'The funniest man I know'

Frank Sidebottom's director remembers a legend

Frank Sidebottom’s Fantastic Shed Show is to be released on DVD for the first time on Monday. Here Dave Behrens, who produced and directed the cult ITV show, explains how it all came about…

It only started because no-one liked Mrs Merton.

No one at Yorkshire Television, that is.  It was Easter 1991 and we had just shot the pilot of the Mrs Merton Show with Caroline Aherne, in a tiny studio at the Meadowhall Shopping Centre in Sheffield, of all places.

It was the same Mrs Merton show the world would soon embrace, save for the studio audience, and we had Chris Donald from Viz with Andy and Liz Kershaw as guests on her sofa.

But there was to be no embrace from the entertainment department at YTV.

‘Why's this funny?’ they asked. ‘How can a young woman playing an old woman possibly work?’

So that was the end of that. Caroline went off to Granada and the rest – for her – was history.

‘"What would you like to do next?’ asked my boss at YTV. ‘How about a Frank Sidebottom show?’ I said. Let's make a pilot for Channel 4.

But on this occasion, C4 also had a humour bypass. Despite Frank's success on Remote Control (an MTV format reworked for them by Granada) I think they saw him as a children's act, and they passed on our suggestion.

That would have been that, and YTV would have pulled the plug on the pilot there and then. But I delayed breaking the news to them until the last possible minute, by which time we'd booked the studio, built the set and passed the point of no return.

I didn't know Frank when I called him up and asked if he'd like to make a pilot show. He was everywhere on TV in those days – mostly on Saturday mornings – but his goal was to make what he called his shed show, a programme set entirely in a shed in the bottom of his garden and broadcast secretly so his mum wouldn't know.

Frank was really a comedian, musician and cartoonist called Chris Sievey, though he was obsessive about keeping that piece of information to himself. When the oversized papier mache head went on, he answered only to Frank.

I met Chris at his house in Timperley (he had that much in common with Frank) and we set down some parameters. For the show to work it would have to be shot in a studio with an audience – not a real shed in a garden – and would have to be party scripted so that the structure of each programme was laid down but not the actual dialogue. I didn't want Frank's impulsiveness and spontaneity to be constrained by the mechanics of TV, so I would have to direct with only the loosest of camera scripts.

Chris himself was a revelation. He was the first person I ever met who wore a football shirt during the day. He kept it tucked permanently into his jeans. The rest of Britain must have got the idea from him.

Into the loft of his house was crammed literally thousands of items of Sixties and Seventies ephemera, from old Corgi toys to shop window displays. When the time came to dress Frank's shed in the studio we simply sent a props truck to his house.

We shot the pilot on the August bank holiday weekend of 1991. Camera rehearsal was set for around 10am with recording in front of an audience that afternoon. After a week of desperate phone calling, I had cajoled James Whale (a lovely man who would do anyone a favour), David Hamilton and a touring Australian soap star, Sharyn Hodgson, to take part. There was only one person missing: Frank Sidebottom.

As we started to rehearse there was still no sign of him. There was no reply from his home and no one had mobiles. You don't have a contingency plan for the star of the show not turning up.

When he finally bowled up, he simply shrugged and said, ‘Oh, am I late?’ That's often the way with truly creative people: the little practicalities of life only get in the way.

Rehearsal was frantic and I didn't start to relax until midway through the recording, when we got a spontaneous burst of applause in a sketch. From that moment on, we were rolling.

Given Channel 4’s absence of interest, the recording sat on a YTV shelf for several months until the decision was taken to transmit it in the local region over the new year holiday, by which time I had left the company to go freelance.

Among the viewers, I learned later, was the daughter of the controller of programmes – and it was her enthusiasm that persuaded her dad to commission a series for ITV. We brought Caroline Aherne back for that, as well as Chris's long-time mate Mark Radcliffe.

I was fortunate to preside over quite a few happy series, but none were happier than this and at the end of series wrap party I recall introducing Chris as ‘the funniest man I know’.

Twenty years on, and though he's no longer here, that still holds true.

  • Frank Sidebottom’s Fantastic Shed Show is released by Network DVD on Monday for £12.99. Click here to order from Amazon at £7.99

Published: 5 Nov 2010

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