Felix Francis: Son of Author Dick Francis

PUBLISHED: 00:20 08 February 2010 | UPDATED: 16:16 20 February 2013

Felix Francis with his partner Debbie

Felix Francis with his partner Debbie

Felix Francis is the son of one of Britain's most popular authors. As the son of Dick Francis he enjoyed a 'celebrity' childhood but was terrifed of the Queen Mother!

Felix Francis is the son of one of Britain's most popular authors. As the son of Dick Francis he enjoyed a 'celebrity' childhood but was terrifed of the Queen Mother!

"People always ask me: 'What's it like to have a famous father?' Well the answer to that is: 'It's great fun, but I don't know what it's like not to.' My father was champion jockey the year I was born, and Devon Loch collapsed underneath him in the 1956 Grand National catapulting the name of Dick Francis from the back pages to the front pages. Then the first novel Dead Cert was published when I was eight," explains Felix Francis. "I grew up in a fiction factory, the conversation over breakfast wasn't about who was doing the school run, it was about whether Sid Halley would survive the night with a 38 slug in his guts and the blood dripping through a crack in the linoleum floor"

He's talking, of course, about the hugely successful thriller writer Dick Francis and adds that it was those fatal seconds in the National when Devon Loch went from looking the out and out winner to ending up spread-eagled on the track, just yards from the finishing post, that set his father on course for a literary career.

Sometime after the incident, family-friend and up-and-coming literary agent John Johnson happened to take his mother to visit Dick's mother for tea. Fascinated by the photographs of Dick he mooted the idea that to have lost the National in such spectacular fashion, especially on a horse owned by HM The Queen Mother, was a 'very good peg to hang an autobiography on'.

When Dick declined the idea due to lack of time, Johnson persisted suggesting a ghost-writer.

"When the terms came out that this person would live with him for six months and take 60 per cent of the money my mother said to my father: 'Go on you write it and I'll help you' and there was forged the working relationship of a lifetime".

The resulting book The Sport Of Queens was already well on its way to completion when less then 12 months later, a fall at Newbury led to Dick's retirement from the saddle. Hot on the heels of this announcement came an offer from John Junor, the editor of The Sunday Express, to write six racing articles.

"John Junor was ahead of his time because in those days you were either a sportsman or a journalist and the two were very separate. He had Dick Francis writing about racing, Denis Compton writing about cricket, and Danny Blanchflower writing about football."

It was, adds Felix, the 'editor's blue pencil' that his father credits for teaching him how to write.

The role lasted 16 years, much longer than originally envisaged, and in 1962, while still working for the paper, the first Dick Francis thriller Dead Cert was published.

"My mother was saying: 'We haven't had a new car for five years and look at the state of it, and the carpets need repairing, and we've got two children who we want to educate and we've put them down for private school and we aren't going to be able to afford it, so how about writing the story we've always said we were going to have a go at?"

The book, a huge success, was followed two years later by Nerve, and from then on a new book appeared every year until 2000.

Despite carrying in his schoolboy passion for physics on through university and then becoming a teacher, Felix always maintained a degree of participation with what had quickly become the 'family business'.

"The first part of a Dick Francis book I ever wrote was the design of the bomb that blew up a plane in Rat Race in 1970 when I was an A'level physics student. I've done bits a pieces in them ever since, I wrote the computer programme in Twice Shy, the one that had a teacher who was also a marksman, and that's exactly what I was, I shot for England - that was 35 years ago - and I shot for Oxfordshire till 1996"

Having become increasingly involved over the years in helping his father with the 'paperwork', in the early 90s Felix resigned from his position as head of the science department at Bloxham School and began to manage his father's business affairs on a full-time basis.

The production of Dick's 38th thriller Shattered, marked a significant turning point in their professional relationship.

"I helped finish Shattered off, and it was the right name for it, because my father was exhausted. He was 80 years old and he wasn't going to get the deadline," says Felix, who had helped with the completion of the book.

Its publication marked the end of an era, in 2001 for the first time in nearly 40 years, no new 'Dick Francis' appeared in the bookstores - it seemed that his pen had finally run dry.

Then in 2006, after a six year hiatus, came the unexpected news that loyal readers had hardly dare hope for - Sid Halley, one of only two main characters to feature in more than one book, made a return to the fray in Under Orders.

Twelve months later Dead Heat hit the shelves, Dick Francis was back in business with one subtle but significant difference - the name of co-author 'Felix Francis' now shared the cover space.

"Dick Francis is not so much an individual nowadays, although it is my father, but my father was always called Richard Francis by my mother," explains Felix. "I always used to think that Dick Francis was the two of them together, and now Dick Francis is the two of us together. Increasingly now I do the writing and he vetoes anything he doesn't like"

Last year saw the publication of Silks and this year's offering Even Money hit the UK shelves in early September.

Over the past three years responsibility for the plot and the writing has passed increasingly to Felix.

"Someone has to take control of it so I sit upstairs and write the books and send the chapters over to him, if there are things that are wrong in the racing department he tells me," he smiles.

"I work in my dressing gown!" he continues, laughing as he explains why his partner Debbie had joked about what he should wear for our photo shoot. "Part of the reason I do that is if I'm in my dressing gown I don't have to come downstairs, and if the front door goes I don't answer it. I turn my phone off upstairs I don't answer it."

He admits that the focus required to write a book does not come entirely naturally to him.

"I found it quite difficult to get into the discipline because I'm the sort of person who has my fingers in every pie . . . I hate things going on when I don't know about them, I hate people making arrangements for me that I don't know . . .".

There's no doubting the enduring popularity or demand for more stories, over the years they have been translated into 35 languages including Japanese and, most recently, two new languages, Ukrainian and Georgian, have been added.

How does Felix explain this phenomenal, enduring success?

"Dick Francis is a brand, is a type of book, it's a mystery written in the first person, and it's got horse racing in there somewhere but it's not about horses - they're about people, books where the protagonist displays loyalty and courage and honour."

"They are formulaic of a sort, they don't shock too much . . . they're not full of bad language . . . I have a continuous fight because I want them to be realistic without being too gory or sweary, and without too much sex, although of course sex can be suggestive without being explicit."

"You have to remember that I 'grew up with the Queen Mother', the Queen Mother lived in my house for all my childhood - not actually there of course, but my father would say: 'Don't do that because the Queen Mother wouldn't like it,' and then she'd appear every Christmas on the Christmas card. So I was always a bit frightened of the Queen Mother more so in expectation than reality because when I got to know the Queen Mother she was lovely - but she could be quite scary as well, she was a very forceful lady who didn't suffer fools gladly at all which I liked hugely in her. My father used to say he didn't want to have too much bad language or too bloody a storyline because he didn't want to upset the Queen Mother."

For Felix there's more to it than the sense of comfortable familiarity readers feel with these tales

"They are character driven books, to me it's very important that characters in a book are on a journey.

"I like to think that in Silk you're interested to know what happens in the relationship between Geoffrey [the central character] and Eleanor [his love interest], and that you are interested to know what happened to Geoffrey as a result of the problems he was encountering with the intimidation."

Silks undeniably ends on a cliff-hanger. The main protagonist, race-riding barrister Geoffrey Mason, has just killed Julian Trent, the violent thug who used bully boy tactics both to secure his early release from his prison sentence and in an attempt to influence Geoffrey's defence of an innocent man accused of murder. Geoffrey's own future remains uncertain and lies in the hands of the legal system he serves.

The ideas for each book come from chance encounters and experiences

"You get a kernel of an idea and just try and expand on it. It can be from any walk of life. Silks came about because I wanted to do one about the law.

"Dead Heat was all about a chef because we'd never done one and it seemed to me that every time you turned the television on there were cooking programmes."

The choice of a bookmaker, Ned Talbot, as the focus in this year's offering Even Money was not a popular one with Felix's brother Merrick. Bookmakers attract mixed emotions amongst the racing fraternity - with many arguing that they take money out of the sport.

"Merrick was very concerned that people in racing wouldn't like it because it was about a bookmaker, but actually I gave the bookmaker a life, he has family, he has a wife who's a manic depressive, he thought he was orphaned as a child and it turns out he wasn't."

Life is hectic for Felix right now, as well as overseeing the renovation work on the family home on the Warwickshire-Oxfordshire borders, he's writing a screenplay of Dead Heat, and is toying with ideas for next year's book, due to be completed by March.

"Give me a clue to share with our Warwickshire Life readers," I implore.

"It's an occupation we've never used before," he says and then hesitates.

"At least give me a hint," I persist.

"I don't want to say too much because I don't really know enough yet," he says adding that he's not being deliberately secretive, but that he's been caught out by saying too much too soon before.

"I've got friends in Australia and I inadvertently told them the character in Even Money spent some time in Australia, and they said: 'Well I hope he'll come to our house'."

"So I said: 'Oh yes that's a good idea'. And they went round telling people how their house was in the next Dick Francis book, and I have to tell you it isn't. When I was with them recently I heard them saying to someone: 'Our house is in the next book', and I had to tell them that it's not . . . he stays in a hotel in the middle of Sydney"

A clue it transpires can be found in the dedication at the front of Even Money. Felix's son William has, to his father and grandfather's great pride, recently passed out from Sandhurst, and this is the inspiration for the central player in next year's plot.
It will be a soldier, but for now that's all Felix is prepared to say - and try as I might he won't reveal any more.

Even Money by Dick Francis and Felix Francis (Michael Joseph, 18.99 hardcover)

On the first day of Royal Ascot a man steps from the crowd to tell Ned Talbot, bookmaker, that he is his father. Ned's life is thrown into turmoil. He'd been told since he was a baby that his parents had died in a car crash. Barely an hour later, his newly-found father is stabbed by an unknown assailant in the Ascot car park. Blood oozing from his abdomen, his father warns Ned to "be very careful." Ned finds himself in a race to solve his father's riddle, a race where coming in second could cost him more than even money, it could cost him his life. . . .

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