Preview: Frankophillia!

A new exhibition celebrating the art and life of the legendary Frank Sidebottom fills Matt Badham with joy

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In June this year, Timperley resident Chris Sievey died after a short battle with cancer. No doubt his death would have gone unmarked except by family and friends, were it not the fact that Sievey was also the man behind the mask of one of the North West’s most noted cultural icons, the comedian and musician Frank Sidebottom.

Making regular appearances on north-west television from the mid-1980s to national TV game shows in the 1990s, people across the country couldn’t help notice the comedian with the massive papier-mache head. After his death, obituaries were penned, tributes were written and Suzanne Smith, arts development officer at the University of Salford, decided to organise an exhibition in honour of Frank and his creator.

“I’ve been a Frank Sidebottom fan all my life and hearing the news that Chris had died was a massive shock,” she says. “Then, when I started to look into his life and work, I was amazed by how talented he was – even more than I’d previously realised. He didn’t just create Frank Sidebottom; he was also an animator, cartoonist, artist, writer and computer programmer. I decided then that something needed to be organised to celebrate his talent.”

The result is Frankophillia!, an exhibition of Frank Sidebottom-themed art being displayed at the Chapman Gallery at the University of Salford. Frank Sidebottom fans have contributed all the exhibits, which range from animations to portraits to sculpture and beyond.

“It seemed like such an appropriate way of celebrating Chris,” Smith says. “For a start, the fact that these are all fans of Frank reflects the passion he generated in people. There’s a woman in there who’d sculpted a massive Frank Sidebottom head even before she knew there was going to be an exhibition. She just did it for fun. Also, the range of work reflects the fact that Chris was such a multi-faceted talent and that feels very apt.”

Frankophillia! has the backing of Sievey’s friends and family. Smith is very pleased that she managed to get their endorsement, because without it she believes the exhibition couldn’t have gone ahead.

“That was something I was slightly wary of when I contacted the family about doing this. Obviously, the fans had lost Frank but the family had lost Chris, who was a partner, a father, a brother and a son. I wanted to be respectful of their feelings and of his memory. Luckily, they were completely behind the idea and couldn’t have been more supportive.”

“Frank’s have-a-go attitude inspired so many people to do creative things.”

Of course, there would have been no exhibition at all were it not for the numerous contributors. Some of the pieces Smith sourced, whereas in other cases artists came forward to donate work having heard about Frankophillia! For illustrator David Baillie, the exhibition is a chance to, in some small way, pay back the creative inspiration he’s drawn from the character of Frank Sidebottom.

“Frank’s have-a-go attitude inspired so many people to do creative things, it’s amazing,” Baillie says. “Nothing seemed to daunt him and he was wickedly inventive.”

For some contributors, their connection to Frank Sidebottom is closer and more personal than simply being a fan. One of these is Neil Taylor, who is also involved in an online campaign to erect a statue of Frank in Timperley.

“My main involvement with the late Frank Sidebottom came about after I was elected as councillor for the Timperley ward,” says Taylor. “As Frank Sidebottom was classed by many to be a son of Timperley and a true ambassador, I thought it was about time to get him involved in things.”

These included Altrincham Festival, Timperley Country Fair and even making a film about politics in Timperley and Frank’s ideas of how he would change things if elected. Taylor feels that the exhibition is a fitting tribute to an entertainer who has yet to reach the audience he deserves.

“Frank Sidebottom gave so much to the world of entertainment. He was never vulgar and always a true gent. I say to people that most who saw him on TV and listened to him on the radio never really ‘got’ the bigger picture.

“It was not all about Frank Sidebottom, but rather the world that he created, with the many characters that were part of the idea. One day, and I say this with confidence, he will get the recognition he deserves.”

Smith hopes that those who perhaps didn’t quite understand the joke when it came to Frank Sidebottom will not be deterred from attending Frankophilia!

“It’s such an amazing exhibition in its own right. People have put such effort into their contributions.

“I think that Chris, and Frank of course, would have been really, really touched.”

Frankophillia! is until 18 Dec at the Chapman Building, University of Salford.

Photo of Frank Sidebottom scarecrow at Kettlewell Festival: Rick Harrison

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