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The man in the papier mâché head

Stuart Maconie recalls the “real” Frank Sidebottom.

Huge in Timperley: Chris Sievey probed absurd life situations as “Big Frank” Sidebottom

The eminent Australian cultural critic Robert Hughes once skewered a wrong-headed standard dismissal of modern art (and specifically Carl Andre’s “bricks at the Tate”). It was wrong to say that even a child could do it, he said. In fact, the opposite was true: contrary to appearances, only anybody but a child could do it; it needed the knowingness and intention of adulthood.

I thought of this recently when, moving house, I was trawling nostalgically through a tranche of old vinyl records and came across a copy of Frank Sidebottom’s debut album, 5.9.88. On it was written: “To Stuart, with best fantastic regards, Frank”. I had friends round at the time and a wistful “Ahh” went up from everyone except their nine-year-old daughter. She looked at the cover dispassionately, suspiciously even, at the stylised, sad-eyed, giant-headed manchild, and concluded: “He’s weird.”

The man in the papier mâché head had something of the child about him, in his irresponsibility if not his appetites. Under his own name, he wrote for the claymation series Pingu, and his most familiar creation did appear from time to time on children’s TV and in comics. Yet kids weren’t his core audience. A child could get it, sure – the funny voice, the daft get-up, the puppets – but adults would find something more: the plangent bottom note in the nasal whine of silliness, the whimsy, absurdity and melancholy in the story of the overgrown, overdressed bloke still living in loving exasperation with his mum in Timperley – and, of course, the frisson that came from knowing that there was in fact a grown man in there, a beery, divorced post-punk musician from Manchester, who died of throat cancer four years ago and was destined for a pauper’s funeral until a Twitter and Facebook campaign bought him a decent burial. (Some weird juxtaposition, 21st-century technology preventing a 19th-century fate.)

The man in there was called Chris Sievey. He’d been a minor stalwart of the Manchester music scene with his band the Freshies since the mid-Seventies. Punk’s ethos had chimed with his outsider temperament and he had a couple of indie hits with “I Can’t Get ‘Bouncing Babies’ by the Teardrop Explodes” and “I’m In Love With the Girl on the Manchester Virgin Megastore Checkout Desk(later renamed “I’m In Love With the Girl on a Certain Manchester Megastore Checkout Desk”), which reached number 54 in the charts in 1981.

The Freshies produced the world’s first multimedia single by including a Sinclair Spectrum game, The Biz, on the B-side. On this, Sievey also first introduced the character that he would become best known for, and that would essentially subsume him for the rest of his adult life. Frank Sidebottom had a studiedly “northern” name, evoking generations of stage comics and their characters, who were daft losers and simpletons. The conceit was both simple and grotesque. Frank was an aspiring pop star and entertainer with an enormous spherical head and a mournfully cute visage. There were no jokes as such. It was situation comedy in the truest sense of the word; the absurdity of it all was what we were being invited to laugh at. Like much classic British comedy – Hancock, Steptoe, Morecambe and Wise, Norman Wisdom – the keynote was pathos: thwarted expectations, grandiose schemes, inevitable failure.

At 35, Frank still lived with his mum and used his shed as his artistic base, along with his occasional sidekick, the piping-voiced puppet Little Frank. His own voice was a parody of the nasal Manchester drawl, achieved at some discomfort by wearing a swimmer’s clip on his nose for hours under the paper head. The writer Jon Ronson remembers how “Chris would be Frank for such long periods, the clip had deformed him slightly, flattened his nose out of shape. When he’d remove the peg after a long stint I’d see him wince in pain.”

Ronson is one of several now well-known media personalities who served time in Frank’s Oh Blimey Big Band. The DJs Mark Radcliffe and Chris Evans were sidemen and drivers. Frank’s neighbour Mrs Merton was played by Caroline Aherne and became a successful comedy character in her own right. Ronson even quit college and moved to Manchester from London to be in the band. With Peter Straughan, he has co-written a film, Frank, based on the Sidebottom story, directed by Lenny Abrahamson and starring Domhnall Gleeson, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Michael Fassbender, who plays the lead. This last piece of casting has prompted amazement, as if Edward Norton were starring in a Noddy biopic.

I met Chris/Frank several times. I saw him play a gig in the late Eighties (with Ronson on keyboards) at Burberries club in Birmingham. It still ranks as one of the most enjoyable nights out of my life. At one point, a rare dissenter threw a ten-pence piece at the stage. “Oh great,” Frank said, delighted: “I collect decimal coins.” The set was a series of hubristic covers – “Material Girl”, “Radio Gaga”, etc – plus Frank’s inimitable originals, of which my favourites were always the oddest, such as “Hit Dick Turpin” or “Mr Custard You’re a Fool” (Mr Custard, you’re a fool/Red Indian chief, you’re a fool/Mike Tyson, you’re a fool/But at least you’re a millionaire). Sievey always struck me as both unassuming and utterly unpredictable, a portly chap with a permanent pint, constantly on the verge of some kind of situationist mischief.

Radcliffe recalls, “He was so creative, so brimming full of ideas . . . he lived his life as an elaborate extended act . . . One time we were talking about travel games and he decided that a good idea would be travel snooker. The next gig we went to, he’d brought a set that he was developing with Velcro balls. We went from Timperley to London in a van with a snooker table in the middle of it, which meant there was barely any room to sit. But that was worth it for Chris, because that was a good joke.”

With the head on, Sievey ceased to exist. Mick Middles, the author of a forthcoming biography, Out of His Head, puts it this way: “The moment the head is placed, the change occurs. Not merely a change in attitude or outlook, but a journey from one person to the other. I completely believe that Chris was born as two people.” Middles even goes as far as to make a comparison with transgender individuals.

Sievey wasn’t given to recriminations, in much the same way as he wasn’t given to pensions, tax planning and the like. Jon Ronson remembers how, after his death, “Someone said to me, ‘Were you surprised he’d died penniless?’ And I thought, ‘I’d be a lot more surprised if he’d died with a nest egg.’ It reminded me of Ken Dodd, when he was done for tax evasion. His excuse was ‘I’m an artist. All I think about is comedy and jokes.’ Chris was like that.”

But Ronson did feel that some people had borrowed heavily from Frank for their own work. And you hear his influence in much modern northern comedy – sometimes, it has to be said, in a stifling, clichéd, parochial way, a kind of exaggerated homespun northernness, in the references to “that there London”, chip shops and the like. Frank was always much stranger and sadder than that. It’s a pity he didn’t live long enough to see properly the wholesale media move to Salford. I’d have liked to see him on the piazza here, open-armed and fixed of expression, lips pursed and eyes wide, welcoming charmed and slightly terrified executives. Oh yes, I would, I really would, as he would have said.

“Frank” will be in cinemas from 4 May

Stuart Maconie is a radio DJ, television presenter, writer and critic working in the field of pop music and culture. His best-selling books include Cider with Roadies and Adventures on the High Teas; he currently hosts the afternoon show on BBC 6Music with Mark Radcliffe.

This article first appeared in the 09 April 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Anxiety nation

REGIS BOSSU/SYGMA/CORBIS
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How memories of the Battle of Verdun inspired a new era of Franco-German co-operation

The fight at Verdun in 1916 set a precedent for peace that lives on at the heart of Europe.

How do you clear up after a battle that took the lives of more than a quarter of a million men? In Britain we don’t have much experience of this kind. There hasn’t been a major war on British soil since the 1640s, and that wasn’t a shock-and-awe inferno of industrial firepower (although it is estimated that a greater percentage of Britain’s population died in the civil wars than in the Great War).

The French, however, fought the Great War on home soil. The ten-month Battle of Verdun in 1916 stands out as the longest of the conflict, and one of the fiercest, with fighting concentrated in a small area of roughly 25 square miles. The terrain was pounded by heavy artillery and poisoned with gas; nine villages were reduced to rubble and never rebuilt – remaining on the map to this day as villages détruits.

In November 1918, soon after the Armis­tice, Monseigneur Charles Ginisty, the bishop of Verdun, was appalled to see mounds of unburied corpses and myriad bones still scattered across the blasted landscape – what was left of men who had been literally blown to bits by shellfire. “Should we abandon their sacred remains to this desert,” he asked in anguish, “littered with desiccated corpses . . . under a shroud of thorns and weeds, of forgetting and ingratitude?”

Ginisty became the driving force behind the ossuary at Douaumont, at what had been the very centre of the battlefield. This he intended to be both “a cathedral of the dead and a basilica of victory”. It is a strange but compelling place: a 450-foot-long vault, transfixed in the middle by a lantern tower, and styled in an idiosyncratic mix of Romanesque and art deco. To some visitors the tower looks like a medieval knight stabbing his broadsword into the ground; others are reminded of an artillery shell, or even a space rocket. Creepiest of all is what one glimpses through the little windows cut into the basement – piles of bones, harvested from the field of battle.

Sloping away downhill from the ossuary is the Nécropole Nationale, where the bodies of some 15,000 French soldiers are buried – mostly named, though some graves are starkly labelled inconnu (“unknown”). Each tomb is dignified with the statement “Mort pour la France” (no British war grave bears a comparable inscription). The nine villages détruits were given the same accolade.

For the French, unlike the British, 1914-18 was a war to defend and cleanse the homeland. By the end of 1914 the Germans had imposed a brutal regime of occupation across ten departments of north-eastern France. Verdun became the most sacred place in this struggle for national liberation, the only great battle that France waged alone. About three-quarters of its army on the Western Front served there during 1916, bringing Verdun home to most French families. Slogans from the time such as On les aura (“We’ll get ’em”) and Ils ne passeront pas (“They shall not pass”) entered French mythology, language and even song.

Little wonder that when the ossuary was inaugurated in 1932, the new French president, Albert Lebrun, declared: “Here is the cemetery of France.” A special plot at the head of the cemetery was set aside for Marshal Philippe Pétain, commander at the height of the battle in 1916 and renowned as “the Saviour of Verdun”.

The ossuary must surely contain German bones. How could one have nationally segregated that charnel house in the clean-up after 1918? Yet officially the ossuary was presented as purely French: a national, even nationalist, shrine to the sacrifice made by France. Interestingly, it was the soldiers who had fought there who often proved more internationally minded. During the 1920s many French veterans adopted the slogan Plus jamais (“Never again”) in their campaign to make 1914-18 la der des ders – soldier slang for “the last ever war”. And they were echoed across the border by German veterans, especially those on the left, proclaiming, “Nie wieder.”

For the 20th anniversary in 1936, 20,000 veterans, including Germans and Italians, assembled at Douaumont. Each took up his position by a grave and together they swore a solemn oath to keep the peace. There were no military parades, no singing of the Marseillaise. It was an immensely moving occasion but, in its own way, also political theatre: the German delegation attended by permission of the Führer to show off his peace-loving credentials.

Memory was transformed anew by the Second World War. In 1914-18 the French army had held firm for four years; in 1940 it collapsed in four weeks. Verdun itself fell in a day with hardly a shot being fired. France, shocked and humiliated, signed an armistice in June 1940 and Pétain, now 84, was recalled to serve as the country’s political leader. Whatever his original intentions, he ended up an accomplice of the Nazis: reactionary, increasingly fascist-minded, and complicit in the deportation of the Jews.

***

The man who came to embody French resistance in the Second World War was Charles de Gaulle. In 1916, as a young captain at Verdun, he had been wounded and captured. In the 1920s he was known as a protégé of the Marshal but in 1940 the two men diverged fundamentally on the question of collaboration or resistance.

De Gaulle came out the clear winner: by 1945 he was president of France, while Pétain was convicted for treason. The Marshal lived out his days on the Île d’Yeu, a rocky island off the west coast of France, where he was buried in 1951. The plot awaiting him in the cemetery at Douaumont became the grave of a general called Ernest Anselin, whose body remains there to this day. Yet Pétain sympathisers still agitate for the Marshal to be laid to rest in the place where, they insist, he belongs.

After 1945 it was hard for French leaders to speak of Verdun and Pétain in the same breath, although de Gaulle eventually managed to do so during the 50th anniversary in 1966. By then, however, la Grande Guerre had begun to assume a new perspective in both France and Germany. The age-old enemies were moving on from their cycle of tit-for-tat wars, stretching back from 1939, 1914 and 1870 to the days of Napoleon and Louis XIV.

In January 1963 de Gaulle – who had spent half the Great War in German POW camps – and Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, who first visited Paris to see the German delegation just before it signed the Treaty of Versailles, put their names to a very different treaty at the Élysée Palace. This bound the two countries in an enduring nexus of co-operation, from regular summits between the leaders down to town-twinning and youth exchanges. The aim was to free the next generation from the vice of nationalism.

France and West Germany were also founder members of the European Community – predicated, one might say, on the principle “If you can’t beat them, join them”. For these two countries (and for their Benelux neighbours, caught in the jaws of the Franco-German antagonism), European integration has always had a much more beneficent meaning than it does for Britain, geographically and emotionally detached from continental Europe and much less scarred by the two world wars.

It was inevitable that eventually Verdun itself would be enfolded into the new Euro-narrative. On 22 September 1984 President François Mitterrand and Chancellor Helmut Kohl stood in the pouring rain in front of the ossuary for a joint commemoration. In 1940 Sergeant Mitterrand had been wounded near Verdun, and Kohl’s father had served there in 1916, so personal memories sharpened the sense of political occasion. During the two national anthems, Mitterrand, apparently on impulse, grasped Kohl’s hand in what has become one of the most celebrated images of Franco-German reconciliation.

“If we’d had ceremonies like this before the Second World War,” murmured one French veteran, “we might have avoided it.”

Institutional memory has also moved on. In 1967 a museum dedicated to the story of the battle was opened near the obliterated village of Fleury. It was essentially a veterans’ museum, conceived by elderly Frenchmen to convey what they had endured in 1916 to a generation that had known neither of the world wars. For the centenary in 2016 the Fleury museum has undergone a makeover, updated with new displays and interactive technology and also reconceived as a museum of peace, drawing in the Germans as well as the French.

With time, too, some of the scars of battle have faded from the landscape. Trees now cover this once-ravaged wasteland; the graveyards are gardens of memory; the EU flag flies with the French and German tricolours over the battered fort at Douaumont. Yet bodies are still being dug up – 26 of them just three years ago at Fleury. And even when the sun shines here it is hard to shake off the ghosts.

Exploring the battlefield while making two programmes about Verdun for Radio 4, the producer Mark Burman and I visited l’Abri des Pèlerins (“the pilgrims’ shelter”) near the village détruit of Douaumont. This was established in the 1920s to feed the builders of the ossuary, but it has continued as the only eating place at the centre of the battlefield. Its proprietor, Sylvaine Vaudron,
is a bustling, no-nonsense businesswoman, but she also evinces a profound sense of obligation to the past, speaking repeatedly of nos poilus, “our soldiers”, as if they were still a living presence. “You realise,” she said sternly at one point, “there are 20,000 of them under our feet.” Not the sort of conversation about the Great War that one could have anywhere in Britain.

David Reynolds is the author of “The Long Shadow: the Great War and the 20th Century” (Simon & Schuster). His series “Verdun: the Sacred Wound” will go out on BBC Radio 4 on 17 and 24 February (11am)

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle