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.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Israeli-born actress Gal Gadot has been cast to play Wonder Woman
film
News
Top Gear presenter James May appears to be struggling with his new-found free time
people
Arts and Entertainment
Kendrick Lamar at the Made in America Festival in Los Angeles last summer
music
Arts and Entertainment
'Marley & Me' with Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Hamm (right) and John Slattery in the final series of Mad Men
tv
Arts and Entertainment
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
art
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

TV
  • Get to the point
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.

    No postcode? No vote

    Floating voters

    How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

    By Reason of Insanity

    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
    Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

    Power dressing is back

    But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
    Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

    Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

    Caves were re-opened to the public
    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

    Vince Cable interview

    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor