‘How fame went to Frank Sidebottom’s head’

Frank Sidebottom
Frank Sidebottom
  • A new film about the troubled life of comedian Chris Sievey is about to go on general release. David Behrens, who produced his TV series, recalls a unique Northern talent.
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Beyond the magic portal to fame lies a land of riches. That’s how showbusiness is supposed to work.

But the gateway to stardom is sometimes a trap door, and the road to oblivion is littered with the burned-out careers of stars who briefly had the world at their feet.

Director Steve Sullivan

Director Steve Sullivan

Chris Sievey was one such casualty. A genuinely original but unpredictable entertainer, he courted real affection among audiences who sensed that greatness was only a heartbeat away.

In the early 1990s, his road to the big time ran through studio three at Yorkshire Television. I led him inside, but I now learn that I may have pushed him into the lion’s den.

A feature-length documentary called Being Frank, which is being previewed on Saturday at the first Hebden Bridge Film Festival before going on general release next week, reveals that the comedy series we made there, modestly successful though it was, launched him not into the stratosphere but on a downward spiral of alcohol, women and drugs.

Sievey was a musician, comedian and cartoonist from Timperley, south of Manchester. If you haven’t heard of him, it may be because he went to extraordinary lengths to conceal his identity beneath a large papier-mâché head in the character of a half-man, half-puppet called Frank Sidebottom – who navigated a world of his own creation, centred on a shed supposedly in his mum’s garden.

He was a cult figure on the comedy circuit. He introduced the band Bros at Wembley Stadium, Time Out put him on its cover, and he was rarely off Saturday morning children’s television.

He had a genius for cutting through pomposity. At Manchester Town Hall, we filmed a secretary telling him that the Lord Mayor’s office was on level three. “My bedroom’s on level two in our house,” he replied.

“Everyone in TV wanted to draft him in and borrow from what he did, but he was the master of his own world – his own comedy universe,” says fellow comedian Johnny Vegas.

When Sievey died of cancer in 2010, there were national headlines. But the stories then – that he was penniless and faced being buried a pauper – barely scratched the surface of the wounds he had inflicted upon himself.

Steve Sullivan, a filmmaker from Cardiff, was among many in the entertainment world to have been intrigued by the conflict of an apparently private man who hid beneath a big, false head yet who yearned to be recognised as himself.

The fascination had manifested itself previously in a fictitious 2014 film called Frank, starring Michael Fassbender, which portrayed a figure in an almost identical head.

But Sullivan wanted to unravel the enigma, not perpetuate it, and spent eight years raising the money to make a definitive documentary about Sievey.

It was previewed last year at the South by Southwest Film Festival in Texas, and drew rapturous reviews and a recommendation from the actress Susan Sarandon. “It could be the kind of cult film that Frank wasn’t,” said the Hollywood trade paper, Variety.

At the heart of the movie is its subject’s extraordinary archive of art, music and video preserved in cardboard boxes and decaying Betamax video tapes in his brother’s loft. It speaks to its creator’s obsession with documenting every aspect of his life.

“We had the same stuff as other couples, but we also had a video camera,” recalls Sievey’s wife Paula, whom he married in 1975 when they were both 20.

“Some of the tapes were literally covered in mould. We spent a long time restoring them,” says Sullivan, who has also helped to curate a two-month exhibition of Sievey’s oeuvre at Manchester Central Library.

The archive, which is now preserved there permanently, betrays a fountain of creativity that manifested itself first in an alternative rock band called The Freshies, with whom Sievey scored a minor hit with his idiosyncratic composition, I’m In Love With The Girl On The Virgin Manchester Megastore Checkout Desk.

It might have been a bigger success but for the trade name in the title which got it banned from the radio and a strike at the BBC which scuttled an appearance on Top of the Pops.

“It was the first sign of how a project of Chris’s could go spectacularly wrong,” one of the band says in the film.

Sievey invented the character of Frank Sidebottom as a gimmick to promote The Freshies – but it soon took over the act and, some believe, his personality. Once in character, he answered only to Frank, never Chris.

A few thought he was schizophrenic.

“He was annoyed that he was having to be Frank Sidebottom and not doing what he really wanted, which was to be famous for writing songs,” says Michele Pouncey, who was later his girlfriend.

CP Lee, a comedy lecturer and historian, adds: “It’s a symbiotic relationship – the dummy needs you and you can’t survive without the dummy, and so you grow to hate it.”

Mark Radcliffe, the radio presenter who played Sidebottom’s sidekick on stage and in our TV show, is less conspiratorial. “Simple – when the head was on, he was Frank. When it came off, he was Chris,” he says.

That had been my impression, too. We had met after I made a pilot programme with another of his collaborators, the late comedienne Caroline Aherne. I was a producer at ITV at the time, and persuaded them to take a punt on a series we called Frank Sidebottom’s Fantastic Shed Show.

“It was shot in a big studio at Yorkshire TV. Emmerdale was half the building and Frank’s show was the other half,” recalls Radcliffe, exaggerating slightly.

“They broke all the rules to allow it because it was so insane,” adds Sievey’s brother, Martin, with no exaggeration at all.

Radcliffe says: “We all thought, ‘We’re on the telly – this is going to be it. It’s going to change all our lives’.

“And Chris made us feel like that. He had unlimited confidence that it was all going to be great.”

I did not know how much ITV paid Chris. I can’t imagine the sums were huge, but everything is relative.

“I just think it ruined him,” Paula says in the film. “He had it all. Someone like that – a compulsive nature with too much money. He just went off the rails. It was a downward spiral.”

Radcliffe adds: “When you’re all drinking, you can’t tell who the real drinkers are, because you’re all the same. It’s only when you slow down and you meet people who are still going for it, that you think, ‘Oh this is something different’.”

Alcohol wasn’t Sievey’s only vice. Sullivan says that if he went out with £100 in his wallet he would come home having spent £101.

“He preferred to spend his rent money on cocaine,” Mike Doherty, one of his managers, says in the film. “What do you expect? He was a comedian.”

Threatened with eviction for a second time, Paula says she took their three children and went to live in a hostel – while Sievey’s video archive reveals him to have been cavorting with girls in nightclubs.

“There’s no doubt that he loved me. But he loved a lot of other women as well,”she says.

Eventually, he burned out. Sievey “retired” Frank and retreated to a behind-the-scenes job making props for Bob the Builder – though he revived the character in his final years.

“He just wanted to be recognised for everything else he’d done – not just for Frank,” says Michele Pouncey.

Johnny Vegas says the moral of Sievey’s story is to be found in the gulf hat separates talent from fame.

“His legacy was going out and being good at what you can do,” he says in Sullivan’s film.

“Don’t worry about the cheque at the end of it. It’s not The X Factor.”

• The three-day Hebden Bridge Film Festival takes place this weekend and includes a screening of Being Frank and a Q&A with director Steve Sullivan. The film is in cinemas and on digital download from March 29. Frank Sidebottom’s Fantastic Shed Show is available on DVD.