Obituary: Sir John Davis

'I AM in films because of the Holy Spirit,' Lord Rank used to say. Rank's deputy, John Davis, operated under the more temporal sway of sound accounting principles, writes Alexander Walker (further to the obituaries by John Clement and Peter Lendrum, 1 July).

It was his determination to reconcile these with the more hit-and-miss business of film production that drove Davis to acquire immense power in the industry - and helped explain his consequential lack of glory. He used to say, with the humility of a Caesar rejecting the offer of a crown, 'I'm not a VIP, just a VOP - Very Ordinary Person.'

Rank certainly made this VOP his number two almost as an afterthought in 1938, on the way back from the bank where the deal had been done that gave the millionaire flour-miller the chain of Odeon cinemas owned by the Birmingham merchant for whom Davis worked. Many tears were later to be shed on the way to the bank, but not by John Davis. They were wept by the people at Pinewood, the Rank Organisation's film studios, as their accountant/chief executive involved himself more and more in production, deciding which films to make, choosing their directors and stars, vetting the finished product and sometimes vetoing it.

Davis shelved an Ian Carmichael comedy, The Big Money, costing the then no small sum of pounds 160,000, after emerging form the screening room to declare it 'too terrible to show'. When, some years later, it crept into town, it proved almost indistinguishable from the general run of other Rank products.

There was certainly nothing daredevil about Davis's creative aspirations. A man of strict financial probity, he was bound to be offended by the laxity, moral as well as fiscal, of the very film business he sought to control. To his orderly mind, stars were a nuisance, potentially more trouble than they were worth (and who knew what that was?). In 1958, when Pinewood still had 26 of this species under contract, he sounded off historically about their whims. 'They say, 'I don't want to live in Britain, but if you want to make a film in France, I will go there for a year.' They lose,' he concluded aggrievedly, 'all sense of proportion.'

They might also lose favour for other reasons that lay deep within the double-breasted 'power-suit' their boss habitually wore. Belinda Lee, then a Rank actress of indeterminate magnitude in the Pinewood galaxy, had been attracting the kind of publicity in Rome that Davis felt unbecoming to a graduate of his studio's charm school. 'She may be under contract to us,' he warned, 'but we cannot be compelled to give her roles - and risk big film budgets - in such circumstances.' There speaks another era, the one before scandal had been eclipsed by the baleful allure of celebrity.

Davis's conscience got particularly active over films that seemed not only bad morality, but bad box-office. Such a one was The Party's Over, originally set among loose-living French existentialists, but later transferred to the 'beat' set of Chelsea. It was financed by Rank. But not only did it at first fail to gain a censor's certificate of any alphabetical brand of approval; Davis vowed it would never play on his cinema circuits. His objection was that what might be permissible in a Continental film, portraying a way of life that was un-British and, anyhow, far enough off to avoid contamination, became dangerous when the goings- on took place in an area of England reachable by anyone for the price of a bus ticket or a scooter ride.

When Rank at last dipped its toe into X-Certificate water, in 1961, with films like No Love for Johnnie and Victim, one dealing with an MP's extra- marital love-life and the other with a barrister's homosexual longings, Davis made sure that his governor-general at Pinewood, a compliant American called Earl St John, spelled out the limits of these departures from middle-class rectitude. 'Such films will be made with good taste and there will be no sensationalism.' There was no box-office, either: which did not altogether please the puritanical Davis. Economic realism eventually mellowed his moralising.

Oddly, he was capable of giving some film-makers the money and then leaving them alone: Powell and Pressburger gratefully returned to Rank's uncomplicated, if stern, rule after experiencing the snares that the wily Korda set for the talent he attracted - and this after Rank had 'killed off' their money-losing production of The Red Shoes. Somewhere in Davis was a hankering for quality; the trouble was, he mistrusted such feelings.

His most controversial - and costly - act was his attempt to 'crack the American market'. Despite the fact that Korda had gone under two decades earlier playing the same game, Davis believed big stars and big pictures could do it for Rank. The solution, as he saw it, was to combine top British names with Continental and American ones in subjects of international appeal. Asked what he had in mind, he nominated The Thirty-nine Steps, a remake of the Hitchcock thriller by Betty Box and Ralph Thomas, to star Kenneth More, Rank's top draw, 'and Hollywood's Taina Elg'. That said it all.

Disillusionment followed upon the financial disaster of would-be blockbusters like Ferry to Hong Kong with which Davis had associated himself closely. He lost his appetite for moguldom. Asked later what exactly he did on the production side, he answered ruefully, 'Far too much.'

He would surely have approved of the way that the Rank Organisation today virtually ignores British film production and prefers to invest in American-made films for the cinemas it still owns in Britain. That, in its way, is the legacy of the man who could read a balance sheet at a glance, but never got movies right.

(Photograph omitted)

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Recruitment Genius: Management Trainer

£30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Exciting career opportunity to join East...

Recruitment Genius: Senior Scientist / Research Assistant

£18000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An ambitious start-up company b...

Reach Volunteering: Chair of Trustees

VOLUNTARY ONLY - EXPENSES REIMBURSED: Reach Volunteering: Do you love the Engl...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

Christmas Appeal

Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

Is it always right to try to prolong life?

Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

What does it take for women to get to the top?

Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

French chefs campaign against bullying

A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
Paul Scholes column: I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season

Paul Scholes column

I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
Lewis Moody column: Stuart Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

Lewis Moody: Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

So what must the red-rose do differently? They have to take the points on offer 
Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

Sarkozy returns

The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game