Film world mourns man who banged the (paper) gong for Rank
Tuesday 08 August 2006
His gleaming, oiled torso became known to millions as he banged away at the gong whose bongs signalled the start of Rank films including Blithe Spirit and Olivier's Henry V. Now the film world is mourning the baton-wielding Ken Richmond, who shared the secrets of his iconic part in cinematic history before his death, at the age of 80.
The gong which sounded before each J Arthur Rank film opening was, in fact, a papier mâché mock-up and Richmond was always happy to tell his friends that he simply mimed in front of it. "If you hit that gong, you would have gone straight through," was his favourite line.
Richmond's self-effacing manner about the role, for which he was paid only a one-off fee of £100, was typical of the man, say his friends. Yet behind those iconic biceps and the Tarzan skirt was one of Britain's unsung Olympians: a super-heavyweight freestyle wrestling champion who took Olympic bronze in the 1952 Melbourne games, fourth place in 1956 and a Commonwealth gold and bronze in 1954 and 1950 respectively. He was also a prolific film extra.
Richmond first made a living as a deck hand, cutting up whale meat on the Antarctic whaling ships which put out to sea for nine months at a time. A teetotaller, he gave his rations of rum to some of the men who were driven to near insanity by the long months at sea. But it was the silver screen that had fascinated him since childhood, as his mother brought him up near Rank's Pinewood Studios. "His father left the family when he was a young boy and from that day he threw himself into making his way on his own and finding success," said Chris Saunders, one of his closest friends.
Richmond's countless roles as an extra included one he cherished, as the wrestler, Nikolas, in Jules Dassin's film noir classic Night and the City in 1950. The Roman soldier was another favourite walk-on role of his and the greatest recognition of his contribution to Rank came when Michael Caine interviewed him for a film on the history of the film company. A copy of this was to be found at his home, alongside pictures of him with James Cagney, a particular hero, and other celebrities.
Richmond's 19-stone frame and walk-on roles led Rank to approach him in 1955 about the gong role, which he immediately accepted. That the job should have been there at all was largely down to chance. J Arthur Rank, a flour mogul and devout Methodist, originally sought a wolf to rival MGM's lion but the only available specimen was mangy. It was at this stage that somebody suggested, "bang a gong" and, after that, every film started with a gong that filled two-thirds of the screen. As every self-respecting cinema buff knows, the echoing gong accompanied the words: "A J Arthur Rank Presentation." Richmond's great papier mâché secret has been known only to the most exceptional anorak - but even fewer know who made sound of the gong.
It was James Blade, also famous for the "V-for-victory" Morse code signal broadcast by the BBC during the Second World War to encourage resistance in occupied Europe. He used a Chinese instrument called a tam tam for the gong noise.
The millions of filmgoers who watched Richmond were looking at a man who had a marked aversion to violence. He was a conscientious objector during the Second World War and served several months in prison, according to friends. But as gong-bangers go, he became irreplaceable. In 1978, Rank discovered the bronzed, blond Martin Grace, who had been known for his Milk Tray adverts. Grace remained on the cutting room floor and Richmond was still used until Rank announced last year that it was preparing to sell its last remaining film assets.
By that time, the former Olympian had long since devoted himself to a life as Jehovah's Witness. His work as a missionary took him to Malta and he also doted on his wife, Valentina, whom he met in the film scene and married in the mid-Sixties. They had no children and she died 10 years ago.
Richmond's medal collection included one awarded for his windsurfing at the age of 67. He loved to surf at Highcliff, off the Hampshire coast. A car crash on the M25 five years ago had caused serious damage to a lung before he suffered a heart attack last Thursday. The gong role was a part of him, through all his travails. "He would never publicise it or boast about it. That wasn't the nature of the man," said Mr Saunders. "But if you brought it up, he was happy to talk."
Others who bashed the studio's sound
* Carl Dane, a 6ft 5in former circus strongman, was the first gong-banger. He started in 1932 and was still banging on in 1948. Because of deteriorating film stock, the sequence had to be refilmed every three years. It often took several weeks to get right, thanks to the bronze make-up covering Dane from head to foot. "The perspiration would make it streak and we'd have to start all over again."
* The second "man with the gong" was "Bombardier" Billy Wells, a former heavyweight boxer. Wells was one of the best fighters of the last century, though he lacked ruthlessness and confessed that he couldn't "smash a man whose jaw was sagging and whose eyes were blank". He continued in the role until after the Second World War, when the film extra Phil Nieman took over for seven years.
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