Director: Steve Sullivan. Running time: 105 minutes
Back in the 1980s, a Manchester man called Chris Sievey started appearing in public wearing an oversized Papier-mâché head. At first, he called the character, ‘John Smith’ before changing it to ‘Frank Sidebottom.’ Frank soon became something of a success. You may well have seen him yourself. This documentary tells his story, or rather, the story of his creator. Chris Sievey ended up playing Frank for the rest of his life.
Chris appeared live as Frank as well as on Saturday morning kids’ shows like Motormouth and in the comic, Oink! He worked with a few people who later became famous such as Mark Radcliffe (interviewed here, before his recent illness), Caroline Aherne and Jon Ronson. Ronson later wrote a book about his time with Sievey, which later became the 2014 Michael Fassbender film, Frank.
He was never hugely famous himself, despite once introducing Bros (at the height of the short-lived ‘Brosmania’ era) at Wembley stadium. He played songs and told jokes, appearing with a ventriloquist’s dummy made in Frank’s image called ‘Little Frank’. He was often not very funny and his songs were often not good.
Despite this, it’s hard not to be won over by the warmth of this affectionate tribute to Sievey (who died in 2010, aged just 54) from director Steve Sullivan. There was certainly a dark side to Sievey: his success with Frank Sidebottom came only after years of persistent failed attempts to launch his own music career notably with band, The Freshies. A song called, ‘I’m In Love With The Girl On The Manchester Virgin Megastore Checkout Desk’ came closest to success. Like Sidebottom, he seems to have been possessed by a child-like optimism and a naivety about such things as paying taxes and bills which must have made him very hard to live with. He seems to have grown to resent the fact his only real fame was achieved through a made-up character. No joke intended, but he also seems to rather have let the success he did have as Frank Sidebottom go to his head.
Supported by interviews from fans like poet John Cooper Clarke and comics Ross Noble and Johnny Vegas as well as Chris’s son, Harry, who was subsequently tragically killed in a cycling accident in 2017, this is a first class documentary about a minor popular culture icon who deserves to be remembered.
Easily Distracted by Steve Coogan
Published by: Century
Let’s be clear: Steve Coogan is not Alan Partridge.
There are similarities, obviously. They both look almost the same. Both are totally car-obsessed. Both have a love for James Bond. In one episode of I’m Alan Partridge…, Partridge memorably recreates the entire opening sequence of The Spy Who Loves Me. Coogan, meanwhile, admits to having a picture of Roger Moore in a safari suit on his bedroom wall as a child. As an adult, he was overjoyed to be mentioned briefly in Roger Moore’s own autobiography.
But the resemblance soon ends. Partridge seems to be always around ten years older than Coogan himself. Coogan has just turned fifty, Partridge must thus be now about sixty, although the age gap seemed to narrow in Alpha Papa. Coogan is a left winger with an understandable and fully justified hatred of our tabloid press. Partridge is much less politically sophisticated, a Daily Mail reader and “homosceptic” who supports the death penalty. Coogan has been much more successful with women than Alan, who makes largely inept romantic overtures towards beauty show contestants, much younger radio station employees and whose idea of a hot date is going to a “cracking owl sanctuary”. Oddly, Coogan attributes his success in this regard, which predates his fame to his essential geekiness: “they liked the fact that I wasn’t an alpha male. I was a bit square. A bit nerdish.” It has often ended in disaster, however.
There is far more to Steve Coogan than Alan Partridge, however, and despite an occasional failure (like his 24 Hour Party People character, his real life friend Tony Wilson) to wear his learning lightly and avoid pretension (“I’ve learned late in life to understand the true beauty of thoughts and reflections”), this is an enjoyable well written book. The first section deals with various highs and lows: his recent triumph with Philomena, his war with the evil forces of News International, the filming of Alpha Papa and an early nadir at the 1990 Edinburgh Festival during which he “spent far too much time imagining what it would be like to be Sean Hughes” then seemingly bound for superstardom, hard as it is t believe now. The second section is more chronological, describing his generally happy Irish Catholic northern upbringing. His brother later had a top twenty hit with the Mock Turtles’ “Can You Dig It?”
The third segment deals with Coogan’s rise to fame through college, Spitting Image and radio and TV up to the mid-nineties. There is perhaps not enough about Coogan’s actual career since he achieved fame: Around The World In Eighty Days isn’t mentioned, perhaps understandably as it was a big flop, nor is Dr Terrible’s House of Horrible. But successes like Cruise of the Gods and Coogan’s Run are barely mentioned either. Coogan will also doubtless surprise many by admitting to liking Saxondale more than Alan Partridge.
Comedy is a vicious business but while he admits to rightly loathing Bernard Manning who he has met, On The Buses and to not personally being a fan of Michael McIntyre (“not my cup of tea”), he is remarkably generous about almost everyone he has worked with, usually only encountering tension with them if they are unable to work with him again for some reason. He admits to finding Chris Morris “odd” and was “hurt” when John Thomson, by then a big star thanks to The Fast Show and Cold Feet understandably no longer wanted to be Paul Calf’s sidekick “Fat Bob” anymore. Coogan also once almost came to blows with early collaborator Patrick Marber (a regular on Alan Partridge’s sofa, who in one guise was accidentally shot dead on TV by Alan on the last episode of Knowing Me, Knowing You…”) and the two seem to have drifted apart, despite reconciling afterwards. Marber is now better known as a writer and screenwriter but Coogan is still clearly immensely grateful to him. “God bless Patrick Marber,” are words unlikely to crop up in Lee and Herring’s memoirs. They appear here.
In A Cock and Bull Story (and later The Trip) Steve Coogan’s character is continuously annoyed when Rob Brydon repeatedly adopts an Alan Partridge voice to impersonate Coogan. In truth, he seems far more at ease with his inner demons than tabloid mythology suggests. Let us hope so. He is a national treasure.
And the book? Lovely stuff.
The problem with peopling a comedy series with annoying characters is that the series as a whole can end up being annoying rather than funny. This is a bit of an issue for W1A, John Morton’s follow up to his own Twenty Twelve. That dealt with the farcical goings on at the fictional Olympic Deliverance Commission in the run-up to the 2012 London Games. This follows the onetime Head of Deliverance Ian Fletcher (Bonneville) as he grapples with the frustrations and inertia of life at the BBC where he has been appointed to the meaningless position of Head of Values.
Fletcher is not especially annoying himself and along with Head of Inclusivity Lucy Freeman (Sosanya) is probably the closest thing we have to a hero or at least a sympathetic character in the whole thing. Fletcher is joined by the most memorable character from Twenty Twelve, the vacuous Siobhan Sharpe (Hynes, in her best role since Daisy in Spaced). A strong cast of supporting cast notably Rufus Jones, as a camp dim-witted ideas man and Hugh Skinner as a hopeless intern.
Numerous problems confront the hapless Fletcher in these seven half-hour (plus one-hour special) episodes. A Spotlight South West presenter complains about a perceived anti-Cornish bias at the Corporation towards her, though she does not actually come from the county herself. A row emerges when details of Fletcher’s salary are leaked and chaos ensues after it is revealed Newsnight presenter Evan Davies is to appear on Strictly Come Dancing. The show wears its celebrity cameos lightly and does not rely on them too heavily for humour.
John Morton was behind the earlier “mockumentary” People Like Us (which starred the now disgraced Chris Langham) and as on that there are moments of genius in the show’s deliberately inane voiceover, here delivered by David Tennant as in Twenty Twelve (“Sting has called up Alan Yentob personally and called him an actual prick”). There is much to commend here. Another brilliant touch is that the show’s offices have all been named after comedy giants of the past. Hence “inside Frankie Howerd,” there is a huge, rather alarming backdrop featuring the face of the Up Pompeii! star.
It is admirable that the BBC has produced something that is so critical of itself. However, in general, too many of the characters either speak in catchphrases (“I’m not being funny but…”) or obstructive cliches (responding to a question with an unhelpful “brilliant” rather than answering it) that it is sometimes as frustrating as the media world it depicts.
Otherwise, and I’m not being funny or anything but it’s all good.
Release date: May 18th 2015
Cast: Hugh Bonneville, Jessica Hynes, Rufus Jones, Sarah Parish, Nina Sosanya, Jason Watkins, Hugh Skinner, Ophelia Lovibond