Review for Frank Sidebottom's Fantastic Shed Show
In common with any improvised, slightly anarchic and surreal humour, this occasionally brilliant series is also blighted by misses. There's no doubting the magic of Frank Sidebottom - one of more delightful comedic concoctions of the last three decades. His expressionless head belies the sheer force of his childish enthusiasm which serves to cut through all the pretentions and pomposity of much of modern life.
Frank Sidebottom is instantly recognisable by his large spherical head, styled like an early Max Fleischer cartoon made from papier-mâché, but later rebuilt out of fibreglass. Dressed in a 1950s-style sharp suit (and occasionally a Thunderbirds outfit or some such thing) Frank Sidebottom was portrayed as an aspiring pop star from the small village of Timperley near Altrincham, Greater Manchester. His character was upbeat, positive, optimistic, enthusiastic, and oblivious to his own failings. Although supposedly 35 years old (the age always attributed to Frank irrespective of the passage of time), he still lived at home with his mum who was blissfully unaware of her son's popularity. Frank sometimes had a sidekick in the form of "Little Frank", a hand puppet who was otherwise a perfect copy of Frank.
The character is also notable for moving on the careers of a number of other comedic types. Comedy character Mrs Merton started out as Frank's sidekick on his radio show Radio Timperley, and makes her TV debut on his shed shown, and Sidebottom's former 'Oh Blimey Big Band' members included Mark Radcliffe and Jon Ronson, with the irritating Chris Evans breaking into the business as his driver!
Frank was first revealed to the world on a 12 inch promotional record which came free with the Chris Sievey-created video game, 'The Biz', for the ZX Spectrum computer in 1984. The Frank Sidebottom character was initially created to be a fan of Sievey's band The Freshies but the popularity of the character led Sievey to shift emphasis on comedy records, many of which were released on Marc Riley's (Radio One's 'Lard' and one time 'The Fall' member) In-Tape record label.
Eventually, as a result of this reluctant and unplanned success, he landed his own television show on ITV which brings us neatly to this 'fantastic' Network release. 'Frank Sidebottom's Fantastic Shed Show' was first shown in 1992, produced by Yorkshire Television and shown on most of the ITV network.
The pilot was laugh aloud funny (and is included here in this set) and it's easy to see why tickled producers invested in the series, perhaps not appreciating that such humour was often hit and miss and definitely better delivered in very small doses.
The guest list reads like a British who's who of the day and included James Whale, Mrs Merton, Lee Chapman, Dennis Taylor, Kevin Lloyd, John Stalker, Phil Cornwell, Oceanic, Adamski, Dennis Locorriere, Midge Ure, The Farm, Gerry Anderson, Pop Will Eat Itself, Nicholas Parsons, Don E, Keith Chegwin, Bob Holness, and Keith Emerson.
A series highlight for me was the interview with a slightly bemused Gerry Anderson and clearly Sievey is on a roll. Dressed in Thunderbirds gear, and surrounded with Anderson related toys and games, his questioning is hilarious. 'Did you make much money?' (Yes) 'Have you got any with you now? Can we have a look at it?'. Priceless stuff.
Here's a rundown of what you get.
P.01: Pilot Episode
Guests: Sharyn Hodgson ('Carly' out of 'Home and Away' soap) and David Hamilton (famous radio DJ), with interruptions from James Whale (Television Presenter). End song 'Guess Who's Been On Match of the Day?' Recorded Sunday 25th August 1991, broadcast 0035h Saturday 11th January 1992 on Yorkshire Television.
1.01: Olympics Special
Guests: Lee Chapman (Leeds United player), Dennis Taylor (Professional Snooker player) with music from Londonbeat. Start song 'The Olympics are really Fantastic'. End song 'Guess Who's Been On Match of the Day?' Recorded Wednesday 10th June 1992, broadcast 2320h Friday 24th July 1992 on Yorkshire Television.
1.02: Crimewatch Timperley
Guests: Kevin Lloyd ('DC Lines' out of the Thames series 'The Bill'), John Stalker (former Deputy Chief Constable of Greater Manchester Police) with music from Oceanic. Appearances by Phil Cornwell as a policeman. Start song 'The Rozzers are really Fantastic'. End song 'Greengrocer On The Corner'. Recorded Thursday 11th June 1992, broadcast 2330h Friday 31st July 1992 on Yorkshire Television.
1.03: Live Aid 2
Guests: Adamski (Pop Star), Dennis Locorrier (ex-lead singer from Dr Hook), Midge Ure (Pop Star and co-writer of Band Aid's 'Do They Know It's Christmas') with music from The Farm. End song 'Me Great Big Zoo Scrapbook'. Recorded Tuesday 9th June 1992, broadcast 2330h Friday 7th August 1992 on Yorkshire Television.
1.04: Science Fiction Special
Guests: Gerry Anderson (creator of Thunderbirds etc) and Roy Lake (who runs a UFO society) with music from Pop Will Eat Itself. Start song 'Space is Ace'. End song 'Oh Supermum'. Recorded Monday 8th June 1992, broadcast 2335h Friday 14th August 1992 on Yorkshire Television.
1.05: Summer Fete Spectacular
Guests: Nicolas Parsons (ex-host of 'Sale of the Century') and Julia Harris (a woman who does pet horoscopes) with music from Don-E. End song 'Blackpool Fool'. Recorded Saturday 13th June 1992, broadcast 2335h Friday 21st August 1992 on Yorkshire Television.
1.06: Oh Blimey It's All Gone wrong
Guests: Keith Chegwin (ex of 'Cheggers Plays Pop' and 'Swap Shop', now of 'Sky Star Search') and Bob Holness (host of Central Television's 'Blockbusters') with music from The Adventures. End song 'Football Is Really Fantastic' by Emmerson Lake and Allegro supergroup featuring Little Frank. Recorded Friday 13th June 1992, broadcast 2335h Friday 28th August 1992 on Yorkshire Television.
Picture quality is variable (this was a video-taped recording and looks like it) though perfectly acceptable. There are no extras.
Sadly Sievey was diagnosed with cancer in May 2010. On Monday, 21 June 2010, Sievey died at Wythenshawe Hospital. He collapsed at his home in Hale, Cheshire, and was found by girlfriend, Gemma Woods, who called an ambulance. He was 54 years old and after it was reported that Sievey had died virtually penniless, a few social networking websites rallied round and donated significant sums to help out with the costs, raising £6,500 in a matter of hours. The appeal closed on Monday 28 June with a final balance of £21,631.55 from 1632 separate donations. That's nearly 2000 Sidebottom fans. If I'd known about the appeal at the time, I would have donated too as thanks for such a classic comic creation.
I don't know whether this is allowed or not but I found this obituary in 'The Independent' which I thought was very moving and which seemed to capture the spirit of Sievey perfectly. It is reproduced here in full.
OBITUARY FROM THE INDEPENDENT by Pierre Perrone
The Manchester musician and comedian Chris Sievey brought a surreal sense of humour, amazing attention to detail and great fun and dedication to both stages of his career. I first came across him in the late 1970s as a solo artist and the frontman of The Freshies, a punk band who embraced the DIY ethos and released a series of catchy power-pop EPs and singles on Sievey's Razz label.
Eventually, Sievey's unbounded enthusiasm and endearing charm and perseverance won through and MCA licensed "I'm In Love With The Girl On The Virgin Manchester Megastore Checkout Desk", replaced the Virgin reference with the vague "A Certain..." to appease Richard Branson and the BBC and secure airplay on Mike Read's Radio One Breakfast Show, and The Freshies spent a couple of weeks on the singles charts in February 1981.
In fact, they narrowly missed out on a Top 40 placing and a Top Of The Pops ppearance because a postal strike affected the collection of chart data from the North-west. However, neither the record-shop-themed follow-up "I Can't Get 'Bouncing Babies' by The Teardrop Explodes", nor the anti-war "Wrap Up The Rockets" charted and, after another single on Stiff in 1982 The Freshies broke up.
Sievey had already introduced Frank Sidebottom, a character wearing an over-sized papier-mâché head, as a fan of The Freshies in the video for "Rockets", and developed this oddball comic creation further. His alter ego wore a 1950s-style sharp suit, played the banjo or a Casio keyboard, spoke or sang in a nasal whine and found everything "Fantastic". Ever the optimist, Sidebottom still dreamt of pop stardom.
He name-checked Timperley, the village within the Altrincham area of Greater Manchester where he lived with his mother, at every opportunity, even when adapting Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody" - "Is this the real life, or is this just Timperley?" sung with a stuck-on moustache à la Freddie Mercury - the Sex Pistols' "Anarchy In The UK" or "Panic" by The Smiths. He became a fixture of the comedy circuit, a recurrent guest on Mark Radcliffe's Hit The North programme on Radio 5 in 1990, and developed a cult following.
Something of an acquired taste, Sidebottom and his Little Frank puppet sidekick nevertheless proved hugely popular with both children and students. His persona harked back to the days of George Formby but was also the product of a rich Manchester scene which had already seen the emergence of left-of-centre musical acts with a humorous, satirical or poetic bent like Alberto Y Los Trios Paranoias, the Smirks, Jilted John and John Cooper Clarke. Indeed, Sievey helped nurture the comedic talent of Caroline Aherne, who debuted her Mrs Merton persona on Frank Sidebottom's Radio Timperley, the comedy series he made for Piccadilly Radio, while early incarnations of Sidebottom's Oh Blimey Big Band featured the broadcasters Radcliffe and Marc "Lard" Riley, and were driven by a young upstart called Chris Evans.
Born in 1955 in Ashton-on-Mersey, Sievey was a huge fan of the pop music he would later make gentle fun of, most famously with his take on the Beatles' "Being For The Benefit Of Mr Kite!" for Sgt Pepper Knew My Father, the charity album for Childline, in 1987. He idolised the Fab Four and in 1971 hitchhiked to London with his brother Martin to stage a sit-in at Apple Records in an attempt to secure a deal. They did get to record a session but Apple folded shortly after.
Throughout the rest of the '70s he sent demo tapes to record companies and collected the rejection slips, subsequently publishing them in a booklet packaged with a cassette release, the No-Go Demos, in 1980. He recorded with the drummer Martin Jackson, later of Magazine and Swing Out Sister, and the guitarist Billy Duffy, best known for his work with The Cult, but only began gigging in 1980 when The Freshies settled on a line-up comprising guitarist Barry Spencer, bassist Rick Sarko and former Smirks drummer Mike Doherty, who became his agent when he turned to comedy as Sidebottom, the self-styled Bard of Timperley.
In the mid-1980s, after a spell on the EMI-owned imprint Regal Zonophone - once the home of Formby - he signed to In-Tape Records, the independent label set up by Riley, and also collaborated with him on the satirical comic Oink!, which attempted to mirror the success of Viz and lasted until November 1988. He became a regular on the regional news programme Granada Reports and guested on the Saturday morning children's show No 73. In the early '90s he fronted Frank Sidebottom's Fantastic Shed Show which was shown on most of the ITV network, and appeared on the British version of Remote Control, the game show hosted by Anthony H Wilson of Factory Records fame.
Sievey seemed to grow tired of Sidebottom and mothballed the character while he worked on the children's TV shows series Pingu and Bob The Builder at the Altrincham-based Hot Animation company. In 2006, he reappeared on Channel M, the local Manchester TV channel. He exhibited his drawings and animation work at London's Chelsea Space gallery and also presented "An Evening With Frank Sidebottom" at Tate Britain. More recently, he toured with Clarke and had just released a World Cup comedy song entitled "Three Shirts On My Line". He was diagnosed with cancer last month but had been confident of making a recovery.
Paying tribute to Sievey on his Radio 2 show on Monday night, Radcliffe said. "I genuinely believe him to be one of the very few people I met whom I would call a genius. He never became hugely successful - he defined what a cult figure is in many ways. In the North-west he was elevated to cult hero status. Frank Sidebottom was a meticulous comic creation, almost like Hancock. Chris knew every aspect of Frank's world. He knew who his friends were, what he ate for his meals, what his pets were. The character also tapped into this era where everyone wants to be famous without being equipped, either talent-wise or personality-wise, to do it.
"Frank did his Radio Timperley and TV shows from his shed. Doing "Born In Timperley" instead of "Born In The USA", he punctured the grandiose pomposity of pop music while at the same time maintaining that love he had for it. He was also an incredibly gifted and creative artist. Quite often, he would have brilliant ideas and never quite get to the execution of them. In 1983, I remember he brought me a 12in record. One side of it was a computer game called "The Biz" for ZX Spectrum. Everybody said: a computer game, on a disc? Don't be stupid! He was a wonderfully talented bloke. He taught you that life could be viewed slightly differently from how everybody else views it."