Books: The accidental tycoon

J ARTHUR RANK: The Man Behind the Gong by Michael Wakelin, Lion pounds 16.99
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The Independent Culture
J Arthur Rank inherited a fortune that was built on flour. His father, Joseph, the son of a prosperous Yorkshire miller, had seen the potential of mechanising the business, went over early to the new rolling mills and became a multi-millionaire. After learning the rudiments of milling, then serving as an ambulance driver and gunner in the First World War, J Arthur joined the family business, which continued to flourish. The other cornerstone of his life was Methodism.

He had few leisure interests, apart from shooting and fishing. He was indifferent to art, apart from paintings of gun dogs and pheasants. He did not like music, except hymns; and in particular he did not like opera. He read little - he once admitted to not having heard of Thomas Hardy. He spent a lot of time watching films, not because he enjoyed the cinema - he gave no sign of that - but because he owned most of the British film industry.

It happened largely by accident. In the early 1930s, through the family interest in a Methodist publishing house, Rank became involved in a plan to put sermons and other improving material on film, to attract young people into church and away from the more profane fare they usually enjoyed; it was ironic that he should have embarked on this part of his career by trying to get people out of cinemas.

In 1934, with Rank's money, the Religious Film Society made Mastership, about the East End preaching of W H Lax, a well-known Methodist evangelist. It never had a commercial release, but achieved a modest success with its target audiences.

From the start, Rank realised the importance of production values. If people were to be attracted to more improving films, the Devil could not have the best tunes, so he began to set up or buy up the necessary studios and post-production facilities. What had started almost as a charity soon had possibilities as a business.

However, there was no point in making the films if one couldn't ensure that they would be seen. He decided to get a stake in distribution, by buying into Oscar Deutsch's Odeon chain. When Deutsch died in 1941, Rank gained control of Gaumont and Odeon, at a time when American imports were being restricted to save dollars and as many as 30 million people went to the cinema every week. By the end of the war, the flour magnate was the most powerful man in British films.

One could hardly imagine a personality further from the popular image of the movie mogul: Rank was as bland and colourless as the family product. To be sure, he was honest and well-meaning, and allowed the film-makers to get on with making the films - though he did not like his name to be linked with anything he considered "immoral", and his views on morality were narrow; for a time after the introduction of the "X" certificate in 1951 he would not allow his cinemas to show films with this rating.

But this hands-off approach was, in the long run, as damaging as interference. Increasingly, Rank passed the company's management over to John Davis, who was much more of an orthodox businessman. When cinemas started to lose money during the 1950s, they diversified, Davis taking a particular interest in the new photocopying business. Already, around 1950, they had decided to go downmarket and got rid of most of their best directors: David Lean, Michael Powell, Carol Reed. Eventually, as captains of industry do, they left a sinking ship for the nearest lifeboat, Rank Xerox, and started to turn cinemas into bingo halls. This upset Rank's fellow-Methodists (who were against gambling) as much as it did cinema-goers.

Some people have strong feelings about Rank, seeing him as the assassin of the British cinema industry; anyone with such views, or strongly opposed to them, might have written a stimulating book. Michael Wakelin, a producer of religious radio programmes, has no axe to grind, so, like his subject, he grinds corn. He includes some critical remarks, then ignores them. He says little about the films made under Rank's auspices, about the famous "charm school", about the structure of the organisation. What really interests him is Rank's influence on Methodism.

Even this, it appears, might not have been entirely good. He donated lavishly, but not always, some people felt, to the best causes. As time went on, Wakelin tells us, Rank became more and more obsessed with the Holy Spirit: this was a recurrent subject of conversation and he would insist that any project to which he was being asked to give money had the approval of the Holy Spirit. Wakelin is not strong on psychological analysis, so he leaves us to read between the lines. What we read is the story of a simple man, entirely well-meaning, with more money than he knew what to do with and no concept of the chaos he was creating. An exemplary life? Yes, in the sense of a warning.