Oakes was born in Burslem, his father was a travelling salesman and his mother was a teacher. At the age of four Oakes' father died and at the age of eight his mother developed a brain tumour. She was unable to look after him and so placed him into the care of the Royal Orphanage in Wolverhampton. Oakes was later expelled from there and finished his education at a grammar school in rural Lancashire.
Oakes was conscripted towards the end of the Second World War and eventually found himself working on a troop newspaper. He continued his journalistic career on demobilization. As a journalist he worked for Truth and was a film critic for The Sunday Telegraph from 1964. As a screenwriter he worked with Tony Hancock on the script for The Punch and Judy Man (1962). Oakes also made regular appearances on the radio programme Stop the Week.
Oakes retired to Lincolnshire in later life. He died there of a heart attack at the age of 77.