Interview: Russ the Webmaster
Whilst waiting to have some shoes re-heeled at the cobblers, on behalf of 11:37, D.A. sat down in a basement on Tib Street, Manchester with one-time Sievey/Sidebottom collaborator ...Russ the Webmaster.
11:37- How did you first become aware of Chris/Frank?
Russ-. I’d previously met Chris back in the Freshies days when I used to go touring with bands and always end up in Manchester. I first saw Frank in Sheffield, sometime around ’82-’83.
11:37- Was that Frank supporting the Freshies?
Russ- No, it was Frank in his own right. I had no idea what Frank was. It was just a little gig in a pub. From the first few sentences, I was hooked. I was with friends who just thought he was crap...but I just howled!
Russ- Yeah, ‘Owled’...in Sheffield, the ‘United’ fans weren’t that pleased but I just thought he was so funny.
11:37- That’s a football reference... that I’ve only just got.
Russ- Yeah, sorry, it’s a very bad football reference but there you go.
11:37- Do you think that joke will work in a transcribed audio format?
Russ- Dunno, it might do, just depends how well written it is?
11:37- Right, well I can assure you it won’t be!
Russ- From then on I would go to any concerts I could find out about and went out and bought anything I could get my hands on...then I got the ‘firm favourites’ EP.
11:37- That first EP is kind of a stand-alone release. As great as it is, it’s almost as if Frank is not quite fully formed yet?
Russ- Yes! There were certain nuances that would come later and at that point there were some inconsistencies that didn’t add up. Then again, with Frank, did anything really add up?
11:37- I think it did! To quote Johnny Vegas, he was a master of creating his own universe. Within 12 months of that first release, he brought in the colour, little frank, the shift to everything being written in lower case etc.
Russ- yes he did work hard on it because when you saw Frank’s first appearance on the Razz Vizz videotape ‘Being Frank’, he was very primitive-looking compared to what you got to see over the next year or so. It’s like anything, a development of the character. It became an actual world... Frank’s world. When you met Frank, you met Frank and when you met Chris you met Chris. The two were never the same person...ever.
11:37- ...And being close to him, you had to buy into that.
Russ- You most certainly did. Whenever I went round to the house, there were always three people in the room. It was never just me and Chris. He would talk about Frank in the third person but then again so would I. I went round to his house unannounced one day and knocked on the door. Chris answered and I asked “Is Frank in?” He replied “No!” and shut the door. So I walked around the block and knocked again. This time I asked “Is Chris in?” he just laughed and said ‘”yes” and let me in. Its things like that that I enjoyed and must admit, really miss. Frank was a thing of beauty, I think. If anybody ever referred to Frank as a comedy act it was as if they had pressed the red button...and Chris would go into a sulk. You never knew if he was sulking for real, or just doing it for a wind up. It was great!
11:37- Tell us about your websites franksidettom.co.uk and franksworld.co.uk. How they came about?
Russ- Frank staged a comeback in the mid 2000’s, and he had a very basic website for “Roger the boy next door”. If you tried to register that domain name nowadays, I think you’d end up with a policeman round your house! It was simply the photo of Frank and Roger (Stirling Sievey) with the ice lollies and a sound bite of frank saying “Hello, it’s Frank here and I’m with Roger the boy next door.” I had no input into this site but I had already started doing franksidebottom.co.uk back in 1997, very early on in the fledgling days of the internet.
11:37- Is that because you are a cavalier and pioneering trendsetter?
Russ- No, it’s because I had nothing else to do and I didn’t have any friends. I’d done a website for Julian Cope and various other bits and bobs. I realised at that time there was nothing on the web representing Frank so I photographed all my records and compiled a discography. I added a contact form and one day, I got a message, “Hello, Frank here... can you give me a call on this number...I need a chat” So, I rang the number and said “Is Frank there?” the reply was “No, this is Chris...Frank’s out shopping for his mum, he will be back later” and he put the phone down. I left it a couple of hours and rang back after tea, “Is Frank there?” I enquired again and this time Frank WAS there. Frank said “I see you do a website. Would you like to do something with me ‘cos I’ve only got ‘Roger the boy next door’ at the moment.” He sent me some stuff in the post and it started from there.
11:37- I think it’s fair to say you became frank’s cyber side arm.
Russ- I can’t say too much because when I went round to see either Frank or Chris, I was supposed to be working in Manchester. I’d pop round on my ‘dinner hour’ but a meeting was never five minutes. It was just one of those things. It was the best job I never got paid for. He was just so good to be around, he was one of those guys that always gave...he never took back.
11:37- If you showed even the remotest interest in what he was doing, he would respond ten-fold.
Russ- In the early days that was as long as you included a stamped addressed envelope! Look at the little frank bodies, he spent hours making them but then gave them away as a 10 pence raffle prize.
11:37- well you say that, but I’ve been on the collecting end of those 10 pence raffles sales and they did generate quite a bit of money. Little Frank bodies were highly desired and sought-after prizes!
I once suggested ‘batch making’ the puppet bodies, say maybe four at a time, giving one away and still having three in stock. With all the various stages involved in puppet production, it would not take much longer to make four as it did to make one. He wasn’t interested. This is an example of where he shows himself as a true artist. I think he thrived on going through the entire process on an individual ‘one-off’ basis. He had no interest in ‘factory-production’...not even just three of them. You said earlier that working with Chris/Frank was the best job that you never got paid for. Did you ever feel exploited?
Russ- No. He never offered money but that was OK because it was fun, admittedly sometimes expensive fun. Everything was an adventure. Sometimes those adventures went a bit wrong but mostly they didn’t. It was nice occasionally when they went wrong. For Chris everything could be a joke, there was never a serious side to anything but every once in a while, somebody could get hurt.
11:37- I can definitely relate to that. Being around him, you could find yourself in a potentially dangerous situation. I don’t believe he was careless, he was more carefree
Russ- He didn’t recognise danger...not the way normal people see it.
11:37- He also did not recognise failure either.
Russ: There was no such thing as failure. Even when he did fail...he succeeded at failing.
When he had the flood in the cellar where the archive was stored, the first thing he did was plug in an electric fire in an attempt to dry things out. There was still a disconcerting amount of water on the floor. I was like “What are you doing? I’m not going down there! Water and electricity do not mix!” Chris shrugged “It will be fine.”
11:37- Can you tell us any Frank anecdotes?
Russ- That’s difficult because any time spent with Frank was always funny, strange and memorable. I’d call round and he would be Frank. I don’t know why he would do that when there was only himself in the house? It was really off-putting to see Frank stood there in just a vest and boxer shorts, I was used to seeing him fully clothed. I sat there talking to Frank for ages. I vividly remember his boxer shorts; they were blue with bananas on. Sometimes, if he’d been working on something, he might have had the nose-clip on. He never wore the head when he was recording at home. It was strange to witness that even though he didn’t have the head on...he was still Frank. He was completely in the zone.
One of my favourite memories was when Chris was round at my house for a gig in Worksop. My kids were there aged about 4 and 7 at the time and I introduced them to Chris. Then someone phoned him up for a Frank interview. Chris said “I’ll put him on”, went into the hallway and started being ‘Frank’. My kids ears pricked up when they heard the voice “It’s Frank, where is he?” The kids burst into the hallway to see Chris holding his nose doing Frank’s voice into his phone. The kids were shocked and Chris was a bit upset. My eldest son said to Chris “You are Frank Sidebottom!” and, quick as a flash Chris replied “No, Frank is not very well at the moment, so I said I was going to do the work for him. Frank is a friend of mine and I’m just helping him out for the day.” My kids were disappointed and instantly lost interest in Chris...but he didn’t want to spoil it for the kids, which was really sweet.
Another time I drove Frank around Timperley for the day, shooting some video. We had the windows down and he was shouting and talking to everybody. It was amazing to see the warm response he got. Not one person thought “who the hell is he?” or didn’t want to engage with him.
11:37- That’s possibly a product of being in Timperley. People say that Frank put Timperley on the map but it could be argued that equally, Timperley put Frank on the map too.
Russ- The locals were so accepting of him. Frank was a family entertainer. There was nothing about him that would offend his mum.
11:37- I agree that he was family-friendly but at the same time he was this completely surreal, Dadaist art performer.
Russ- Yes, it was a perfectly constructed fantasy world that everybody bought into. To this day people still regard Frank as a real person. That’s how good of a job Chris did. They treat Frank as a person not just a character. He got it down to a fine art.
11:37- When I first got close to Chris, I was worried that knowing him would destroy the magic but it did not. However when Chris was ‘dolling up’ to become Frank, when he reached for the head to put it on I used to look away at the critical moment. I would avert my gaze. I could not bring myself to watch the actual transformation.
Russ- (Laughing) now that IS weird!
11:37- Can you explain why the two websites you host and maintain are still in existence well over a decade later?
Russ- We know for sure that Chris is dead but with Frank essentially being a cartoon character, is he actually dead? Does the ‘character’ of Frank Sidebottom have to die? The sites have been the official online reference points that have helped to keep the myth alive, really. It would be a shame to lose them.
11:37- I think the only ways that Frank could possibly live on are as an illustrated cartoon or an animated character. We can rule out anybody being able to do an authentic impersonation of Frank. The mask was purely the medium. What was underneath was everything.
Russ- That’s the thing, nobody else could put that head on and be Frank, ever.... only Chris. To address the question is Frank dead...yes, Frank is physically dead but then again he’s a fictitious character. Can’t we just say he’s gone into hiding? That just makes me feel better.