GCHQ codebreakers crack the cryptic code of Frank Sidebottom

Frank Sidebottom, pictured in 2008 - WireImage
Frank Sidebottom, pictured in 2008 - WireImage

It is famed for cracking the complex codes of malignant foreign powers.

But in its ongoing bid to protect the country, GCHQ has turned its attention to cryptic matters of a different kind; the secret messages of Frank Sidebottom.

They were initially stumped. But Britain’s finest brains have finally revealed that the creator of the giant cartoon character said things like: "Why does my nose hurt after concerts?"

A GCHQ spokesperson said such challenges help the master codebreakers at the government’s listening station “build the skills we need to keep the country safe.”

It is a turn of events that would have greatly amused Chris Sievey, the man behind the cult comedy hero.

Sievey, who died in 2010, inserted cryptic symbols in artwork around the borders of various fan newsletters, football programmes and record and tape sleeves sent out to Sidebottom fans in the 1980s and 1990s.

Frank Sidebottom's paraphernalia  - Credit: Frank Sidebottom's paraphernalia 
Frank Sidebottom's paraphernalia Credit: Frank Sidebottom's paraphernalia

At the time, they were barely noticed by followers of the character with the giant papier mache head.

But Sievey, from Manchester, told friends and family he was hiding very important messages in the code.

When Steve Sullivan, the director, started making Being Frank; the forthcoming film about Sievey and Sidebottom, he took the rows of symbols to several codebreakers, but none could help.

He told BBC News: “My own attempts to crack it proved absolutely futile. I spent a while just looking at them going, 'What could he be saying, what could this mean?'

"But it was impossible to crack them, and it was entirely plausible that there wasn't a code there and that he was just winding people up."

In an attempt to solve the mystery, Mr Sullivan eventually turned to GCHQ.

Astonishingly, they agreed to look at the comedian’s seemingly impenetrable rows of shapes and symbols.

Frank Sidebottom's mystery code
Frank Sidebottom's mystery code

But even they were flummoxed, admitting they had absolutely no idea how to crack the code.

That is until Sievey's son, Stirling, recalled how his father would ask the children to fill an outer row with random symbols before Sievey inserted his code into the inner row.

Mr Sullivan added: "It meant the outer row triangles is a complete red herring. Not only did he put a mystery out there, he made it deliberately impossible to crack.

“By letting his kids add nonsense into the message, it deliberately obscures the chances of anybody - even top mathematicians - being able to crack it.

“So I reported back to GCHQ that the outer ring is a red herring and then had an email one day saying, 'Right, we've cracked it during a light-hearted training exercise.'”

GCHQ told Mr Sullivan that Sidebottom "had a small but dedicated following" among its staff.

Noticing some repeated pairs of symbols, the first word cracked by its team of top codebreakers was Sidebottom's favourite, "bobbins".

The messages turned out to be a “combination of slightly autobiographical statements and silly statements about Frank's world", Mr Sullivan admitted.

"Why does my nose hurt after concerts?" is believed to relate to the nose peg Sievey wore under Sidebottom's giant head to give the character his trademark nasal voice.

Another code translated as: "The Man From Fish EP is top secret" which is suitably baffling to even those who knew him best.

"It was just an exercise in wilful absurdity, which is why he was doing it," Mr Sullivan said.

"But then all of his work was an exercise in wilful obscurity and absurdity. I think he loved the idea that he was putting communication out but people didn't even know he was communicating."

He said GCHQ had "a great sense of humour about the whole investigation.”

A GCHQ spokesperson said: "As the national authority for cryptanalysis, we're sometimes sent codes which the team will test themselves with in their spare time.

"They provide us with a great challenge and help build the skills we need to keep the country safe.

"With its colourful drawings and striking patterns, this code caught our eye and it was satisfying to be able to break it."