The many faces of Frank

TOP politicians and members of The Beatles are among the legions of fans of his meticulously-drawn cartoon strips.

And at an awards ceremony in 1972 in New York, Frank Bellamy was voted the best non-American illustrator in the world.

It was worthy recognition.

More than any other British artist he brought a new sense of excitement to the adventure strips of the 1950s and '60s.

Born in Kettering in 1917, Frank Bellamy was brought up in Bath Road.

As a youngster he followed the American Tarzan strips, which were much more to his taste than the rather static picture stories mainly featured in British comics.

But more than anything he was fascinated by the drawings of the big cats and other creatures of the African plains.

One frequently-told story relating to his childhood concerns how, when a travelling circus visited, he wandered into the circus camp, reached into a cage and plucked a few hairs from a lion's tail.

For years he kept his prize safely stored in a bottle! Foolhardy, perhaps, but the tale shows his sheer determination to get what he wanted – a quality that in adult life was to take him to the very pinnacle of his chosen profession.

After leaving school Bellamy produced a regular comic strip for the Evening Telegraph's Pink 'Un sports paper and worked for William Blamire's studio on High Street, designing film posters for the local cinemas.

While posted in County Durham during National Service he met Nancy, who later became his wife, and in 1948 he moved to London.

After a stint as a commercial artist doing illustrations for magazines, he moved into comics, firstly on Mickey Mouse Weekly.

Contractual obligations meant much of his work had to be signed 'Walt Disney'.

But it was on Swift magazine – a stablemate of Eagle aimed at a younger age group – where his unique style began to flourish.

Disregarding the magazine's rather staid layout with its regular-sized frames and text blocks under each panel, he began introducing double-sized frames that ran the length of the page.

Soon the editor of Eagle offered him the opportunity to work on the comic's prestigious back page.

Bellamy's enthusiasm, however, was tempered when he learned the work was to be a biographical strip of Sir Winston Churchill.

To draw a great national hero was a rather intimidating task.

His widow Nancy, now 82, remembered: "We had to go down to Sandhurst to get the drawings cleared by the military top brass."

Fortunately, though, The Happy Warrior, proved to be a great success, not only with Eagle readers but also with its subject.

By the time it ended in 1958, Bellamy had developed his style to such an extent he was firmly established as one of the foremost strip artists in the country.

Other subjects followed for Eagle including Biblical epic The Shepherd King, about the life of David, and The Travels of Marco Polo.

It was at this point the Eagle's management decided the comic's most famous character, Dan Dare, needed a facelift.

They approached Bellamy to take on the job, although it was to lead to controversy among fans.

Some hated it because he didn't draw the strip exactly as its originator Frank Hampson had.

But, as Bellamy said at the time, he'd been given a brief to update the artwork and if that's what the editor wants, that's what you do.

His next project for the Eagle, Fraser Of Africa, told of the adventures of a big game hunter.

It let him indulge his own love of African wildlife and was years ahead of its time in its conservationist attitudes.

Another biographical strip, Montgomery of Alamein, was helped immensely by the co-operation given by the wartime general in getting the details correct.

And once again he experimented with colours and became even bolder in the way he broke up pages, using shaped panels to depict movement and jagged-edged illustrations.

If anything the work was an even greater success than The Happy Warrior and is now regarded by comic book collectors as one of the best strips ever.

Heros The Spartan continued the high standards, but by the mid-1960s Eagle's best days were drawing to a close.

Bellamy left the magazine and worked, instead, on a highly popular strip version of Thunderbirds, the Gerry Anderson puppet series.

Throughout the late 1960s and early 1970s he contributed to many periodicals including The Sunday Times and Radio Times.

His work for Radio Times, featuring the popular character Dr Who, twice adorned its cover.

In 1971 he took over the Garth strip in the Daily Mirror and later moved back with Nancy to Kettering.

Bellamy's talents as an artist also led him to exhibit his paintings and drawings.

One display inside a London gallery led to Tony Crosland, a former Labour minister, ringing one day.

"Frank had done this semi nude of me," remembered Nancy, who now lives in Brambleside, "and Crosland had phoned up to ask if he could meet the model.

"There was a long embarrassed silence when Frank explained that the model was me, his wife."

Another famous caller was none other than Paul McCartney.

The Beatle had been an Eagle reader as a boy and now wanted him to do an album cover.

"He told Frank he had been meaning to call him for ages," remembered Nancy, "but it had taken him two years to pluck up enough courage to pick up the phone."

Sadly he was to die from a heart attack in 1976 at the age of just 59.

Nancy, however, is determined that his name will live on, and thanks to her efforts there is now a plaque outside the house he was born in Bath Road.

"Frank had so much natural talent and he was a complete perfectionist," she said.

"I'm glad so many people still seem interested in his work after all these years – he deserved it."