Remembering the pumpkin-shaped world of Frank Sidebottom

The 'real' Frank Sidebottom - and below, Michael Fassbender as Frank in the new movie
The 'real' Frank Sidebottom - and below, Michael Fassbender as Frank in the new movie
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The new Michael Fassbender movie, Frank, rekindles memories of the ‘real’ Frank Sidebottom, on whose distinctive features the central character is modelled. Here, David Behrens recalls producing Frank’s television series in the 1990s.

I HAVE never met Barry Humphries yet I’ve interviewed his other self, Dame Edna Everage. The two are quite separate. When the slap and costume go on, the character takes over.

Michael Fassbender as Frank.

Michael Fassbender as Frank.

This split personality of his (or hers) might have been disconcerting but for the fact that I had worked previously with a comedian/musician who took such Actors’ Studio techniques to extremes. Chris Sievey was never seen on stage without an enormous papier mâché head concealing his actual visage and a clothes peg on his nose disguising his voice. There was no point in calling him Chris because he wouldn’t hear you. When the head was on, he answered only to Frank. Frank Sidebottom.

Perhaps you’ve heard of Chris. His death from cancer four years ago at the age of just 54 made all the papers. But during his life he neither courted nor achieved publicity in his own name. He wanted fame only for Frank, and as far as Chris was concerned, Frank was a separate person.

His obsession with character and his elastic distinction between life and art fuels the new movie Frank, starring Michael Fassbender as an aspiring songwriter who exists in totality within a papier mache head almost identical to that of Frank Sidebottom. The character is based loosely on Sievey, who had been consulted on the script while it was still in gestation. Its author, the journalist Jon Ronson, played in student pubs with Frank Sidebottom’s backing band, accompanying him on ludicrous but haunting parodies of The Beatles and The Smiths, and original, memorable ditties like Guess Who’s Been On Match Of The Day?

The film’s release today rekindles memories of Sidebottom cavorting on Saturday morning TV and in student dives across the north, to which he would roll up in a dirty van stuffed with instruments and props, with his other regular partners, the disc jockeys Mark Radcliffe and Marc Riley.

This was the pumpkin-shaped world into which I stepped in 1992 when I produced and directed Frank’s television series, Frank Sidebottom’s Fantastic Shed Show. By rights, it was a project that should have remained on the drawing board: Channel Four did not pursue a verbal expression of interest, and as we prepared to shoot the pilot at Yorkshire TV in Leeds, Chris hadn’t even shown. (“Oh, should I have been here sooner?” he asked, when he eventually rolled up an hour and a half late.)

But the pilot was enjoyed - rumour had it by the managing director’s daughter - and so a series was commissioned for ITV. And deservedly so, for Frank, or Chris, was a bona fide comic genius. “If you want to write songs, here’s a tip,” he used to say. “Get some paper.” It was funny because Frank absolutely believed it to be sensible and true. Just as Chris Sievey believed Frank himself to be. When he rolled up unannounced with our film crew at Manchester Town Hall and asked to see the Lord Mayor, the flunky told him the mayoral chamber was on level four. “Level four, eh?” said Frank, without even a hint of sarcasm. “My bedroom’s on level two in our house.”

The conceit of the show and the character was that Frank Sidebottom was a childlike but fully grown adult who lived with his mum in Timperley, on the outskirts of Manchester, and who operated out of his den in the shed in his garden. We built the shed and garden in YTV’s Studio 3: it was patently obviously a television studio because you could see the cameras and crew, but it didn’t seem to matter. From there he could ask questions of people that ordinary interviewers could not. His opening shot to the footballer Lee Chapman was this: “Is there going to be another series of Cats’ Eyes starring your missus?”

Chris Sievey’s name did not appear on the end credits. Neither he nor I took a writer’s credit because he wanted to maintain the pretence that the episodes hadn’t been written at all; they had just happened.

As Fassbender’s take on Frank reminds us, creativity isn’t conjured on cue - it does just happen, inside someone’s head. If it’s a papier mâché one, so much the better.

Frank (15) is on nationwide release. The TV series Frank Sidebottom’s Fantastic Shed Show is released on DVD by Network.