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.
Peterborough, June 11th 1987
The Tories seemed to be doing rather well in 1987. Mrs Thatcher had beaten the unions, the Wets and the Argentines. She now seemed set to do the same for her third Labour electoral opponent, Neil Kinnock just as she had thwarted both Jim Callaghan and Michael Foot before. The economy was enjoying a brief economic boom. Thatcher, apparently invincible but not yet obviously unstable, looked unstoppable. The NHS, crime and homelessness figures were all far worse than they had been, but no one was worrying about this then.
Labour, though much more polished than in 1983, thanks to the red rose symbol and other behind the scenes innovations by the then largely unknown Peter Mandelson, were well on the road to becoming New Labour, this would propel it to a massive victory a decade later. But in 1987, the party still looked vulnerable as did the Alliance led by the “two Davids” Owen and Steel. In Peterborough, Brian Mawhinney seemed safe against his Labour foe Andrew MacKinlay (who would later be MP for Thurrock between 1992 and 2010).
But as Lt. Col. Oliver North frequently said in the Iran-Contra hearings at about this time: “I was not aware” of all these things.
I was ten. I was in my third year (that is, Year 5) of my Junior School. I liked Whizzer and Chips, Buster and Oink! comic (none of these are still going) and books like The Demon Headmaster and The Turbulent Term of Tyke Tyler. I used to draw and write my own stories, sometimes in cartoon form, on Peterborough Development Corporation paper which my dad would bring home from work. He is retired now and the PDC no longer exists, so I hope my revealing this, doesn’t get him into trouble..
I liked riding my BMX round the park and swimming in the Regional Pool (not the Lido so much, as that was freezing). I could very nearly swim and cycle by 1987, though not simultaneously. I was never fat but disliked sport. I loved history. I was not the film buff I have become but I was already a big Blackadder fan, even though it was often unsuitable for a ten year old. I used to play very slow Atari 800XL computer games and fight with my younger brother (six). My older brother was just finishing his time at Reading University while my sister, just two months off being old enough to vote was then finishing her A levels.
This was the first election I was aware of. I was not hugely impressed by any of the parties and had not yet developed any feelings of loyalty towards them. I found Mrs. Thatcher’s affected way of speaking rather grating, as indeed my mother did and still does. But Neil Kinnock seemed boring when he appeared on Wogan. The Alliance roused no strong feelings within me either. I understood bar charts well enough from my Scottish Maths books to see that the Tories were going to win.
My third year teacher Mrs. Field (not her actual name) organised a mock election.The Tory candidate, a bright promising girl, was something of a favourite. As in all subsequent elections, I became emotionally involved but didn’t make a speech or do anything that involved work. Speeches were made by anyone, not just the three main candidates. I think the Tories would have won the mock election anyway but Mrs. Field was hardly an impartial arbitrator. Generally everyone made meaningless speeches e.g. “The Conservatives will build lots of houses” or “Look up “liberal” in the dictionary and it means…” or “Labour will make the schools better”. If someone spoke up for Labour though Mrs. Field would sometimes interject with something like: “but how will Labour pay for all this? With higher taxes!” Taxes sounded evil to our childish ears then. Even though, in retrospect, they might have got us a proper classroom rather than the mobile one we were then sat in.
These interjections prompted a few people to defect from Labour to Tory, ultimately pushing them into third place. The Labour candidate was a decent boy and a friend. I regret to say for the first and only time I VOTED CONSERVATIVE MYSELF.
Yes, I know it wasn’t a real election and I admitted it at the time before I did it. My family weren’t impressed, but knew I was only a child. In time, I would be the only one of us to become a Labour Party member. But in 1987 I probably just wanted to back a winner.
But I’m not proud of myself.
The Tories won a 100 seat majority nationwide and the first plans for the Community Charge were announced soon afterwards. John Major won Mawhinney’s neighbouring seat of Huntington for a third time too. He won his first position in Cabinet straight after the election, became Foreign Secretary and Chancellor in 1989 and finally Prime Minister just three years later in 1990.
The Tories won in the class Mock Election comfortably too, the Tory candidate later becoming an actress. Mrs. Field died about twenty years ago and most people involved, now like me, fast approaching forty, have probably forgotten about the school election completely.
But by the next election in 1992, I would be fifteen. Still not old enough to vote but by then firmly in the Labour camp.
2017 update: I no longer regret not voting for the Labour candidate. I’d not seen him in years and he recently put a horrendously racist joke on Facebook. I de-friended him.