“A glorious and ridiculous ride”: Steve Sullivan on excavating Frank and the Chris Sievey story

Steve Sullivan spent years in the Frank Sidebottom archives to uncover and understand Chris Sievey, the man behind the cult comic figure with the papier-maché head. He shares the story and some of the material he uncovered in the making of Being Frank.

► Watch Being Frank: The Chris Sievey Story online at BFI Player

Leigh Singer
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Steve Sullivan with an oversized Little Frank to promote Being Frank: The Chris Sievey Story (2019)

Steve Sullivan with an oversized Little Frank to promote Being Frank: The Chris Sievey Story (2019)

If you saw Lenny Abrahamson’s Frank (2014), starring Michael Fassbender as an eccentric, reclusive singer beneath an outsize papier-maché head with Pacman-shaped eyes, you might imagine you know the story of Frank Sidebottom. Especially since Frank was co-written by Jon Ronson, a one-time member of one of the real Frank’s troupes, the Oh Blimey Big Band. But that was largely fiction. The real mystery of the man beneath the mask – the restlessly innovative, incessantly creative writer, musician and performer Chris Sievey – is finally revealed in this painstaking, fascinating, years-in-the-making documentary from filmmaker Steve Sullivan, Being Frank: The Chris Sievey Story.

Sullivan was just 14 when he first encountered Frank Sidebottom, then a cult figure on regional TV and kids shows. Frank phoned the comic-book shop where Sullivan worked on Saturdays to confirm an in-store personal appearance; but when the teenager put his boss on the line, he was amazed that the call abruptly finished long before the appearance details had been set.

“I said to my boss, ‘You didn’t say goodbye to Frank Sidebottom,’” Sullivan recalls. “He looked at me, utterly bemused, and said, ‘I would’ve done but he suddenly shouted, ‘Oh, I’ve got to go, me mum’s just come in’ and slammed the phone down.’ To a kid it was totally baffling – why would any showbiz person conduct their business in such a strange way? You haven’t actually got what you need out of it, you’ve just done it for a laugh.”

It’s an incident wholly in keeping with Frank’s benignly anarchic, larger-(head)-than-life behaviour, mixing surreal humour with madcap song and dance and an utter disregard for the conventions of the entertainment business. Many years later and now a filmmaker, Sullivan only met Sievey once, when he filmed Frank’s Magical Timperley Tour of his home village in 2006. “I met Chris Sievey for about five minutes that day,” he says, “and spent all day with Frank Sidebottom. And it left me with more questions than answers.”

Sievey died in 2010 aged just 54, leaving behind a huge archive of tapes, cassettes, film reels and artwork, When Sullivan eventually got hold of this overflowing archive, he devoted years piecing together a portrait of a mercurial, often painfully conflicted talent, featuring Sievey’s multi-faceted art and testimonies from the likes of Ronson, DJ (and another former bandmate) Mark Radcliffe, Ross Noble and Johnny Vegas. The result is a multi-festival hit, whose freewheeling, hand-crafted style feels imbued by the puckish spirit of its enigmatic subject.

Bring Frank: the Chris Sievey Story (2019) trailer

 

Working with Frank

Sullivan’s brief comic-book shop interaction had stuck with him over the years, despite Frank largely disappearing from public attention. When he heard that Frank was making a comeback, he managed to get in touch by writing to his PO Box in Timperley.

“I sent him a showreel of my shorts and asked if ever wanted to collaborate. I got an immediate reply. His letter back just said, ‘Come on Sunday, bring a fantastic film crew.’ The ‘Magical Timperley Tour’ was an open-top bus tour led by this living cartoon character for a hundred of his closest fans while he showed them the amenities of the village. That’s the joke: Timperley’s a lovely place, but it’s a village like many others, it’s got one of everything. Except to Frank, every single thing becomes magical. The chippie becomes, ‘How many people can we cram inside this chip shop and can we set the world record?’”

Steve Sullivan filming Frank Sidebottom on the Magical Timperley Tour

Steve Sullivan filming Frank Sidebottom on the Magical Timperley Tour
Credit: Jeff Jolly

Sullivan’s collaborations with Sievey revealed some of the idiosyncratic challenges that greeted anyone with whom he worked.

“I was editing the Timperley film and Chris said he’d hand draw an animated title sequence to go with it. Months went by, I kept asking and texting, never got it, so eventually we digitally created an animated title sequence, which looks great. I sent him the finished film and got a letter back saying it’s absolutely fantastic, thing is though, the opening titles should have been hand-drawn… So even working with him and thinking you’re going to see behind the curtain, just left more questions. Is he saying that to annoy me? For his own amusement? Has he genuinely forgotten that we’ve had that conversation?”

Frank Sidebottom’s Magical Timperley Tour

Frank Sidebottom's Magical Timperley Tour: the elusive hand-coloured titles

Frank Sidebottom's Magical Timperley Tour: the elusive hand-coloured titles

“We kept in touch but we were both incredibly busy and then one day I had a call to say Frank Sidebottom had died. Which is strange in itself because Frank Sidebottom never really existed. It’s like saying ‘Rupert the Bear’s died.’ But I ended up going to his funeral and hearing about Chris for the first time from his family. I met his brother, Martin, and kept in touch a little. And I kept asking myself, Who was that guy?

 

Sifting the Sievey Archives

“Then two years later, I emailed Martin about whether anyone had expressed interest in making a documentary about Chris. He emailed straight back and said, ‘Look I’ve just cleared his house, I’ve got a hundred boxes of his personal stuff and nowhere to put it and if you can just haul it away, you’d be doing me a favour.’ So I hired a transit van and went from South Wales to Manchester and brought it all back and basically filled my flat.

A selection of Chris Sievey's archive in Steve Sullivan’s flat

A selection of Chris Sievey's archive in Steve Sullivan’s flat

“The sift was in stages over years and years. I couldn’t sit down for days at a time, I was eating meals sat on the bed, as Chris’s stuff was spread out covering every surface including the sofa. Chris was not the most expert at filing, so everything was random. You’d have to take every single object out of every single box and put it into a pile of what you think it goes with.

Chris Sievey's Super 8 camera and formats galore, including VHS-C, the miniature VHS

Chris Sievey's Super 8 camera and formats galore, including VHS-C, the miniature VHS

“I was finding two lives, Frank and Chris’s. Every day there was a new discovery, as the size of Chris’s life and artistic creations besides Frank Sidebottom came flooding out. Here were [his bands] The Freshies, the Bees Knees, The Pyjama Polyphonic and Chris Sievey himself. In photos, in music, interviews, and on video. But also Frank’s world had become a real world – there was a whole box of letters to Frank Sidebottom from fans, who all take it as though it’s real. So it became this huge story of a secretive guy who died too young yet achieved more than many people who live much longer.”

The Beastie Puppets – a rare Frank Sidebottom record. Copies were pressed but never released.

The Beastie Puppets – a rare Frank Sidebottom record. Copies were pressed but never released.

“Chris led an analogue life. So we had to digitise everything just to be able to properly go through it – hundreds of audio cassettes, film cans, mouldy VHS tapes. We had a backer of the film baking them in a special oven to free the tapes up so they’d play. There were at least 350 hours in his own archive, including 200 hours of radio, very little of which is featured in the film. So as epic as the film is, the real archive is way larger.

“I’d go through endless tapes. I watched a three-hour Huckleberry Hound and Friends VHS tape because it had Frank Sidebottom written over the top of it. Of course, it was just Frank’s own tape of Huckleberry Hound and Friends. Other tapes could be blank for two hours and then contain ten seconds of pure home-movie gold that made the final cut of the film.

Frank’s Huckleberry Hound <span class="amp">&</span> Friends VHS

Frank’s Huckleberry Hound & Friends VHS

 

Being Frank-like

“The Sievey gene runs through the whole endeavour. Chris would have made it independently and just made it happen in a DIY way. The film was crowdfunded and crowd-sourced. People came together in a huge community wanting to honour Frank Sidebottom for what they’d had from him in the first place, returning the love he’d given out. People posted me hard drives filled with Frank Sidebottom shows. People found master tapes of music and photo negatives in their garden sheds. Someone even lent their house in Manchester for free, for me and the crew to live in while we filmed interviews, which saved thousands of pounds on hotels.

Steve Sullivan and sound recordist Dom Corbisiero swamped at the Frank Sidebottom statue unveiling

Steve Sullivan and sound recordist Dom Corbisiero swamped at the Frank Sidebottom statue unveiling

Before interviewing Martin Sievey. From left sound recordist Dom Corbisiero, art director Dave Arnold, director of photography Ezra Byrne, Martin Sievey, Steve Sullivan

Before interviewing Martin Sievey. From left sound recordist Dom Corbisiero, art director Dave Arnold, director of photography Ezra Byrne, Martin Sievey, Steve Sullivan

Steve Sullivan clapping a shot early in the shoot

Steve Sullivan clapping a shot early in the shoot

“When it came to interviews, and tracking relevant people down, we threw out a vast net to haul in as much information as possible. Chris led this really compartmentalised life, with different people populating the different stages of his life. We had to track people down around suburban Manchester, London, Anglesey, all over the place. One interview lead to another as we were let into the closed shop of the Manchester post-punk power pop scene. And so many of them turned out to be brilliant characters in their own right, suburban heroes and maverick artists living down quiet cul-de-sacs.

“For the look of the film, art director Dave Arnold set the tone: ‘What would Chris Sievey do?’ So we’d turn up at people’s houses and use everything in their environment to our advantage to create the set for the interview. Can we use this? Can we move that? We’ll put it back! And we always took a van full of props and items from Chris’s archive that tied the subject to him and brought them into Chris and Frank’s world.

Puppeteer Phil Fletcher interviewed in Being Frank: The Chris Sievey Story (2019)

Puppeteer Phil Fletcher interviewed in Being Frank: The Chris Sievey Story (2019)

Johnny Vegas interviewed in Being Frank

Johnny Vegas interviewed in Being Frank

“I went with wide shots for all the interviews as it allows the audience to look at the environment people are in and its connections with Chris, but also provided a deliberate contrast with all the archive footage where Chris and Frank were usually close up. Frank was in your face in real life, so the sudden jarring between the wide interviews and Frank up close gives a better appreciation of that feeling especially when he’s on a large cinema screen.

Rick Sarko and Martin Sievey of the Oh Blimey Big Band

Rick Sarko and Martin Sievey of the Oh Blimey Big Band

CP Lee of Alberto y Lost Trios Paranoias

CP Lee of Alberto y Lost Trios Paranoias

 

 

The long cut

“After the interviews followed years of editing. It was a solo marathon in my spare room, cross-referencing all the archive with all the stories people were telling and trying to work out which parts would collectively explain what you needed to know about Chris Sievey’s life, psychology, philosophy and creativity.

Steve Sullivan editing Being Frank. A back support chair, Avid Media Composer and lots of screen real estate for all the bins

Steve Sullivan editing Being Frank. A back support chair, Avid Media Composer and lots of screen real estate for all the bins

“We had over 400 hours of footage between Chris’s own archive of home movies and broadcast appearances, our rushes and archive the fans sent me. The first edit was 11 hours and 18 minutes. It took a weekend to watch.”

Being Frank deleted scene – Frank’s football halftime magic

 

Frank goes West

The finished film had its world premiere at SXSW in Austin, Texas, March 2018.

Being Frank at SXSW

Being Frank at SXSW

Being Frank at SXSW

Being Frank at SXSW

“It was the weirdest thing taking the film to SXSW. Has anyone heard of him? Is anyone interested? Will there be an audience? But Chris Sievey taught us all the value of working hard, and working silly and cheaply, so we were able to get posters and stickers out everywhere around Austin, and we even had a giant Little Frank made over in Dallas then driven to Austin in an especially large rental car so he could take to the streets.

Being Frank at SXSW

Being Frank at SXSW

People were fascinated by this massive piece of cardboard and we ended up with a sold out show on the opening night. All kinds of people came to see it, including Susan Sarandon, and just related to Chris and Frank’s story. The best moment was an email I got from an usher at the cinema who said he was an artist himself, and since seeing the film he now knows from Chris’s lesson that he can keep making his own artwork, without needing anyone else’s permission, for the rest of his life. I can’t imagine a better life lesson to come from Chris: just do your own thing and don’t ask permission.

Being Frank at SXSW

Being Frank at SXSW

 

Frank forever

“Chris’s archive has ended up being permanently housed and preserved in Manchester for all time, and we’ve even curated an exhibition of it all called Bobbins, which runs at Manchester Central Library until end of April.

Bobbins at Manchester Central Library

Bobbins at Manchester Central Library

“Chris was a timewaster. He loved to see how much of your time he could waste. I’ve certainly been down many rabbit holes over the years tracing his steps, and hopefully to his amusement. His archive is filled with timewasting moments, including this from Frank’s answering machine phone line.

 

“It’s been a seven-year labour of love, but it’s about to be released into the world and I’m about to be released from Frank Sidebottom and Chris Sievey’s unique world. It’s been a glorious and ridiculous ride and definitely not a waste of my time.”

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