Bristow by Frank Dickens

Frank Dickens was a British cartoonist and writer, best known for his gag-a-day comic 'Bristow' (1961-2012), about an office clerk who prefers passing time rather than work. 'Bristow' was one of the longest-running comic series of all time, particularly by one single author. In 2010 he entered the Guinness Book of Records with this achievement, though nowadays Dickens is the third-longest-running continuously active cartoonist without the help of an assistant. Dickens' second best known comic strip was 'Albert Herbert Hawkins (The Naughtiest Boy in the World)' (1967-1987). He also created shorter-lived comic series such as 'Willie Bigelow' (1966), 'Mavis', 'Striker' (1971), 'tEMpS' (1977) and 'Patto' (2002-2004), and served as scriptwriter of 'Spare Ribs' (1976-1977, drawn by Don Roberts). He additionally made several other newspaper cartoons and wrote children's novels. Dickens was also co-founder and member of the British Cartoonists' Association in 1966. 

Oddbob, by Frank Dickens
'Oddbod', Sunday Times, 12 March 1961.

Early life and career
Frank William Huline Dickens was born in 1931 in the Hornsey district of London. His father was a painter and decorator. After graduating at the Stationer's Company School Dickens collaborated with his father. He also worked as a buying clerk in an engineering firm, a vacuum cleaner salesman, and aspired to become a professional racing cyclist. An often repeated story is that he once moved to France to participate with the annual Tour de France. He is also said to have made cartoons about cycling for the magazines L'Équipe and Paris Match. Dickens was, however, known for his tall tales and the story of his move to France, let alone participating in the Tour, are urban legends. On the website (posted on 9 August 2015) Feargal McKay debunks it: "Legends have a habit of stretching the truth to breaking point and the legend of Dickens's French years does just that, a fact confirmed to me by a lifelong friend of Dickens, Bill Houghton, president of the Unity CC, which Dickens joined in 1947: "It has come up in a lot of articles about him but this story once started became fact. We all did our National Service and came home trying to earn a living. Frank's early working years were a mixture of jobs, all poorly paid and allowed him little time to ride, let alone race."

Back in the UK, Dickens performed as the straight man within the comedy duo Dickens & Mandel, who performed in music halls in 1957 and 1958. Yet Dickens decided to become a cartoonist instead, despite being completely self-taught. He later reflected that, by the time of his debut, he was lucky that newspapers became more receptive of cartoons where the idea was more important than drawing. As he explained it himself: "Because, really my drawing's useless. It's the same face over and over again. Although it has got slightly better now. No, not 'better' but it's got more of a style about it." Indeed Dickens often had to resort to verbal descriptions to imply who certain side characters were or what kind of actions they performed. A little arrow might offer the explanation: "postboy" or indicative words like "flick, flick" or "clump, clump" clarified their gestures. His main graphic influences were Michael Ffolkes and John Glashan. Dickens once met Glashan and showed him his drawings, which he reviewed with the following devastating words: "To be perfectly honest: I think they are terrible." 

On 30 September 1959 Dickens published his first cartoon in The Sunday Express, which led to publications in other papers such as The Evening Standard, the Daily Sketch and the Daily Mirror. In December 1960 he debuted in the Sunday Times, where he developed his first newspaper comic, 'Oddbod'. This in turn led to a book of short stories, 'What the Dickens' (1961), about men and women who all try to get rid of their partners. The book also marked the debut of the character Bristow, whom Dickens would eventually give his own comic series. 

Bristow, art by Frank Dickens

On 19 September 1961 'Bristow' debuted in regional papers like Preston Journal, Aberdeen Press, Glasgow Evening Citizen and the Western Mail, before being picked up exclusively by The Evening Standard on 6 March 1962. Dickens wrote it in collaboration with his sister Pam. The gag-a-day comic stars a round, bulbous character Dickens had used before in his 'Oddbod' comic, but now received a proper name and personality. Bristow is an employee at the city conglomerate Chester-Perry, where he works under command of Mr. Fudge. Dickens took the name 'Bristow' from a nondescript name in a Michael Ffolkes cartoon. His co-workers are the clerk Jones (who always claims that he is seven years older than Bristow), typist Miss Sunman, master chef Gordon Blue, the Postboy and Mrs. Purdy the Tealady, who enjoys gossips. Bristow may look like a model worker (complete with bowler hat), but in reality he tries to avoid doing any useful work. He talks with colleagues, gets distracted by a pigeon on his windowsill, dreams of becoming a novelist or brain surgeon and usually arrives late at work "thanks to the railways." Bristow daydreams about his future best-selling autobiographical novel 'Living Death in the Buying Department' and Miss Pretty, the 'Kleenaphone' girl on whom he has a crush. Dickens even found a way to shoehorn his love for cycling in the comic, giving some side characters the names of well known real-life cyclists. The 'Bristow' feature was syndicated worldwide, except in the US, because Dickens refused to "Americanize" his characters. Notable foreign publications that ran Dickens' strip are the Melbourne Herald and the Sydney Morning Herald from Australia, The Dominion in Wellington, New Zealand, and the Italian magazine Linus. Between 1966 and 2011, twelve 'Bristow' compilation books were published.


Longevity record
Interestingly enough, Dickens started to hate his own comic strip after a while. He usually created all six daily episodes within one Monday morning, so he could spend the rest of the week doing other things. According to the Evening Standard: "Frank's working week is as follows: Monday: Up at 5.45 a.m. Thinks up six 'Bristow's. Draws them. 9.00 a.m.: faxes them to office. End of working week." He once described Bristow in a 1980 interview, conducted by Alex Hamilton, as "an awful character, really - heartless, cruel. Y'know, kick a man when he's down sort of thing." Especially in the 1980s, after Dickens and his wife divorced many cartoons became quite nihilistic, with Bristow suffering from depression himself and sometimes even contemplating suicide. Luckily the tone changed again by the 1990s. Dickens' creator backlash might not be all that surprising, considering he drew 'Bristow' for more than 51 years non-stop, without any assistance! In 2010 it won Dickens a spot in The Guinness Book of World Records for being "the longest-running daily cartoon strip by a single author". He holds a longer record than Belgian cartoonist Marc Sleen, who drew the daily newspaper comic 'Nero' without assistance for 45 years continuously (1947-1992, and had ten other comic series running in between for 18 years!). Dickens also leaves Charles M. Schulz behind, who drew the daily 'Peanuts' comic strip between 1950 and 2000 for 49 years on his own, though he did use assistants for the separate comic book publications. Yet Dickens is still surpassed by Ed Payne's 'Billy the Boy Artist' , which lasted 56 years on end, and Fred Lasswell who drew the daily comic 'Barney Google' for 59 years, though with the aid of assistants. And the unanimous record holders remain Jim Russell ('The Potts') and Russ Johnson ('Mr. Oswald'), each with the same amount of time: 62 years! Though in Johnson's case he worked on a monthly basis, while Russell had to produce daily episodes.

Media adaptations
A stage adaptation of 'Bristow' was performed at the ICA in 1971. Decades later, in 1999, the comic strip was also adapted into a six-part audio play for  BBC Radio 4, for which Dickens wrote the screenplay himself. 


Other comics
Among Dickens' other comic characters are 'Willie Biggelow' for The Sunday Express (1966), 'Mavis' for Woman's Realm and 'Patto' (2002-2004) for the Evening Standard.  Dickens also made a soccer strip called 'Striker' in 1971, and contributed single panel cartoons to Punch magazine. For the Daily Express, Dickens also drew 'tEMpS' (1977). Throughout the years, Dickens developed several other syndicated characters, such as 'Teddy Pig', 'Panto the Police Horse' and 'Lucy Lanzarote'.

Spare Ribs
Dickens scripted the comic strip 'Spare Ribs', drawn by Don Roberts, which ran in The Daily Express between 9 August 1976 and 6 March 1977. It starred a 18-year old typist, Debbie, who works at the Department Store in London with her colleagues Suzi, Maisie and Kelly. Much like 'Bristow' the comic could be described as office comedy about a frustrated employee, though Roberts' style was more dynamic and detailed than Dickens. 

Albert Herbert by Frank Dickens
'Albert Herbert Hawkins (The Naughtiest Boy in the World)'. 

Albert Herbert Hawkins (The Naughtiest Boy in the World)
Dickens' most widespread comic strip (albeit for a short while) was 'Albert Herbert Hawkins (The Naughtiest Boy in the World') (1967-1987), which featured the daily events of a young boy at Saint Mary's Mixed Infants School. It ran in The Daily Express for 20 years. Like the title implies, Albert is a disobedient boy who often rebels against his parents, teachers, policemen and other adults. Dickens once said that the character expressed his own "true character" and that he preferred it above 'Bristow'. The comic was syndicated in the United States by Field Interprises to about 200 papers between 12 February 1979 - at earliest date - and 11 February 1980 - at latest date-, according to the research of Allan Holtz of the Stripper's Guide blog. In some U.S. school libraries at the time 'Albert Herbert Hawkins' was banned, because it supposedly promoted "defiance of adult authority by showing misbehavior for which the protagonist goes unpunished." 

Willie Biggelow, by Frank Dickens
'Willie Biggelow'.

Dickens also designed advertisements for companies like British Telecom, London Transport, Haig Whisky, Peugeot and Mercedes-Benz. His most famous advertising poster was done for Eagle Star Insurance. 

Writing career
Frank Dickens was also the author of several children's books, starting with 'Fly Away Peter' in 1964. He also wrote two thrillers centred around the world of cycle racing: 'A Curl Up and Die Day' (1980) and 'Three Cheers for the Good Guys' (1984).

Dickens won a total of eight awards for "Strip Cartoonist of the Year" from the Cartoonists' Club of Great Britain.

Personal life and death
Dickens was notorious for telling tall tales without much coherence. The fact that he was also an alcoholic may have had something to do with it. Once he arrived home late and threw his clothes over his balcony. The next day they miraculously turned up again, neatly piled and folded outside his door. A porter had noticed them, knew they belonged to Dickens and had returned them. Another time he was invited to a fanclub of his own comic, where he never felt at home: "I couldn't get along with them at all. Their version of 'Bristow' was so completely different from mine!" During his final visit Dickens got drunk again and danced naked on their table. Afterwards the club disbanded. Dickens' alcoholism took a turn for the worse when his wife divorced him after 13 years. He took the news so badly that he went on a five-day binge and got arrested for drunk driving. In January 1982 he was fined 700 pounds for this offense. Eventually Dickens quit alcohol and became a teetotaler. He died at the age of 84 on 8 July 2016 after a long illness.

Bristow in Linus
Cover illustration for Linus Magazine.

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