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

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Metallica are heading for the Main Stage at Reading and Leeds Festivals next summer

Music

Arts and Entertainment
Kurt Cobain's daughter Frances Bean Cobain is making a new documentary about his life

Music

Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden and Edwina Currie are joining the I'm A Celebrity...Get Me Out Of Here! camp

TV Jungle security stepped up after murder and 'suspicious death' near to camp

Arts and Entertainment
TV
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Look out: Broad shoulders take Idris Elba’s DCI John Luther a long way
tvIdris Elba will appear in two special episodes for the BBC next year
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is dominating album and singles charts worldwide

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

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Kieron Richardson plays gay character Ste Hay in Channel 4 soap Hollyoaks

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Midge Ure and Sir Bob Geldof outside the Notting Hill recording studios for Band Aid 30

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden and Edwina Currie are joining the I'm A Celebrity...Get Me Out Of Here! camp
tvThe two new contestants will join the 'I'm A Celebrity' camp after Gemma Collins' surprise exit
News
The late Jimmy Ruffin, pictured in 1974
people
News
Northern Uproar, pictured in 1996
people

Jeff Fletcher found fame in 1990s

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the new Paddington bear review

Review: Paddingtonfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Tony stares at the 'Daddy Big Ears' drawing his abducted son Oliver drew for him in The Missing
tvReview: But we're no closer to the truth in 'The Missing'
Arts and Entertainment
Henry Marsh said he was rather 'pleased' at the nomination
booksHenry Marsh's 'Do No Harm' takes doctors off their pedestal
Arts and Entertainment
All in a day's work: the players in the forthcoming 'Posh People: Inside Tatler'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne plays Stephen Hawking in new biopic The Imitation Game

'At times I thought he was me'

film
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
One Direction go Fourth: The boys pose on the cover of their new album Four

Review: One Direction, Four

music
Arts and Entertainment
'Game of Thrones' writer George RR Martin

Review: The World of Ice and Fire

books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Bean will play 'extraordinary hero' Inspector John Marlott in The Frankenstein Chronicles
tvHow long before he gets killed off?
Arts and Entertainment
Some like it hot: Blaise Bellville

music
Arts and Entertainment
A costume worn by model Kate Moss for the 2013 photograph

art
Arts and Entertainment

music
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.

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Drifting and forgotten - turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Our partner charities help veterans on the brink – and get them back on their feet
    Putin’s far-right ambition: Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU

    Putin’s far-right ambition

    Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU
    Tove Jansson's Moominland: What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?

    Escape to Moominland

    What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?
    Nightclubbing with Richard Young: The story behind his latest book of celebrity photographs

    24-Hour party person

    Photographer Richard Young has been snapping celebrities at play for 40 years. As his latest book is released, he reveals that it wasn’t all fun and games
    Michelle Obama's school dinners: America’s children have a message for the First Lady

    A taste for rebellion

    US children have started an online protest against Michelle Obama’s drive for healthy school meals by posting photos of their lunches
    Colouring books for adults: How the French are going crazy for Crayolas

    Colouring books for adults

    How the French are going crazy for Crayolas
    Jack Thorne's play 'Hope': What would you do as a local politician faced with an impossible choice of cuts?

    What would you do as a local politician faced with an impossible choice of cuts?

    Playwright Jack Thorne's latest work 'Hope' poses the question to audiences
    Ed Harcourt on Romeo Beckham and life as a court composer at Burberry

    Call me Ed Mozart

    Paloma Faith, Lana del Ray... Romeo Beckham. Ed Harcourt has proved that he can write for them all. But it took a personal crisis to turn him from indie star to writer-for-hire
    10 best stocking fillers for foodies

    Festive treats: 10 best stocking fillers for foodies

    From boozy milk to wasabi, give the food-lover in your life some extra-special, unusual treats to wake up to on Christmas morning
    Phil Hughes head injury: He had one weakness – it has come back to haunt him

    Phil Hughes had one weakness – it has come back to haunt him

    Prolific opener had world at his feet until Harmison and Flintoff bounced him
    'I have an age of attraction that starts as low as four': How do you deal with a paedophile who has never committed a crime?

    'I am a paedophile'

    Is our approach to sex offenders helping to create more victims?
    How bad do you have to be to lose a Home Office contract?

    How bad do you have to be to lose a Home Office contract?

    Serco given Yarl’s Wood immigration contract despite ‘vast failings’
    Green Party on the march in Bristol: From a lost deposit to victory

    From a lost deposit to victory

    Green Party on the march in Bristol
    Putting the grot right into Santa's grotto

    Winter blunderlands

    Putting the grot into grotto
    'It just came to us, why not do it naked?' London's first nude free runner captured in breathtaking images across capital

    'It just came to us, why not do it naked?'

    London's first nude free runner captured in breathtaking images across capital