The first time I ever saw Chris Sievey’s comedy character Frank Sidebottom was on the ITV Saturday morning kids magazine show No. 73 in the mid eighties and though I tended to be a fan of the BBC’s Saturday Swapshop (I had terrible taste as a youngster) I used to get up and switch over every so often on the off chance Frank would be on it, this being the horrendous time before we had a remote control. For years afterwards I’d occasionally catch him on tv but such incidents were sadly few and far between, and rather sadly I then forgot about him until I heard that he died.
This superb documentary about the man behind the mask (or underneath the paper mache head, if we’re to be accurate about such things) has made me realise how much I missed out on though, and I really wish I’d seen more of his work as after seeing it I spent the night on youtube watching old clips and shows and Frank Sidebottom really is a work of genius, and I don’t use that term lightly, or indeed hardly ever and would only count about five living comedians as such a thing. Sidebottom is a quintessentially British creation, I can’t imagine any other country producing anything quite like him, and the charm of the character comes from his innocent take on his small town life which include songs about not being able to work late as he has to get chops for his mum and how much he likes Monopoly, along with unique takes on famous songs from other artists, while he also had a love for Betamax videos and football, interviewed celebrities with the silliest of questions and had daft arguments with his puppet Little Frank.
The documentary’s not just about Frank Sidebottom though as it explores the life of Chris Sievey in detail from his early childhood to his teenage years and early twenties, indeed the first thirty minutes are devoted to all of the bands he was in and his attempts to become famous which resulted in The Freshies, a pop band who truly deserved to garner acclaim as the songs heard in the film demonstrate. These early sections also highlight how multi-talented Sievey was, his endless imagination, and just how crazily ambitious he was with many examples of the stunts he’d pull to gain attention, but also that for Chris it wasn’t always about success (though he undoubtedly wanted that), the main thing was having control over everything he did.
It also gives a real insight in to the man Chris was, from his brother fondly talking about the early years to wife Paula reminiscing about how they met, and the moment she realised she was in love with him just after he’d pushed her in the canal on a whim. Such behaviour may sound a little strange but it’s a testament to how much charm Sievey had that he could get away with doing something like that, and that’s echoed throughout the documentary as everyone talks fondly about the man, even when he went through a dark period later on in life. I’ll get to that later though as the first hour of the documentary is joyfully funny and fascinating as Chris tries to become famous, including how he launched a pop career and publicised it in many strange ways, the best of which saw him making homemade personalised videos for fans and producing a 7″ single that on the b-side had a programme for the ZX Spectrum that worked as a very basic video for the song on the A-side. Due to Chris buying a video camera in the early eighties there’s a huge amount of footage of his home life and early career which is constantly captivating and engaging, many documentaries suffer from being a whole load of talking heads and very little video of their subject but that’s not the case here in the slightest, and while we do see a fair bit of the interviewees much of the time it’s accompanied by shots of Sievey which perfectly illustrate the stories being told.
Just over thirty minutes in we’re introduced to Frank Sidebottom and the film becomes even funnier as it’s packed with clips of his routines and songs, along with some beautifully crazy stories about the man. Among these are how Frank was an almost accidental creation, initially just used as The Freshies no.1 fan before becoming far more popular than the band and the creation of Little Frank and Little Denise and the tales about them (especially the one about the loss of Little Denise’s head and how Seivey carried on performing the character with just her body) never cease to be laugh out loud stuff, with perhaps the funniest being how he was booed at Wembley while introducing the band Bros as after initially going down well he shouted out “Hands up if you’ve got Betamax?” to stunned silence.
We’re also presented with his artwork for Oink comic, which he used to spend hours creating despite being paid very little for, and his antics with a local football team, which again show not only his endless creativity but his need to be in control of everything he did. Somehow he even managed to make a tv show without interference, but it’s here that sadly events took a darker turn as once finally famous his alcohol consumption and cocaine use got out of control and he’d go missing for days. He was also terrible with money in general, often forgetting to pay the rent, and he sadly ended up bankrupt, and worst of all is that he cheated on Paula, forcing her to leave him and take the kids to live in a hostel. There’s also discussion of how the character of Frank took over his life, with one interviewee commenting “He became more than an alter-ego, it was a schizophrenia almost that was involved”, though it should be mentioned that others disagree with this statement. He was briefly reunited with Paula but the relationship didn’t last, and for a while he gave up appearing as Frank as he’d reached the point where he became resentful of the success of the character while his other work was ignored. It’s admittedly upsetting material but it also adds a lot of depth to the documentary as though it’s a celebration of his life it’s also a very honest exploration of the man and so doesn’t gloss over his faults.
This period of time was clearly extremely difficult time for Sievey, and his battle with depression is documented here as well, and this along with his other issues had an impact on his children and though they clearly love him it adds a tragic element to the piece. Fortunately the final half hour isn’t all grim though, with his daughter’s help he admitted he was an alcoholic and sought help, and then created a five year plan where he’d return to being Frank and become more famous than he’d ever been, before unmasking himself at the end and then making music and art as Chris Sievey. During these five years there’s a lot of hilarious footage once again, including clips from Frank’s Proper Telly Show which made me laugh a ridiculous amount, with “Bobbing for betamax” being one of the many, many highlights. But tragically during the fifth year he was diagnosed with cancer, and despite continuing to perform for as long as he could the bastard disease eventually killed him.
In one interview former band mate and well know radio DJ Mark Radcliffe sums up what made Frank such a sublime creation, commenting “That was the beauty of Frank’s world, it was founded on illogicality” while Johnny Vegas summarises Sievey’s ethos in life – “Don’t be looking at the fucking X-Factor finishing line. Just be good where you can be good” and when it comes to the latter Sievey clearly managed such a thing over and over again. His was a complex, absurd and astonishingly creative life and though he might not have fulfilled all of his dreams the one thing he definitely did is bring a huge amount of joy in to people’s lives, and this documentary does exactly the same thing. I only hope it becomes a huge success as Sievey undoubtedly deserves to be as famous as he always wanted to be.
The only disappointing aspect of the film is that it wasn’t double or triple the length, and though that’s something of a cliche in the world of film reviews it’s genuinely true. I’m aware there’s a lot more footage of Frank performing and both the forthcoming dvd and blu-ray feature more of it, I’m loathe to buy such things normally as extras often disappoint but for once I’ve no doubt that it’ll be an essential purchase. One of the best documentaries of the last decade, even if you’ve never heard of Chris Sievey before it’s an absolute must watch, as it’s an amazing insight in to a truly unique individual.
The Being Frank Official Site.
Details on where it’s showing at the cinema are here.
Director Steve Sullivan’s Youtube Channel which contains more great footage of Frank.
The pilot episode of Frank Sidebottoms Fantastic Shed Show.