Published On: Mon, Dec 4th, 2017

Dick Francis: The writer and racing legend's son Felix is keeping his legacy alive



Dick Francis's novels were a team effort, says sonGETTY

Dick Francis’s novels were a team effort, says son


It looked as though nothing could come between him and his fi st Grand National win on a horse owned by the Queen Mother to boot.

But then his mount did something that has mystified racing fans ever since: he suddenly jumped into the air and landed on his stomach, allowing E S B – the second placed horse – to overtake and win.

The year was 1956.

It was a crushing disappointment but it turned out to have a rather large silver lining, according to his son Felix. 

Felix never planned to follow Dick's footstepsGETTY

Felix never planned to follow Dick’s footsteps, it was “a complete accident”

“My father said later in life that he owed more to Devon Loch’s failure than if he had won,” he says.

“Every year someone wins the National but to lose it in such a spectacular manner is very rare indeed.”

Dick Francis certainly prospered after he hung up his saddle one year later and embarked on a writing career.

First he joined this newspaper’s stablemate the Sunday Express as a racing correspondent. 

Dick had promised the Queen Mother a novelGETTY

Dick had promised to dedicate a novel to the Queen Mother when she turned 100


People always ask me if I planned to follow in my father’s footsteps, I tell them it was a complete accident.

Felix Francis


But it was when he switched to novel writing in 1962 that he hit pay dirt.

Dick published a thriller called Dead Cert and it proved to be such a success that he went on to write 40 more bestsellers before his death in 2010.

Since then son Felix has taken on his mantle and last month launched Pulse, published as “a Dick Francis novel by Felix Francis”.

It is a gripping tale involving the death of a man found unconscious at Cheltenham and features the first female lead in the Francis canon.

 “People always ask me if I planned to follow in my father’s footsteps,” says Felix when we meet at his 400-year-old manor house in north Oxfordshire.

“I tell them it was a complete accident.”

He gave up his job as head of physics at an independent school to become his father’s manager and went on to help him with his novels after his mother Mary died in 2000.

When Dick died 10 years later Felix began writing but with the books published under the “Dick Francis” brand.

Dick Francis always relied on his wife for plotsGETTY

Dick Francis always relied on his wife for plots

That suits him.

He says: “It was always a team effort. My father was never called Dick at home, he was always Richard.

“In my view ‘Dick Francis’ was always my mother and father together.

“I feel I’m as much a part of their books as they’re a part of mine.” 

Young Felix often helped with his parents’ plots:

“I was a 17-year-old A-level physics student when I designed the bomb that blew up a plane in Rat Race.”

Growing up in what he describes as “one of the greatest fiction factories of the 20th century” was a happy experience.

“People ask me what it was like to have a famous father and I say, ‘I don’t know what it was like not to’.

Dick lost the Grand National on Devon Loch in 1956GETTY

Dick lost the Grand National at the last on the Queen Mother’s horse Devon Loch in 1956

“My father was the champion jockey the year I was born [1953] and then in 1956 the Dick Francis name was thrust to the front pages as a result of the Devon Loch episode.”

His father’s work brought Felix into contact with other illustrious names from the world of crime fi tion, including the Queen of Crime herself. “I used to make tea for Agatha Christie,” he says.

“She lived around five miles away from us in Wallingford. When I was 17 I would drive my father over to see her but I’d get banished by Agatha to the kitchen to make the tea.

“I didn’t mind that as it gave me a chance to talk to her husband, the archaeologist Max Mallowan, who was much more interesting.” 

Through his mother who worked in the theatre Felix also met star names from the world of entertainment.

“My mother was an assistant stage manager and worked in rep at Hereford. The friends she made there she made for life.

“One of them was Arthur Lowe [Captain Mainwaring in Dad’s Army]. I grew up spending a lot of time with him.

“Once I went to a party and found myself sitting next to Noel Coward.

Felix has written Pulse, a new Dick Francis novelGETTY

Felix Francis has written Pulse, a new Dick Francis novel

“That was what was so exciting as a child.

“There was something about all those things which made me think there was nothing I couldn’t do if I wanted to.”

Felix’s ambition was to be an RAF pilot as his father had been in the Second World War but problems with his hip – he was hospitalised for five months – put paid to that.

“I was accepted on the BA training scheme but was rejected by their actuaries department who decided I wasn’t a good bet for their pension scheme.”

That news came a day before his university finals but as one door slammed shut another opened.

He saw an advertisement for a physics teacher and got the job.

He loved teaching and stayed for 17 years.

But then came the time to assume his father’s mantle.

“In 1999 my parents decided they were going to stop,” he recalls.

“But my father had always said to the Queen Mother, ‘Can I dedicate one of my books to you?’

She would wave her finger at him and say, ‘Only when I’m 100!’ ”

“My parents went to Ascot as they always did to give their latest book to her in 1999 and were about to say that it was the last one when the Queen Mother said, ‘I’m so looking forward to my book next year.’ 

“I remember driving my parents home afterwards and them saying, ‘Oh God, we’ve got to do it all again.’

“So they wrote another book called Shattered and it was well named as they were both shattered.

“I helped them with the last bit. The book was published in September and my mother sadly died three weeks later.

“Everyone thought that was that.

But five years later my father’s agent took me out to lunch in London.

He said, ‘We have a problem. All your father’s books are going out of print.

“No one is reading them any more. What we need is a new hardback.’

“He asked for my permission to ask an existing well known crime writer if he could write a Dick Francis novel.

“I must have had a few glasses of red wine by then and said to him, ‘Before you ask someone else, I’d like to have a go.’

”The result was Under Orders.”

The novel, written by Felix but published under his father’s name, was well received by critics – and went to number two in the UK book charts.

The rest, as they say, is history. 

● To order Pulse, a Dick Francis novel by Felix Francis, published by Simon & Schuster at £20, call the Express Bookshop with card details on 01872 562310.

Alternatively please send a cheque or postal order made payable to The Express Bookshop to: Pulse Offer, PO Box 200, Falmouth, Cornwall, TR11 4WJ or visit expressbookshop.com 



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