When Jon Ronson met Frank Sidebottom
Jon Ronson was inspired to write the screenplay for the film Frank by his time as the keyboard player in Frank Sidebottom's Oh Blimey Big Band. Here's how he first met Frank.
The award-winning film Frank, starring Michael Fassbender and Maggie Gyllenhaal, was co-written by Jon Ronson and was inspired by his time as the keyboard player in Frank Sidebottom's Oh Blimey Big Band. Frank: The true story behind the movie tells the real-life story that inspired the fictional film. Here's how Jon first met Frank.
In 1987 I was twenty and a student at the Polytechnic of Central London. I put myself forward in the student union election to become the college entertainments officer.
It was to be a year’s sabbatical. I’d be in charge of two venues – a basement bar on Bolsover Street in Central London and a big dining hall around the corner on New Cavendish Street. I’d have a budget to put on discos on Fridays and concerts on Saturdays and comedy on Tuesdays. Then after a year I’d return to finish my degree. Nobody stood against me. It was a one-horse race. I was elected.
The entertainment office was on the top floor of the Student Union – a 1960s building in Bolsover Street. I’d sit in the corner, the social secretary elect learning the ropes from his predecessor. I took it all in – how he negotiated fees, dealt with the roadies and the bar staff, even what he said when he answered the phone. He said, ‘Ents.’
He warned me that the big music-booking agents tended to see the likes of us as easy prey. If anyone would book their terrible bands it would be us. History would prove this right. I did book their terrible bands.
One day I was sitting in the office when the telephone rang. I was alone. My predecessor was off dealing with some issue. I wasn’t supposed to answer the phone. But it kept ringing. Finally I picked it up.
‘Ents,’ I said.
There was a silence. ‘What?’ the voice said.
‘ . . . Ents?’ I said.
‘Oh,’ the man said. ‘I thought you said Ants. Jesus! OK. So Frank’s playing at your bar tonight and our keyboard player can’t make it and so we’re going to have to cancel unless you know any keyboard players.’
I cleared my throat. ‘I play keyboards,’ I said.
‘Well you’re in!’ the man shouted.
I glanced at the receiver. ‘But I don’t know any of your songs,’ I said.
‘Wait a minute,’ the man said.
I heard muffled voices. He came back to the phone. ‘Can you play C, F and G?’ he said.
‘Yes,’ I said.
‘Well, you’re in!’ he said.
The man on the phone said I should meet them at the soundcheck at 5pm. He added that his name was Mike, and Frank’s real name was Chris. Then he hung up.
I looked at the receiver.
I arrived at the bar at exactly 5pm. The place was dingy even in daytime – we were deep in a basement – and empty except for a few men fiddling with equipment some distance away across the sticky carpet near the stage.
‘Hello?’ I called.
The men turned. I scrutinized their faces. In the three hours since the phone call I’d learnt a little about Frank. Frank Sidebottom – how he wore a big fake head on stage and there was much speculation about his real identity. Some thought he might be the alter ego of a celebrity, possibly Midge Ure, the lead singer of the band Ultravox, who had just had a huge hit with the New Romantic song ‘Vienna’, and was known to be a big Frank Sidebottom fan. Which of these men looking at me might be Frank? And how would I know? If I looked closely would there be some kind of facial indication?
I took a step closer. And then I became aware of another figure kneeling in the shadows, his back to me. He began to turn. I let out a gasp. Two huge eyes were staring intently at me, painted onto a great, imposing fake head, lips slightly parted as if mildly surprised. Why was he wearing the fake head when there was nobody there to see it except for his own band? Did he wear it all the time? Did he never take it off?
‘Hello, Chris,’ I said. ‘I’m Jon.’
‘Hello . . . Chris?’ I said again.
He said nothing.
‘Hello . . . Frank?’ I tried.
‘HELLO!’ he yelled.
Another of the men came bounding over to me. ‘You’re Jon,’ he said. I recognized his voice from the telephone. ‘I’m Mike Doherty. Thank you for standing in at such short notice.’
‘So,’ I said. ‘Maybe we could run through the songs? Or . . . ?’
Frank’s face stared at me.
‘Frank?’ Mike said.
‘Can you teach Jon the songs?’ he said.
At this Frank raised his hands to his head and began to prise it off, turning slightly away from me, almost as an act of modesty, like he was shyly undressing. I thought I saw a flash of something under there, some contraption attached to his face which he seemed to quickly remove, but I wasn’t sure that had happened at all. It was all so fast and discreetly done.
‘Hello, Jon,’ said the man underneath. He had a nice, ordinary face.
‘Hello . . . Chris?’ I said.
Chris gave me a sheepish smile, as if to say he was sorry that I had to endure all the weirdness of the past few minutes but it was out of his hands. He took me to a corner and patiently taught me the songs. I picked them up pretty quickly. They were indeed comprised almost entirely of C, F and G. There were one or two other notes, but certainly not the full range. They were mostly cover versions of Queen and Beatles hits.
Before I knew it the public had arrived, and we were onstage.
This is an edited extract from Frank: The True Story that Inspired the Movie.