The man behind the mâché

Another Frank Sidebottom film in the works

A new film is set to throw fresh light on Frank Sidebottom’s creator.

Being Frank: The Chris Sievey Story, will include never-before-seen video from his personal archive and footage of Sidebottom’s first live appearance at The Gallery in Manchester on December 19, 1982.

Frank may even narrate the documentary, which also covers Sievey’s teenage years as a singer-songwriter recording at Apple Records, his post-punk band The Freshies and career as an illustrator and animator on Pingu and Bob The Builder before his death from cancer in 2010.

Director Steve Sullivan was bequeathed Sievey’s personal collection of Sidebottom memorabilia, diaries, notebooks, props, costumes and correspondence six months ago by his family, as well as reel-to-reel and cassette tapes, videos, Super 8 film and his keyboard. He is currently interviewing the family, as well as friends and fellow performers on the North-West comedy and music scenes in the Eighties and Nineties.

Sievey was ‘somebody who had a really keen desire to document his life and career, so virtually every stage of it is represented in the archive,’ Sullivan reveals. ‘I’ve got 60 boxes in my flat and I’ve been sorting it out, seeing the story of Chris’s life emerge by making the connections between the objects.’

Fans have already provided ‘postcards, video, anything they’ve got – the enthusiasm for Frank is still colossal’. Sullivan is asking them to part-finance the film, launching a campaign on Kickstarter in May that offers copies of the documentary and limited edition merchandise in exchange for a donation.

Towards the end of his life, Sievey made a stop-motion animated pilot, Frank’s World, which he hoped to turn into a series. If £20,000 is raised, ‘we can do all the interviews and make a feature-length documentary’ Sullivan explains.

‘But if we raise more than that, we can make a better film. I’d like to bring back the stop-motion Frank and use Frank to narrate the story of Chris’ life’. This voiceover would be compiled from the many hours of Sidebottom audio broadcast on radio and television or by using an impressionist. He stresses that ‘I won’t use somebody new unless everyone involved in the story, the family especially, feel the voice is spot-on. The last thing we want is to water down Chris’ legacy.’

Sullivan previously worked with Sievey on a film set in his home town, the 2008 short Magical Timperley Tour. And he provides an insight into how Sievey maintained the integrity of his cult creation.

‘Chris was a fascinating enigma, a lovely guy, but I met him only briefly. I told him we needed to put a radio mic on him and he asked "Why?" I just looked at him. And he said: "Oh, you mean Frank Sidebottom. I’ll tell you what’s going to happen. I’m going to go back to my living room where Frank’s waiting for me, tell him you want a word, then Frank will come back and you can put the mic on him."’

He was ‘a man who invented a fictitious personality, with an entire imaginative universe’ Sullivan reflects. ‘But it was a reflection of the creator’s own personality. Frank was like Chris in some ways, in that they both loved The Beatles and Thunderbirds.’ In the archive, there are two copies of a cassette by Paul McCartney. One is in pristine condition, the other has "macca is ace!" scrawled in big silver marker pen in Frank’s handwriting.

‘What’s more, their handwriting was different – Sievey writing in capitals, Sidebottom always in lower-case. Sievey painted, as both himself and as Frank. And ‘Chris was a rebel, Frank was the ultimate mummy’s boy,’ Sullivan points out. ‘Still, Frank existed. Hundreds of thousands of people bought his records, listened to his radio shows and read his comics.’

‘The film asks, "Who was the man beneath the mâché?" What was he like, what motivated him? You’re going to find out from the people who loved him.’

Before his death, Sievey and Sullivan had ‘a vague plan of going to Majorca with The Happy Mondays’. The director is hoping to interview the likes of Mondays frontman Sean Ryder, as well as Steve Coogan, John Thomson and John Cooper Clarke, whom Sidebottom toured with. He’s already spoken to writer Jon Ronson, keyboardist for a time in The Frank Sidebottom Oh Blimey Big Band.

Ronson’s own fictionalised cinematic take, Frank, co-written with fellow Big Band member Peter Straughan and starring Michael Fassbender in the title role, is released later this year. Sullivan hopes it will prove a companion piece. The world will ‘finally understand that we've witnessed another of the great British eccentrics and he'll be remembered in the same breath as Spike Milligan, Vivian Stanshall and Peter Cook,’ he said.

‘Every aspect of his career was surprising. As I’ve discovered, Chris was as happy doing a private performance for one person, with a prank letter, as he was supporting Bros in front of 34,000 people at Wembley.’

You can sign up to the Being Frank newsletter for details of how to get involved with the film at:

- by Jay Richardson

Published: 27 Mar 2013

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