Frank Sidebottom: The man in the paper mask

A profile of the comedian, who died this week, first published in <i>The Independent</i> in 1991
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Owen Oyston is a North of England businessman who made a fortune out of property, and now owns a chain of commercial radio stations. He is not, by common consent, the kind of man to leave one of his stations in the care of a ukulele-playing entertainer with a papier-mâché head.

Yet this was the scenario I was invited to accept by Frank Sidebottom, who met me in reception at Piccadilly Radio in Manchester, and offered to show me round. "We're like that, me and Owen. I'm in charge of all this. That's a photocopier, that. You can copy anything. It was my idea getting those. I give Owen all his ideas. Don't quote me on that. Just say 'a source revealed that Sidebottom's the ideas man'. He's dead rich is Owen. He's got some money in the bank, and some buried in his garden. I think he's got about a million pounds. He can go in a service station and get four different sandwiches. He doesn't even have to look at his change.''

I attempted a question. Useless. Arms were flailing, and underneath the head, a crazed Mancunian stream of consciousness was in full flow.

To find Frank remotely amusing you have to accept the notion that he is the patron saint of arrested development. Frank is the kind of 35-year-old who still has his Batman bubble gum cards and a model of Pat Jennings that fell out of the Suger Smacks.

At home in the Manchester suburb of Timperley he lives with his mum. He has also appeared, often ill-advisedly, in a bewildering variety of TV shows and live concerts, including, in one of the most spectacular pieces of miscasting ever, a Bros gig.

At the height of the group's fame, Frank appeared at Wembley before 55,000 bemused Brosettes. "I said 'Hands up who likes Luke,' and they all squealed and shrieked. So I said 'Hands up who likes the other one who looks just like Luke but is called something else,' and they all shrieked and cheered again. So I said 'Hands up who likes the two of them Sellotaped together,' and they all cheered again. And then I said 'Hands up who's got Betamax,' and it all went silent.''

This, I suggested, would not have been an entirely novel experience for him. The hostile receptions accorded to Frank Sidebottom on his first public appearances six years ago are part of Manchester folklore. "I was not an overnight sensation. It t ook three days before I was a sensation."

His breakthrough came when he discovered he could reproduce the music of Freddie Mercury. "I was drinking a cup of cocoa one night, and it left a moustache over my top lip. When I looked in the mirror I thought: 'Freddie Mercury'. So I got myself a cardboard moustache and the rest is fantastic history.''

At first, Frank appealed mainly to children and students, but in 1987 he found a more adult audience when he was chosen, as Timperley's top light entertainer, to do the star celebrity interview on a programme I was presenting at the time on Radio 2. This involved Frank cornering some unfortunate like Nicholas Parsons and asking him if the money was real on Sale of the Century and if he came from Norwich "like it says on television''.

His current radio work includes two regular features on Radio 5 – a story of pop "covering everything, the whole lot, from Gary Numan to Five Star'', and Bob Hatton Rattle, a football fanzine of the air. On Remote Control, a quiz show on Channel 4, he puts to the contestants questions like: "What time do you call this?'', and "Where will it all end?'' Frank is also a regular on BSkyB, and is about to embark on a two-month nationwide tour with comedians Phil Cornwell, Jo Brand and Jack Dee.

So how rich is he? "I give my mum £8 a week on a standing order to cover breakages.But when I'm a millionaire I'm not going to spend anything. Because even if you spend 99p, you're not a millionaire any more."

By now I have entirely forgotten that underneath the papier-mâché head is a nice chap called Chris Sievey, with a wife, and children, and a mortgage, who used to front a rather good Manchester post-punk band called The Freshies. Who knows what might have become of Chris had his 1980 record, "I'm in Love with the Girl on the Virgin Manchester Megastore Check-out Desk'', climbed a little higher in the charts. In the event, the Freshies disbanded in 1981, and Chris survived on a variety of different record deals, and by writing computer games. Now there's just Frank, who, I very much fear, is about to start showing me his pictures of the Isle of Man. "That's a cat with no tail. The others are pretty boring, actually. But look at this. This is a genuine piece of stone from the Berlin Wall. It was given to me by that famous explorer. I can't remember his name...''