The Trades Club at Hebden Bridge is a small spit and sawdust sort of place that a Guardian review would probably describe as ‘intimate’, a Telegraph one ‘unmistakably northern’. A Yorkshireman’s view would most likely be ‘what a shithole’ — but in a cuddly, warm and loving way.
Bottom line is, The Trades probably hasn’t seen many world premieres, but there are always boundaries to be pushed and Rubicons to be crossed and so it is home to the very second airing of journalist and author Jon Ronson’s Frank Story. Second because Jon admits to performing a warm up rehearsal of the show in Brooklyn, but that didn’t count because he was the only person in the room who had the slightest clue what was going on.
The story of Frank Sidebottom is thoroughly intriguing. Today he would be a massively popular, but unsuccessful novelty contestant on Britain’s Got Talent; seen by millions for a few weeks, talked about in school classrooms and playgrounds, filling column inches in tabloids and weekly chat mags and then unceremoniously dumped out of the collective consciousness and damned to open supermarkets or tour what’s left of the working men’s club circuit until bankruptcy and/or a stint heading up Iceland’s advertising campaign thrust him ever so briefly back into the limelight.
Frank’s rise to almost-fame from the margins is told with love and, importantly, first-hand experience by Ronson. It is a eulogy of sorts for Frank the character and the man who played Frank; Mancunian musician and comedian Chris Sievey. Ronson flits perfectly between the two – just when Frank’s larger than life on-stage persona is set to steal the show, Sievey staggers back in with a dose of real life to balance out the story.
It’s also an homage to Ronson’s youth, a tale of those ridiculous early days as an adult where preposterous freedom and, often, financial necessity breed situations that in retrospect seem utterly bizarre, but at the time are perfectly reasonable. The story goes that a single phone call is all it took for Jon Ronson to drop everything and join Frank Sidebottom’s band for a life touring the North of England to packed halls of “nearly 500 people”.
Whatever your connection or disconnection to Frank Sidebottom the story as Jon Ronson tells it is compelling, warm, sweet and a little bit bitter. The ten-year gap where Frank and Jon didn’t speak seemed glossed over, as is Sievey’s death from cancer and the subsequent funeral.
The installation of a bronze statue in Timperley belies, just a touch, the idea of Sidebottom as a marginal character too – Eric Morecambe was dead a long time before his hometown saw fit to immortalise him in metal of any sort. A section about Jon’s Twitter argument with academics from Durham University felt incongruous and out of place as well.
Funny, fringe and a little bit odd this show is a wonderful tribute to Sidebottom and Sievey, the list of people he inspired or worked with is like a who’s who of the TV, music and radio establishment — only he worked with them before they were famous.
At the end Jon asked if there were any requests or questions and without hesitation the man next to me demanded a singsong. Obligingly, Ronson played a verse of Kylie’s I Should Be So Lucky — a favourite from Frank’s cabaret show. And for a brief few moments the audacity and ridiculousness and sheer fun of Frank Sidebottom was alive in the room.