Film world mourns man who banged the (paper) gong for Rank

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.

Arts and Entertainment
Sir Nicholas Serota has been a feature in the Power 100 top ten since its 2002 launch
art
Arts and Entertainment
Awesome foursome: Sam Smith shows off his awards
music22-year-old confirms he is 2014’s breakout British music success
Arts and Entertainment
Contestants during this summer's Celebrity Big Brother grand finale
tvBroadcaster attempts to change its image following sale to American media group
Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Dales attempts to sell British Breeze in the luxury scent task
tvReview: 'Apprentice' candidate on the verge of tears as they were ejected from the boardroom
Arts and Entertainment
Kate Bush: 'I'm going to miss everyone so much'
music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing
books

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Neville's Island at Duke of York's theatre
musicReview: The production has been cleverly cast with a quartet of comic performers best known for the work on television
Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol

art
Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker
    Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

    'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

    The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
    From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

    Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

    From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Patrick Grafton-Green wonders if they can ever recapture the old magic
    Thousands of teenagers to visit battlefields of the First World War in new Government scheme

    Pupils to visit First World War battlefields

    A new Government scheme aims to bring the the horrors of the conflict to life over the next five years
    The 10 best smartphone accessories

    Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

    Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time against Real Madrid: Was this shirt swapping the real reason?

    Liverpool v Real Madrid

    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time. Was shirt swapping the real reason?
    West Indies tour of India: Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Decision to pull out of India tour leaves the WICB fighting for its existence with an off-field storm building
    Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

    A new American serial killer?

    Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
    Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

    Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

    Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
    Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

    Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

    Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
    Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

    Wildlife Photographer of the Year

    Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
    Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

    Want to change the world? Just sign here

    The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?