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Gifford, Denis (1927–2000), cartoonist and film historian, was born on 26 December 1927 at 1 Bampton Road, Forest Hill, London, the son of William Thomas Benjamin Gifford, a lithographic printer, and his wife, Amelia Emma Rachel, née Hutchings. From his early pre-school years he showed his talent for drawing, and he claimed that from the age of three he had begun to collect and cherish comics. He was educated in south-east London, first at St Bartholomew's Church of England primary school and then at Dulwich College, where he formed a long-standing friendship with a fellow student, Bob Monkhouse (the future professional comedian), who shared Gifford's passion for comics, animation and vintage cinema, and radio programmes.

While still a pupil at Dulwich, in co-operation with Monkhouse, Gifford produced and circulated to his schoolmates at a penny a time a magazine printed by the primitive and laborious heated gelatine-and-hectograph ink process. By the time he was fourteen Denis was contributing sketches to professional publications such as D. C. Thomson's comic Dandy, for which he was paid a half-crown each time. By the time he left Dulwich College he had decided on a career as a writer and cartoonist. His first job was as a junior cartoonist on a national Sunday newspaper, Reynolds News. Just after the ending of the Second World War he was called up and joined the Royal Air Force.

After demobilization Gifford set up a small studio with Monkhouse, producing comics for minor publishers towards the end of the 1940s. He was then commissioned to take over the drawing of already established strips, for example ‘Our Ernie’ and ‘Stonehenge Kit the ancient Brit’ for the Amalgamated Press's Knockout Comic, and began to create characters of his own such as ‘Steadfast McStaunch’ for the Amalgamated Press and a variety of publishers. Gifford continued to produce comic strips throughout his life, contributing to well over 100 different comics, boys' weeklies, and newspapers.

By the 1950s Gifford was well known not only as an illustrator but as a ‘nostalgist’, keenly concerned with preserving the particularly British type of comic, which was becoming swamped by the distribution of imported slicker (but arguably cruder) American cartoon publications. His profound interest in popular culture, particularly of the 1930s and 1940s, influenced many publishers, who consequently brought out reprints and reappraisals of different aspects of the subject. Gifford began to establish a reputation as a lecturer and broadcaster, and in the 1950s he wrote comedy scripts for BBC radio shows and comedians, including Derek Roy and Morecambe and Wise. He was probably best known in the 1960s for devising the long-running nostalgic celebrity radio quiz show Sounds Familiar, which began in 1966. This was followed by Looks Familiar from 1972, a television programme of a similar nature which he also devised.

Gifford's research into films, both British and American, was prodigious, and it was while working for Pathé Films that he met and married on 3 August 1963 Angela (Angeliki) Kalagias (b. 1944/5), who was then employed in the Pathé offices. They had one child, Pandora Jane, but the marriage had ended in divorce by the 1970s. From then until his death Gifford lived alone, surrounded by what was almost certainly the largest ever collection of British comics, in his small south-east London home: he was estimated to possess over a quarter of a million comics, his collection weighing some 12 tons when it was put up for auction after his death.

Gifford continued to broadcast regularly about films, comics, and vintage radio programmes and in the 1970s founded the Association of Comics Enthusiasts and established the Ally Sloper award for British comics, as well as becoming a founder member of the Society of Strip Illustrators and organizing the first British Comics Convention in London. He was invited to lecture widely in Britain and abroad and from the 1960s produced a series of meticulously researched books about his favourite aspects of popular culture, which reached a wide and varied audience. He published more than thirty-five books, of which perhaps the most valuable are The British Comic Catalogue, 1874–1974 (1975); The Great Cartoon Stars; a Who's Who (1979); The Golden Age of Radio (1985); The International Book of Comics (1984); The Encyclopaedia of Comic Characters (1987); and, surely his greatest publishing achievement, The British Film Catalogue, 1895–1970 (1973), which listed and described every British entertainment film of that period. This took him some fifteen years to compile: it was reprinted and updated in 1986, and he prepared a further reprint and update in the year before he died (this final edition of the book appeared in 2001).

Denis Gifford continued his campaign for recognition of the strength and skill of British cartoonists until his death in 2000. He remained, despite severe illness, active to the end of his life, and well deserved the title bestowed upon him by other writers and enthusiasts: ‘guardian of the nation's nostalgia’. He died, alone in his home, 80 Silverdale, Sydenham, London, on 20 May 2000 from a pulmonary embolism, deep vein thrombosis, and the cancer from which he had been suffering for some time.

Mary Cadogan

Sources  

personal knowledge (2004) · B. Doyle, Story Paper Collectors' Digest, 642 (June 2000) · T. Vallance, The Independent (24 May 2000) · Programme notes, ‘A tribute evening to Denis Gifford, 2000’, National Film Theatre, London (2000) · S. Holland, The Guardian (26 May 2000) · b. cert. · m. cert. · d. cert. · The Times (30 May 2000) · Daily Telegraph (25 May 2000) · R. Stummer, ‘Art of Dennis the Menace and Billy Bunter expected to raise £250,000 at auction’, The Independent (4 Feb 2001)

Likenesses  

photograph, before 2000, repro. in Holland, The Guardian · photograph, repro. in Daily Telegraph · photograph, repro. in The Times · photograph, repro. in Vallance, The Independent