, what he uncovered were heartwarmingly human stories about a brilliant, if flawed, man. In the film, Chris’s son tells the story of how during his parents’ separation his dad asked him what he wanted for Christmas. He said: “You”. So Chris wrapped himself head to toe in wrapping paper and stood there, fag in mouth, in the living room on Christmas morning.

The family can be heartened that the film does Chris’s legacy proud, and the archive materials that went into its making have now been accepted by Manchester Central Library to be preserved in perpetuity. They were, before the film, rotting in a cellar and bound for the dump.

READ MORE: Freaky Dancing: remembering the DIY Madchester zine given out to Hacienda ravers

Fans, too, can be pleased that Being Frank erases memories of Frank, the Hollywood bastardisation of the Frank Sidebottom story in which Michael Fassbender played a papier-macher head-wearing artist. It was serious and pretentious and, you suspect, Frank may have deemed it bobbins. Steve can’t. “I actually signed a non-disclosure agreement to not express any opinions about it,” he says.

As for his own film, Steve hopes it will “spread the seed of this creative weird man around the world.”

“Hopefully over the years it will find its way to all kinds of strange places around the world,” he says. “My ambition is that people will go and see it because they’ve heard of Frank Sidebottom but they’ll discover this artist called Chris Sievey that they didn’t know about before. And if people, in the future, when they think about Frank Sidebottom remember Chris the artist as well, then that would make me very happy.”

Ironically, that’s the last thing Frank would have wanted.

The film Being Frank: The Chris Sievey Story is in cinemas nationwide now. The soundtrack album, featuring the music of Chris Sievey, The Freshies and Frank Sidebottom, is available to buy on picture disc vinyl and CD.