BOOK REVIEW / Tragi-comedy of an unlikely movie mogul: ' J Arthur Rank and the British Film Industry' - Geoffrey MacNab: Routledge, 30 pounds

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The Independent Online
THE MANAGER of the cinema in Plymouth never knew what hit him. J Arthur Rank walked in, dressed him down about the slipshod state of the place and walked out again. Only when he was outside did Rank notice that the cinema was an ABC rather than one of his own Odeons. Rather fitting, really. Were it not for the beefy man in a towel banging a gong, who would know a Rank movie from any other British effort?

Certainly not Rank himself, who had little interest in the cinema. A fervent Methodist, he became involved in the movies only because he wanted to set up something called the Cinema for Christ, an oppositional force to the degradation and perversity of mainstream Hollywood. Oddly, Rank had a reputation for not interfering with the films he produced, although he had his dictatorial side - he so loathed the left that he turned down a peerage from Attlee, only accepting one a decade later from Macmillan.

Rank's rise to the top was swift. In 1935 he set up Pinewood Studios (where the Bond movies would later be filmed); three years later he acquired Denham Studios from Alexander Korda; that same year, he bought shares in the Odeon group, moving on to the board within a year; in 1941, he confirmed his pre-eminence when he acquired Gaumont British. But for all his power, Rank had little control. The market was in charge.

Central to Geoffrey MacNab's thoroughgoing book is the question that has forever dogged the British film industry: should it be a cinema for the home market - small costs, small profits; or should it be exportable - big costs and only potentially big profits? Rank belonged to the latter school of thought, although he never achieved much outside these shores. The American market has always been resistant to our movies, a fact which so perturbed Rank that he crossed the water to find out why. He was told that British films were slow, wordy, actorish, dowdy, effeminate and shoddy, and that apart from Will Hay all our so-called stars - Sid Field, George Formby, Gracie Fields - were talentless dolts.

Rank returned home determined not to sell out: 'I don't want to get into America,' he said, 'if I have to be half American to do it.' Within a few weeks, however, he took to issuing absurd edicts to the reverse effect. One of these held that all scenes set at petrol stations use the line 'fill her up'. .

The only movies we made that the Yanks actually liked were our historical epics. They loved Olivier as Henry V, Laughton as Henry VIII. Thus encouraged, Rank went for the big time with an elaborate adaptation of Shaw's Caesar and Cleopatra. The film came in at two and a half times its budget and was a flop of pyramidal proportions. What depresses most is the fact that we are still churning out such ponderous fluff. Howard's End is the latest example, and all the more dispiriting for its having done well at the Oscars: it is likely that our film industry will think this kind of thing a sure-fire recipe for success. Thus do we go, onward to our death.

Rank industries can be seen as a microcosm of England. The company pumped vast amounts into research only to pull out just before hitting the lode. Everything was sacrificed to short-term profits. Inevitably it all came crashing down. 'In hindsight,' writes MacNab, 'it seems half comic, half tragic, that all Rank's efforts to set the British industry on its feet should spawn nothing more than a photocopying company and a leisure conglomerate. Bingo halls and casinos help prop up a company which emerged from Methodist Halls and Sunday Schools.' But there is no need to be too elegiac. The British cinema is alive and well and working on television in shows like Minder. Sometimes small mercies are sufficient.