When he was growing up in Preston, Steve Sullivan couldn’t say for sure that Timperley was even a real place.
“I had no idea,” Sullivan tells Northern Soul. “I didn’t know it was a made-up thing. It didn’t register with me at all. I mean, Manchester was something like 30 miles down the road and I didn’t drive. I think I’d maybe been as far as Affleck’s Palace, but no further.”
Little did Sullivan know that the village of Timperley (population: 11,049) would come to loom large in his life. Sullivan is the director, producer and editor of the fine new documentary Being Frank: The Chris Sievey Story, which tells the full story behind Sievey’s creation, Frank Sidebottom, Timperley’s best-known son. “And yet, Ian Brown’s from Timperley,” Sullivan says. “John Squire, I think, is from Timperley, too, so it’s not like Chris was the only famous person to come from there. But he’s certainly the only famous person who’s ever gone on and on and on about it. The Stone Roses never wrote any songs about Timperley, did they? And they could have.”
Let’s not get side-tracked with thoughts of Sally Timperley or Timperley Love Song, though. As a young resident of Granadaland, Sullivan grew up seeing Sidebottom on all manner of local TV shows. “He was just everywhere, wasn’t he? He was like this kind of folk hero who was just on everything. I was totally aware of him but didn’t get it and I wasn’t a fan. He was just this silly guy on telly with the big papier-mâché head.”
Then, as a teenager, Sullivan had a Saturday job in the Preston comic shop Thunderbooks. It had a sister shop in Blackpool, where the manager once booked Frank Sidebottom to make a personal appearance. When the phone rang on Saturday morning in the Preston shop, Sullivan answered it.
“The person on the other end was like [high-pitched nasal voice] ‘oh alright boss, it’s Frank Sidebottom off the telly’. I was gob-smacked. I mean, this was the most famous person I’d ever spoken to. I went and got Dave the owner who came and had a chat with him. All of a sudden, in middle of the conversation, Dave looked really confused, put the phone down and walked away, shaking his head. I went and found him in the stock room and said, ‘what happened?’. And Dave said ‘well, we got halfway talking about his personal appearance at the Blackpool shop and he just shouted “oh, I’ve got to go, my mum’s just come in” and slammed the phone down’. He didn’t even find out what time they wanted him, where he should park, how much he was getting paid or any of that stuff. It just stuck with me. Like, why would you do your business in such a silly, nonsensical, ramshackle way? Who would do that? What’s that about?”
In 2006, having studied at film school, Sullivan was intrigued enough to borrow a Frank Sidebottom CD from a friend and found himself falling head over heels with the character and his world. He sent Sievey a fan letter and was promptly summoned to document a Magical Timperley Tour event. Sure enough, he met Sievey in civvies on an open top bus with a film crew in tow. Sullivan was keen to mic Sievey up inside the Sidebottom head, which only raised more of those strange, lingering questions.
“I said to Chris ‘we want to put a microphone on you’ and he just said ‘why?’. I said, ‘because we want to get a good sound’ but he just said ‘why?’. Then he helped me out. He said, ‘Do you mean Frank Sidebottom?’, and I said ‘ah, yes’ and we all breathed out. He said ‘I’ll tell you what’s going to happen, Frank’s at my house in the living room so I’m going to go and tell him that you want a word with him. Then Frank will come back, and he’ll let you put the microphone on him’. So, we’re waiting on this bus and we’re all totally shell-shocked by the weirdness of this as well as a bit excited.
“Five minutes later Frank Sidebottom comes down the road in a bus driver’s outfit with a megaphone. All his fans were starting to turn up for the bus trip and he told them ‘I’m just gonna have a word with my fantastic film crew’. So, we went upstairs on this open top bus with Frank and he laid down in between the seats on the top deck and took the head off. The sound man got to work gaffer-taping this radio mic inside the head and I’m looking down at Chris Sievey laid on his back on the floor, but Chris was not in there. He was just blank, looking up above this open top bus at these Timperley clouds going across the Timperley skyline. He was not in there at all. Even after seven years researching him, I don’t know if that was a gag for my benefit or he was just not in there when he was Frank Sidebottom. I still couldn’t say for certain.”
Sullivan’s Magical Timperley Tour film captured some of the strange, loopy magic of Sievey’s character creation but, as it happens, Sievey had been documenting his own career all along. He’d amassed a huge personal archive of artwork, audio recordings, videos, notebooks and diaries kept at his home covering Sidebottom as well as all his other creative endeavours. Tragically, Sievey died in 2010 at the age of 54 after collapsing at home while suffering from lung cancer. Before long, his archive was on the brink of being thrown away, but by sheer chance Sullivan chose that moment to contact Sievey’s family to suggest making a documentary about him. Next thing he knew, Sullivan was driving away with a transit van full of Sievey’s archive materials having promised the family to make something of them.
Eight years later and the vast Sievey archive now resides in Manchester Central Library – it’s currently the source of a fine exhibition, Bobbins, running there until April 30 – but not before Sullivan had sifted through it and assembled his feature documentary, Being Frank: The Chris Sievey Story. What he found might be hilarious, revealing, bizarre, tender or heart-breaking, but it all went into the mix.
“The guiding principle behind any editorial decision was ‘would Chris be OK with that?’ From everything that people had told me, he wouldn’t want you to do anything other than tell it as it was. If I found something in his archive, he’d saved it, he knew he had it, he knew he’d done those things, or he knew he’d said that, or he knew he’d painted that or whatever. So, it was all free licence put it in the film. I did carefully check with his children several times: ‘is there anything you don’t want me to say? Is there anything you don’t want me to cover?’. Every time they just said, ‘we knew what he was like, say what you think is right’. That counted more than anything really and you want to respect that. But Chris’s life wasn’t all hilarious, there were downsides as well and he was a deeply flawed artist. At the same time, I really didn’t want to make a hagiography. He was an absurd human being and that’s what makes him interesting.”
As the film illustrates, Sievey’s lack of day-to-day survival skills must have made him hard to live with at times. “I think ‘impossible to live with’ probably would be closer to the truth, a man with no domestic understanding or normality at all. The kind of man who, if you’re living with him, you look around going ‘where’s the iron, I need to do the kids’ clothes for school tomorrow’, but he’s taken the iron and put a pair of Frank eyes on it and he’s now performing with a Moulinex iron puppet. A Breville toaster puppet was another one. He’d take the sandwich-maker from home, put some eyes on it and it becomes a puppet. So, no understanding of what you’re supposed to do to keep the house going. A life where there are just no consequences – until there are.”
Sievey’s pre-Sidebottom band, The Freshies, never quite hit the big time and, while Frank was riding high, the identity of his real-life alter ego was a closely guarded secret. All told, the public have never really got to know the man himself – until now.
“He was a gentle man who was very well-humoured and silly and lovable, and most people have never seen that before. They never had a chance to meet Chris Sievey. Also, I think people are appreciating the work that he did and how much of it he did. People are shocked by his industry. He never stopped being creative, never took ‘no’ for an answer, never went ‘I don’t have the resources to do this’. He just went and did it. I think people are responding to that as well, just his sheer force of will. It’s inspiring. I think that would be his greatest legacy, if somebody went home from watching the film and recorded an album of their own or did a fantastic painting or got their Felt Tips and drew something or decided to keep a diary or whatever, just any act of creativity because of Chris. That would be unbelievable.”
By Andy Murray, Film Editor
Main image: Being Frank The Chris Sievey Story, Frank Sidebottom. Photo credit: Dave Arnold
Being Frank: The Chris Sievey Story is screening in selected cinemas and available as a digital download from March 29, 2019.