As It Happens

U.K. intelligence agency crack secret codes of 'compulsively creative' Frank Sidebottom

Frank Sidebottom was the alter-ego of absurdist comedian Chris Sievey. Hidden in the abstract art were codes. They were undeciphered until now.

For his new doc, filmmaker Steve Sullivan enlisted the help of GCHQ to crack Frank Sidebottom's codes

Frank Sidebottom was the alter-ego of comedian Chris Sievey. The mysterious character left secret codes in his artwork that filmmaker Steve Sullivan is now starting to piece together. (John Barry)

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In the late 1980s, Frank Sidebottom was everywhere in Britain. 

You could recognize the cult comedic character by his nasal voice and enormous papier-mâché head.

He did stand-up comedy, children's TV and comic books. He even fronted a band and owned his own football team called the Timperley Big Shorts.

But Sidebottom also had his secrets. He hid codes in cryptic symbols in the artwork on his concert posters, football programs and cassette tape sleeves.

Those codes remained uncracked for years — until Steve Sullivan started investigating.

The filmmaker behind the documentary Being Frank: The Chris Sievey Story enlisted the help of U.K. intelligence agency Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) to crack Sidebottom's codes.

What they discovered were a series of silly, autobiographical statements about the comedian's world. 

Here is part of Sullivan's conversation with As It Happens host Carol Off. 

You made this documentary about, not just Frank Sidebottom, as he was known, but the man behind it. Can you tell us about him?

The Frank Sidebottom character, this guy in a papier-mâché head, was like a mystery. So nobody ever really knew who he was.

It was only in 2010, when Frank Sidebottom died, it turned out he was a kind of almost forgotten figure of the Manchester music scene called Chris Sievey.

He'd been the frontman and the singer-songwriter of a band called The Freshies just after the punk era.

He'd really tried to make it as himself and just had never been able to kind of sustain a living doing it as Chris Sievey. He invented this character Frank Sidebottom almost as a joke, like he was Chris Sievey's biggest fan.

But now that mystery was solved. What you are exploring now is another one, which is that you have determined that there is some kind of code that Frank Sidebottom left behind. What is that?

He had told various people that he knew that in his artwork — within the character's artwork, if you will — he had hidden secret messages in code for his fans to work out.

But he didn't tell any of the fans that there were codes in his artwork for them to work out, so nobody did. 

There was secret code hidden in the borders of his artwork. What these borders look like are two rows of triangles.

They can be around a gig poster, or they could be around one of Frank Sidebottom's record covers. They're on one of Frank Sidebottom's audio cassettes.

Frank Sidebottom also fronted a band. He often left secret codes in concert posters and the band's album artwork. (John Barry)

So you approach [the GCHQ] with Frank Sidebottom's code, what you thought was his code. How did they respond?

I actually was given the email address of the guy who ran the place and was told he had a great sense of humour and loves comedy. So, why not give it a go?

I got an email back saying, "Tell us more. Let's have a look."

Although they did point out that I'd actually emailed them ... on April Fools Day.

Sullivan says GCHQ determined the coded border around this cassette cover translates to: "Why does my nose hurt after concerts?" (Chris Sievey Estate)

But they were able to figure it out. When I look at these triangles, I can't even believe it is a code. But what did they say?

Initially, they came back and said, "Is there anything else you can tell us?"

At that point, one of Chris Sievey's children remembered that when he came down for breakfast one morning on his way to school, his dad had been up all night doing a piece of this artwork and said to him that he had left the outer edge of the triangular design empty.

He told the kids to fill it in and put any shapes you want in those outer triangles.

So basically, he'd incorporated a red herring into it that he got his children to devise to make it even harder and more unlikely that anyone would ever be able to crack his communication.

When they finally did read these codes, what did they actually say?

One of them said, which is the one I used in the documentary Being Frank, "Why does my nose hurt after concerts?"

And the reason being is because when he performed as Frank Sidebottom, inside this head, he had a very nasally voice. In order to do it, he had to wear like a really tight kind of swimmer's nose clip, like a peg on his nose.

He's telling his audience that that's what he is going through while he is this mystery figure of Frank Sidebottom.

Chris Sievey, the artist behind Frank Sidebottom, holding Little Frank and hiding his face from the camera. (Rick Sarko)

It sounds like you are going to have endless material, even having done the documentary, trying to unravel Chris Sievey.

He did lead this incredible, relentless, absurdist performance life and most of his kind of creative gestures were done in the margins of the mainstream. 

But he relentlessly self-recorded his life. He preserved everything. So when I was going through his archive for the documentary, I've been able to piece back together most of what this mystery man was doing.

He was like an endless innovator. He just had this creative mind and he was, like, compulsively creative in the most joyous and absurd way.

Written by Ashley Mak and John McGill. Interview produced by Ashley Mak  Q&A edited for length and clarity.