Who was he?
Frank Sidebottom was a banjo playing character portrayed by comedian Chris Sievey of the 80's Indie band 'The Freshies'. The first distinctive thing about Frank was his large home made papier-mâché head. The head is lovingly made with paint and felt-tip pen. The visage on the head/mask, with its large blue eyes, bright red lips and perfectly plastered down side-parted black hair, depicts a permanent look of surprise. The next distinction of the character was his rasping nasally accent. Frank's traditional outfit was a tight fitting grey/silver suit with a thin pink tie. The character lived in the real life town of Timperley, which is on the outskirts of Manchester, England.
Modern British comedy owed a lot to the rich world of Frank Sidebottom and no one realises it. Take for example the comedy character Mrs Merton. Years beforehand, Frank had incorporated the character of Mrs Merton and her baby 'Reginald' into his radio show. Later, the character was given a new lease of life by Caroline Ahern. Indeed, John Shuttleworth seems to owe a lot to Frank too, coming from the same comedy-mould as him.
But it is the darlings of BBC Radio One Mark Radcliffe and Marc Riley or 'Mark and Lard' that formed the most significant part of the Frank Sidebottom team. When you hear the word 'Bobbins' you are actually hearing the legacy of Frank Sidebottom. More about 'Bobbins' later. The songs of Mark and Lard's band The Shirehorses sound a lot like Frank Sidebottom songs. I wonder, did they do all the writing for Frank?
Puppets haven't got pockets
Frank was not Frank without his home made puppet alter ego Little Frank. Little Frank is exactly what you would expect having seen Frank himself. The puppet is a scaled down version of Frank with a flat cardboard body and a smaller, but identical papier-mâché head. The relationship Frank had with his puppet was very humorous and funny. It is a love/hate relationship (mostly hate actually) with the small cardboard puppet effortlessly stealing the limelight from Frank. Along with Little Frank are Little Denise (Little Frank's romance-obsessed cardboard girlfriend), Little Buzz Aldrin and Amoeba Frank - the one celled ventriloquist puppet.
Frank employed a wide variety of words and catchphrases, some familiar, some unique such as:
- "Thank You"
- "Stick that in your pipe and smoke it"
- "...or somethin'"
- and my favourite: 'Oh Blimey'.
But there is one word, which Frank was single-handedly responsible for popularising as a catchphrase. That word is... 'Bobbins'. Bobbins are of course those devices used for storing large volumes of cotton. Frank stated in the pig-themed kids comic Oink! that Bobbins was the shortened 'Timperley rhyming slang' for 'Bobbins of Cotton' meaning Rotten. I'm not sure how widespread Timperley rhyming slang is in comparison with Cockney rhyming slang, but bobbins is quite a good euphemism to use when decrying something without causing offence.
The 'Oh Blimey' Big Band
When he was not arguing with Little Frank, the basic structure of Frank's live act consisted mostly of songs which tend to be cover versions of famous songs that range from 80's indie tunes to Glenn Miller. Frank's devotion to his home town of Timperley was exemplified in the titles and subjects of his songs, titles such as:
Indeed, it is important to know that all of his songs end the same way; like this:
"...you know it is, it really is"
"...you know I am, I really am"
"...you know they are, they really are."
For example, take Ultravox's 'Vienna'. After the penultimate line in Frank's cover version 'Oh Timperley', the song ends with:
'...it means everything to me...Oh Timperley! You know it does...it really does. Thank you."
When asked about this idiosyncrasy in an interview on Piccadilly Radio conducted by Chris Evans he said:
"You have to round them off." "I vary it, 'cos otherwise people would get bored."
Frank was inspired by the greats; Paul McCartney
, Freddie Mercury
and Elvis Presley
. On Elvis
"I always thought me and Elvis would work together. I think its mutual really. Cos I've never been to Graceland and he's never been to Timperley."
One of the jokes was that he always maintained it was his intention to go on a world tour, except he can't until he had tidied his bedroom. Frank, you see, was under the thumb of his Mum. Frank's Mum is never seen (like Arthur Daley's her indoors or Vera, Norm's wife from Cheers) but from his radio show 'Franks World' (aka 'Radio Timperley') we know her name is Betty Sidebottom. His dad, Arthur Sidebottom was largely missing from Frank's life, it seems. Apparently he tunnelled his way to the centre of the Earth...
In the 80's and 90's there was a jolly good comic called 'Oink!' that served as a kids precursor to 'Viz' with disgusting and hilarious characters. The gag was that the magazine/comic was produced by pigs, so many of the characters were pigs. Not long into Oink! Comic's run, Frank Sidebottom appeared with a regular strip drawn in his typical felt tip style; reminiscent of his papier-mâché head. No surprises there, Oink! Comic was created and produced by Marc Riley aka Lard from Mark and Lard and of course The Fall - do you see the connections?
The Man in the Cardboard Mask
If you haven't lived in the North West of England, it is hard to get the joke. In fact, if you haven't lived in England, it is even harder. If you are American, the best way to understand Frank Sidebottom is to combine The Unknown Comic (Murray Langston) with Pee Wee Herman.
He fell out of the public eye for a number of years, apprently being bankrupt, then writing an episode of Pingu before making a big comeback. He did the student union circuit for a long time with his band and performing humorous lectures. His answer to the Panto season? 'Bobbinson Crusoe'. He appeared on a late night cable TV quiz show a few years back as himself Chris Sievley (sans the paper head) and there was talk of him revealing his true face at some point in the near future.
A very very lot of TV
He popped up from time to time on TV. Remember that piss poor Saturday morning kids TV show 'Number 73' (later '7T3')??? He was on that. His greatest Number 73 moment was as the villain 'Ron Flusher' in the Bond spoof 'From Flusher with Love'.
In the early 90's he had begun to branch out a bit from Frank, creating one of the best Saturday morning TV skits since the redubbed version of 'The Flashing Blade', that was 'Life with the Amoebas' which seemed to be borrowed from the concept of his 'Amoeba Frank' puppet.
There was also a futuristic comedy drama with John Gordon Sinclair called Snakes and Ladders that featured a scene set in a pub that played nothing but Frank's music over the PA.
Sievey was also one of Paul Ross' cronies on Endurance UK based on that Japanese game show. Before that he assisted Anthony H Wilson on the quiz show Remote Control. And does anyone remember Kazuko's Karaoke Club? Frank Chickens?
In fact, Frank his been all over television, regionally and nationally in the UK. He even took over the test card on Channel Four one night. Hmm.
His very very own TV Show
There is a pilot episode of his animated Frank's World and a videotape out there with three episodes of his six-episode Yorkshire TV series: 'Frank's Fantastic Shed Show'. It aired at about 3am on the ITV network (or at least in the Granada region) which is a shame. If it had aired at 6pm, weeknights on Channel 4, Frank would have a much higher profile today. 'Shed Show' featured Mark Radcliffe as 'Emerson Lake' the local greengrocer and member of Frank's 'Oh Blimey Big Band'. It also featured 'Billy and Barry Belly' - two of Sievey's and Mark Radcliffe's creations. They played the two rowdy Buckaroo playing brothers and again Sievely played it without the papier-mâché head which is a shame as I always enjoyed the enigma of Frank Sidebottom... who was he underneath?
In May 2010, he announced that he was recovering from treatment to a tumor in his chest. It's likely that he kept the severity of this to himself, carrying on making jokes about it and drawing pictures of himself sans hair. He died on the morning of June 21th 2010. Many people didn't like our Frank, yet Mark and Lard are well loved. But the jokes, style and sense of humour are exactly the same. Maybe it was the head...