Fans of much-missed Manchester comedian Frank Sidebottom will be spoilt rotten this month, with the opening of a museum exhibition at the Manchester Central Library and the release of a new documentary.
By turns deeply moving and very funny, Being Frank: The Chris Sievey Story is a beautifully made film which explores the life of the man behind the mask.
“We’re looking forward to the Manchester premiere enormously,” says director Steve Sullivan. “I know Frank always wanted to have his work shown at the Cornerhouse and now his life is going to be celebrated at the new Cornerhouse. I think, for him, that would have been important.”
Steve met Chris when they collaborated on a documentary called Magical Timperley Tour in 2006. That experience lead directly to Being Frank:
“I ended up going to Chris’ funeral”, he says, “and I kept in touch with his brother, Martin. After a couple of years had gone by, I emailed Martin and asked about making a documentary and he replied straight away and said, ‘I’ve just cleared Chris’ house, I’ve got a hundred boxes of his personal archive, I’ve got nowhere to put it. If you could bring a transit van and haul it away and try to make something of it, you’d be really welcome.’”
The remarkable archive forms the basis of both the film and the exhibition – and, as Steve explains, it yielded some fascinating discoveries.
“It took a couple of years, off and on, to sort through the archive”, he says, “but that was ongoing whilst starting to do the interviews, starting to edit the film. It was all fairly random. There was a couple of week period where every single surface in my flat was covered in Chris Sievey’s stuff while I tried to work out what goes with what.
“It was a real investigative process of trying to work out what had this guy who was Frank Sidebottom actually done in his life? And it was a shock to find out he was in a band called The Freshies and he was the front man of a post-punk band for four or five years. All of which is knowledge that had been forgotten, really. People just remembered Frank. They didn’t remember anything that came before that”.
The discovery of Chris’ music became key to unlocking the film, as Steve explains:
“The moment I realised there’s a bigger story here is when I actually first started to listen to Chris’ music and see Chris’ paintings and Chris’ illustrations and realise there was a man here who was doing things that weren’t Frank Sidebottom – he had creativity that he wasn’t putting into the character and he had things to say that he didn’t want to say through Frank’s prism, as it were.
“He didn’t want to say them within a persona, he wanted to say them as himself as a creative person. And so I realised that these two characters, Chris and Frank, are competing for space in Chris’ head and actually it’s about an artist struggling to express himself as himself, and not through a persona.”
When asked what he hopes people take away from the film, Steve replies:
“I hope they take away inspiration, more than anything, that you actually can just go and be creative and not compromise. You can do your own thing and there’s a value in doing your own thing and whatever you want to do is as good as whatever anybody else wants to do.
“I don’t think Chris would want people to copy him and try and be like him – he would want them to be as original as him in their own way. If somebody watches this film and they go home and they record or a song or do a painting and they’re inspired by his creativity, then that’s a fantastic thing to come out of his life.”
Most importantly, Steve reveals, Frank’s entire archive has been preserved for posterity in the heart of Manchester. He explains:
“We’ve made sure that at the end of the process of making the film, all his archive has been deposited at Manchester Central Library, in a thing called Archives Plus, which is public records and archives for Manchester. So all his work is being preserved in the centre of Manchester forever and it will now exist in air-conditioned, humidity-controlled vaults preserved by archivists, which is so much better than what was going to happen to it all, which was it was going to go in a skip.”
In the meantime, Steve has been closely involved with turning Chris’ archive into an exhibit called Bobbins: Frank Sidebottom and Chris Sievey at Manchester Central Library. So what can we expect from the exhibit?
“Basically everything”, says Steve. “There’ll be loads of videos for people to watch, rarities that they haven’t seen before. We’re going to have full-length Frank Sidebottom concerts, Freshies gigs. We’ve got Frank’s head in there, Little Frank bodies, all kinds of things.
“Basically, they’ve given us the ground floor of Manchester Central Library and said, ‘take it over’, so we’ve Franked it up. It’s going to blow some people’s minds, probably. We’ve even had a Frank Sidebottom stencil done for the tops of coffees in the cafe, so people will be able to have Frank’s head on a coffee.
“It’s going to be another great tribute to him, like the film. The hope is the two projects complement each other. There’s a different experience to looking at something in a cabinet than there is to watching it go by very briefly on a screen, whereas in the film you get his life with all the context. But it’s going to be a really big exhibition and I just hope people come and discover him. If somebody brings their kids and they discover him through that, that’s tremendous.”
Bobbins: Frank Sidebottom and Chris Sievey runs from March 1st to 30th April at Manchester Central Library and is free to the public.
Being Frank: The Chris Sievey Story will have a special preview at HOME on March 8th (including a Q&A with Steve) and will then go on general release on March 29th.