Frank Dickens was born in Hornsey, North London, on 2 February 1932, the son of a painter and decorator. He went to Stationer's School, left aged sixteen, and began working for his father. He then worked for three months as a buying clerk in an engineering firm, before in 1946 becoming a racing cyclist. After National Service in the RAF, Dickens moved to Paris in the hope, he later said, of becoming "the greatest racing cyclist the world has ever known".
When he failed to make a career in cycling, Dickens - a self-taught artist - tried making money by selling cycling cartoons, and "to my surprise and delight I found a ready market in French magazines specializing in bicycle racing." In 1959 he sold cycling cartoons to Paris-Match and L'Equipe, and had his first cartoon published in a British national paper - the Sunday Express - on 30 September 1959. This was followed by work for the Evening Standard, Daily Sketch and Daily Mirror. In December 1960 Dickens began a three-month period at the Sunday Times, recalling that "I walked into the Sunday Times with my strip 'Oddbod' and walked out with a contract that same day."
In 1961 Dickens published "What The Dickens", a collection of illustrated stories which he described as being "about men trying to do away with their wives and said wives trying to dispose of their husbands." In the same year he developed one of the characters from "Oddbod" into the eponymous star of the "Bristow" strip. This featured a bowler-hatted "ineffectual rebel" with a toothbrush moustache, who worked in the offices of R. L. Chester-Perry Co. Ltd. It first appeared in the Preston Journal, and other regional papers, before being taken up by the Evening Standard on 6 March 1962. Championed by the paper's editor, Charles Wintour, the Evening Standard then bought the exclusive rights. "Pendennis" in the Sunday Times has described Bristow as "The Good Soldier Schwejk of the white-collar workers", and Dickens was five times voted CCGB's Strip Cartoonist of the Year - in 1962, 1963, 1964, 1965, and 1989.
Dickens also contributed single-frame joke cartoons to the Evening Standard, Sunday Express, Daily Mirror, and Punch. As he later recalled "Punch used to accept the cartoons and then say, 'Will you re-draw? People don't have two eyes in the same side of their face.'" In 1966 Dickens also created the "Willie Biggelow" strip for the Sunday Express, but in 1969 it was claimed that he still had a lot of time for freelancing, as he drew the "Willie Biggelow" strip for the Sunday Express on Mondays, and his week's supply of "Bristow" for the Evening Standard on Wednesdays. Thirty years later his routine was reportedly even simpler. As the Evening Standard noted, "Frank's working week is as follows: Monday: Up at 5.45am. Thinks up six Bristows. Draws them. 9.00am faxes them to office. End of working week."
"Bristow" was syndicated internationally, but Dickens' great financial success came through the syndication in the United States of another strip entitled "Albert Herbert Hawkins: The Naughtiest Boy in the World." This was handled by the same agency that syndicated "Andy Capp", and in 1980 it was reported that Dickens "hates Bristow, but puts his essence into 'The Naughtiest Boy in the World.'" Dickens' essential naughtiness used to express itself through drinking, before he became teetotal. Returning home one evening to his Barbican flat, rather the worse for wear, he threw his clothes over his balcony. The next day, according to the Evening Standard, they appeared neatly piled and folded outside his door - a kindly porter having recognised them and returned them.
In Britain Dickens remained firmly associated with "Bristow", which by 1997 had reached 10,000 strips. In 1965 he told one interviewer he wanted to make a "Bristow" film, and in 1971 the strip was produced on stage at the ICA, starring Freddie Jones. In 1999 Dickens himself adapted "Bristow" as a six-part series for BBC Radio 4, featuring Michael Williams. The result, according to the Independent, was "mystifyingly unfunny comedy", but by 2001 Dickens was working with the musical director of "The Lion King" to produce a musical version. Bristow himself was naturally difficult to cast. "At one time I wanted Jack Lemmon for the part", Dickens told an interviewer, "but then I dropped him in favour of Richard Attenborough": "Now I think it should be a younger Bristow, maybe someone in his late thirties."
Dickens has also produced cartoons for the Daily Mail, Daily Express, Sunday Times, Today and TV Times, and advertising for companies such as British Telecom, London Transport, Haig Whisky, Peugeot and Mercedes-Benz. In addition he had written two thrillers and a number of children's books. An admirer of John Glashan, and keen to get his approval, Dickens once took some drawings to his house. "To be perfectly honest", he was told, "I think they are terrible." His early work was done without roughs on CS10 Fashion Board with a dip pen, a No. 8 Rapidograph and Pelikan ink, but he later moved to felt-tip pen and paper. He also paints in watercolours and oils. In 1966 Dickens was one of the founder members of the British Cartoonists' Association.
- Michael Bateman Funny Way to Earn a Living: A Book of Cartoons and Cartoonists (Leslie Frewin, London, 1966), pp.55-7.
- Keith Mackenzie "Cartoonists and their work, No.3: Dickens", The Artist, August 1969, pp.122-4.
- Alex Hamilton "A cartoonist rides down a novel road," Guardian, 1 July 1980, p.9.
- Mark Honigsbaum "The Barbican? Thank God I have a house in Monaco, or I'd go mad", Evening Standard, 24 March 1992, pp.21, 23.
- Angus Mcgill "Frank Dickens Celebrates 10;000 Bristow Strips", Evening Standard, 25 July 1997, p.22.
- Mark Bryant Dictionary of Twentieth-Century British Cartoonists and Caricaturists (Ashgate, Aldershot, 2000), pp.59-60.
- The Express, 22 October 2001, p.4, "Hickey."
5 unaccessioned originals (Keith Mackenzie)
1 uncatalogued original [BR0001]
Undated (approx. 60s)