By “Tim Bobbins”
Being Frank: The Chris Sievey Story, a 2014 documentary about the life of Chris Seivey and his big headed persona ‘Frank Sidebottom’ has finally found distribution after starting life as a Kick-Starter campaign. Picturehouse offered Brighton an unadventurous two screenings, one at each of its Duke of York’s cinemas. Both screenings were packed by a determinedly individualistic middle age audience. I wondered if the film could ever live up to their fannish jollity. Thankfully, it did.
I first encountered the character of Frank Sidebottom in the pages of Oink! (1986-1988, with specials until 1990), the delightfully silly comic of everything pig related. Sievey’s work was therefore something of an anomaly but, as Oink!’s editor, Patrick Gallagher, pops up to explain, Sievey fitted right in and soon Frank was on the cover. A friend of mine, performance artist now cult horror star Laurence Harvey, also alerted me to the character’s other works and cult following. Frankly, it all seemed completely “bobbins” (to quote Frank).
In real life ‘Frank’ was an extension of Sievey’s childhood interest in playing with toys and otherwise immersing himself in the popular culture of the late 1960s and early 70s: The Beano, Action Man dolls, everything Thunderbirds and the Daleks. Sievey loved The Beatles, created a bedroom mural based on the Sergeant Pepper movie, formed a band, The Freshies, and camped out with his brother in Apple Records refusing to leave until they got a contract. They didn’t, but they did get a recording session and a chance meeting with Ringo Starr.
Undeterred by The Freshies’s modest following, Sievey decided to create the group’s biggest fan, Frank Sidebottom, a man with a head like a carnival masque that was unnervingly reminiscent of the ones worn by Dr Phibes’s mechanical orchestra (The Abominable Dr Phibes (1971)). The Freshies nearly had a hit with the incredibly poppy “I’m In Love With The Girl at the Manchester Virgin Mega Store Check Out Desk”. The single was destined for chart topping success but Virgin contested the use of their company name and then the edition of Top of the Pops in which the group were to appear on failed to be broadcast. By the next week, The Freshies were yesterday’s news. ‘Frank Sidebottom’ was to last a lot longer.
For those who have never seen Sievey’s work, the best comparisons I can make is with the effortlessly surreal comedy of Andy Kaufman and Raul Ruben in the United States and Spike Milligan, and Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer, in the UK. Also, Sievey drew on his own practical creativity, leading him, briefly, to build models for Small Films’ Bob the Builder and his love of self recording. Sievey lived a lot of his life on screen, pictures reveal a good looking young man with a mischievous smile, a twinkle in his eye and a 70s mop of unruly hair. Soon that would be hidden from public view by the gigantic head of Frank.
Despite its subject matter, Being Frank is an utterly conventional documentary, enlivened by a mass of found-just-in-time footage and friends of Frank, including family members, a smattering of celebrities such as John Cooper Clark and Johnny Vegas and fellow members of Sievey’s groups The Freshies and for the most part telling Sievey’s life in a linear fashion and Frank’s Oh Blimey Big Band.
Vegas is particularly on-point when commenting on the need to simply accept who you are as a creative and quietly despairing at Sievey’s attempts to create an animated Frank series – Sievey didn’t pitch the idea around animation companies, instead he went home and tried to make the show in what looked like a bedroom.
We also get to see the dark side of Sievey’s behaviour that I hoped was never there to find. As ‘Frank’ became more financially successful, Sievey turned to alcohol, cocaine and womanising in no particular order. The sense of loss and betrayal is written on the all too human faces of his wife and youngest son. I know what it’s like to grow up with a depressive drunk and found it hard to forgive Sievey for the emotional harm his behaviour wrought on others. In this context, his ‘comical’ creation allowed Sievey to evade all duty of care for himself and others.
When Sievey’s youngest said that all he wanted for Christmas was his Father, Sievey wrapped himself entirely in paper and stood beside the tree. It raises a genuine smile in the boy and laughter from the audience, but Sievey’s actions fell short of what was needed.
Being Frank becomes only fleetingly pedestrian when speculating on the relationship between Sievey and his persona, Frank. Contributors draw on popular misconceptions of “spilt personalities” and “schizophrenia”. Even a curator of an acclaimed Sidebottom exhibition opines that “the creativity was all Frank’s” (Yawn). As far as I can see, ‘Frank’ bore a direct relation to Sievey’s childhood. In retrospect his love of Thunderbirds puppets, notable for their outsized heads, and even The Daleks, speaking with attenuated voices from within otherwise expressionless casings, are mirrored in Sidebottom.
‘Frank’ probably allowed Sievey to protect and preserve what he loved about his childhood self. The meaning of ‘Frank’ changes over time. Child-like behaviour is funny when a child, but is alarming as an adult. The humour of ‘Frank’ barely masked the aggression necessary to endlessly confront the conventions around which people build their lives. If Frank had been a wholly beloved persona then it would be unlikely that Sievey would have resented his success which included a cult following at music festivals and his own TV programme, Frank Sidebottom’s Fantastic Shed Show.
The most disturbing images the documentary has to offer are shots of the interior of the Frank mask which was entirely padded in foam and shots of Sievey removing the mask to reveal his own reddened, sweat soaked face. It was if becoming Frank was, among other things, an act of self flagellation.
A freelance journalist and Doctor Who fanzine editor since 1978, Tim Robins has written on comics, films, books and TV programmes for a wide range of publications including Starburst, Interzone, Primetime and TV Guide. His brief flirtation with comics includes ghost inking a 2000AD strip and co-writing a Doctor Who strip. He reviewed comics and films in posts and podcasts for The Mindless Ones until he became a net diva and forgot to name check the rest of the team at a San Diego Comic Con panel. The Mindless Ones gave him the nickname ‘Tymbus’
• Approached by co-editor Patrick Gallagher Chris became something of a figurehead for Oink!, a real-life celebrity and TV and radio star in the guise of Frank who could help publicise the comic as well as contribute gloriously hand-crafted strips, often coloured with felt-tip pen! For more about Frank Sidebottom and Oink!, look no further than Phil’s Oink! Blog
• Phil’s tribute to Frank Sidebottom (2015)
• If you live near Kendal, home to the Lakes International Comic Art Festival, then you’ll be pleased to hear Being Frank: The Chris Sievey Story is on at The Brewery Arts Centre on Thursday 2nd May. The film will be introduced by the director and followed by a Q&A. Web: www.breweryarts.co.uk