Can We Be Frank? Searching for Frank Sidebottom
As Jon Ronson heads out on the road this month paying tribute to Frank Sidebottom, he and friends of Sidebottom's creator Chris Sievey reflect on the life and times of a performer whose alter-ego took on a life of his own
Across the United Kingdom there are a few monuments dedicated to the dearly departed comedy heroes who hailed from where their bronzed feet now stand. In the very centre of Caerphilly a colossal Tommy Cooper stares down at you with crazy eyes and mouth agape, and with a hat full of mystery. On the rocky shores of Morecambe, the Eric who shares his surname with his birthplace dances with a fixed grin and a pair of binoculars, unnerving those who visit the seaside town. And though he is not yet passed, try getting off the train at Liverpool Lime Street and not being utterly terrified by the twisted mask that a Ken Dodd statue bears, as he holds what is meant to be a feather duster but more accurately resembles a doner kebab.
It’s hard to capture the human face of comedy in statue form without making it look unhinged, seedy or downright evil – though this wasn't a problem in the recent unveiling of a monument dedicated to Timperley’s comedic superstar, Frank Sidebottom. That fixed wax-lip smile, those big blue eyes and that Dapper Dan haircut never really did move when he was with us – but for those who knew him, the design of the iconic head seemed to take on movements, like a portrait in a Scooby Doo episode. It's a fitting memorial for a beloved comic and creative invention.
Frank is, of course, just that: an invention, an artistic, musical and comedic outlet for the man who dwelled underneath the hardened paper and paste. Chris Sievey was the unnamed narrator to Frank Sidebottom’s Tyler Durden, a man who slept very little to achieve more, who cared not for money but for what he could make, and whom he could make happy. Mostly himself. Though sharing one body, Frank and Chris were always seen as two completely different people, even by those who knew them best. Frank's former manager, bandmate and roadie, Dave Arnold, played bass in Frank’s band for some time before his first meeting with Chris: "Frank made you suspend all belief," he says. "Even after I saw the transformation, it was still Frank." Another bandmate from an earlier incarnation of Frank’s band, Jon Ronson remembers being told before he met Frank that his real name was Chris. When he attempted to greet the giant head by its supposed true moniker he was ignored, only to try 'Frank' and be greeted warmly by the man from Timperley.
There are currently two films about Frank Sidebottom in production, one meticulously searching out the world of Frank (Being Frank: The Chris Sievey Story) and the other exploring the idea of what it was to be a man in a fake head (Frank, for which Ronson was screenwriter). Filmmaker of the former, Steve Sullivan, tells a similar tale of the transformation that occurred when Chris was Frank. When documenting one of Frank’s tourbus journeys around his beloved hometown, Sullivan explained to Chris that he needed to place a radio mic underneath his head. Chris didn’t understand what this meant, until the penny dropped and he said, ‘Oh, you mean Frank!’ He went away to change, came back in full suit and head, entertained the crowd waiting to gain access to the bus, boarded, and laid down in front of Sullivan for him to apply the mic. When they removed the head, "Chris’s eyes were completely glazed over. There was no recognition. He was Frank," recalls Sullivan.
"Nothing makes a young man feel as alive as going down the M6 with a guy in a big fake head" – Jon Ronson
Sievey was an immersive performer so committed to his act that it took on a life of its own – he made all his props and artwork by hand, and even worked on animated shows such as Pingu and Bob the Builder during his times away from Frank’s head to keep his creative juices flowing in any way he could. But he was at his happiest when reaching for that showbusiness star in his ill-fitting suit and disproportional mask, and his output was matched by his disregard for it. Arnold describes him as the "ultimate punk" in that he gave most things away for free or destroyed them (knowing he himself would have to remake everything). In his column in the anarchic comic Oink!, Sidebottom would publish his home phone number for people to ring him whenever they wanted; a free chat with a man who just loved to perform. Even at the height of his popularity during the late 80s, Frank would hire out his services to come to your house to entertain and in turn be entertained by whoever hired (£35 Manchester area only, an extra £2.11 if you wanted Little Frank as well). "He would stay for an hour or so, but if the conversation was good, i.e. space, then he would stay for longer," discovered Sullivan after finding one of the old newsletters Sidebottom would hand-write and send to fans.
Ronson maintains that Frank, meanwhile, is "so fictional," looking more at "what it is to be a marginalised outsider in a world that is increasingly dismissive of those people." Ronson saw firsthand what it was to be caught up in the manic imagination of Frank, and has fond memories of touring the UK as part of his band: "Nothing makes a young man feel as alive as going down the M6 with a guy in a big fake head." To redress the balance of fact and fiction, Ronson will be touring once more with Frank, only this time in a metaphysical sense, as he regales the crowds with his true tales of life in Frank’s band – "not so much to correct people’s misconceptions from the film – I just thought it would make a really good show." Accompanied by an e-book, these misadventures of the young journalist are full of musings on the nature of art and performance, and show how much of a catalyst Sidebottom was for the career trajectory Ronson would take, seeking out people on the fringes who do what they do with honesty and love.
Ronson was also instrumental in helping Sievey avoid a 'pauper’s funeral' by sending out a tweet to ask for monetary help. "Within an hour 554 people had donated £6,950.03," Ronson remembers. After a day, that figure was £21,631.55. As in the final scene of It’s a Wonderful Life, Chris and Frank’s goodwill and selflessness throughout their existence together was appreciated by those who followed them. Crowdsourcing was also instrumental in constructing the statue that now stands on Stockport Road in Timperley village, as well as in putting together Sullivan's documentary, which further explores Frank's legacy with unseen clips, artwork, creations and testimonials from fans, friends, family and fellow performers. It's a paean to the painstaking work behind what seemed to be haphazard shows that Sidebottom put on across the country. The beauty of Sidebottom performances was that no two would ever be the same; they were completely unpredictable and utterly brilliant live revues in which anything could happen. Sullivan remembers a night when Sidebottom just brought a Subbuteo pitch and challenged all comers to a game: "Of course Frank’s team didn’t have Subbuteo men, there was a Skeletor in there and he literally parked a bus in front of his goal."
Of all of Sidebottom's famous fans, it is perhaps most telling that the master of the unexpected himself, Johnny Vegas, has remarked that he had a lot of respect for Frank, because ‘you never knew what he was going to do’. It was this spontaneity and creativity that kept people coming back, and the influence Frank has had on those who surrounded him – Chris Evans was his driver, Mark Radcliffe a former band member, and Caroline Ahern’s classic character Mrs Merton was invented with Frank for his radio show – is his legacy. That and these two movies – and, of course, a statue. And, as Dave Arnold underlines, there is no better legend for an artist, whatever field he’s in: "All those people that worked with him, they wanted to be famous, but Frank’s got a fucking statue. The same level of fame as someone like Picasso or Mozart. That’s the kind of thing that could be around for another 200 years. People asking about Frank. What’s better than that?"
Jon Ronson takes the Frank Story on tour this month, calling at Northwest venues The Met, Bury, on 28 Mar, and The Dancehouse, Manchester, on 30 Mar
Frank opens in cinemas in May
Pre-order Being Frank: The Chris Sievey Story on DVD from www.beingfrankmovie.com