Miles Kington: Saturday's million-pound jackpot is going for a gong

Bingo! I thought. It was Ken Richmond. I basked in the glorious feeling that, given the right breaks, I, too, could become a millionaire
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The Independent Online

It's funny how things sometimes slot together in life. About a month ago I read the obituary of a man called Ken Richmond, of whom I had never heard, and who turned out to be the man who struck the gong at the start of all those J Arthur Rank films.

In his heyday he had been a successful wrestler, getting a bronze at the Helsinki Olympic Games in 1952, and he clearly had the right physique for wielding a huge stick at a huge gong.

Then last Friday, I read in my local paper, The Bath Chronicle, that Ingram Wilcox, a man from the Bath area, had just won the top prize in Who Wants to be a Millionaire?. Although the episode was not to be shown until last Saturday, 16 September, it had already been recorded, and news had prematurely leaked out that he had become the first person for a year at least to scoop the million-pound jackpot. And, added the paper, the last question he had to answer was about the identity of the man who struck the gong at the start of the J Arthur Rank films.

Bingo! I thought. I know that. It was Ken Richmond! Ignoring the fact that until a month ago I had never heard of Ken Richmond, I basked for a moment in the glorious feeling that, given the right breaks, I, too, could become a millionaire.

"The answer," said The Bath Chronicle, "was Bombardier Billy Wells."

No! It was Ken Richmond!

"The question," said The Bath Chronicle," was: "'Which boxer struck the gong at the start of J Arthur Rank films?'. Our man was offered four names and correctly chose Billy Wells."

No, it wasn't! It was Ken Richmond! Everyone knows that! Not a boxer, but a wrestler. In later life, Ken Richmond converted to being a Jehovah's Witness and became a missionary in Malta. He also fell in love with windsurfing and became a champion late in life, winning his last award at the age of 67. It's all there in his obituary! Just ask me!

And yet even in my obstinate mood the name of Bombardier Billy Wells did seem rather familiar and so I looked it up, and yes, the Millionaire people are right, of course, and he did strike the gong.

There were, it seems, four men in all who struck the gong. The first one was a circus strongman called Carl Dane, who in 1926 had already gained fame as the first man to pull a London bus (with 12 passengers inside) using only his teeth. He became the gong-striker in 1932 and did it for every film until 1948, by which time he was in his mid-fifties, and he was replaced by Billy Wells (who was, oddly, four years older than Dane). The third one was a film extra called Phil Nieman, and the fourth and final one our very own Ken Richmond.

You'd think that once they had a gong sequence in the can they would never have to do it again, but apparently they filmed the gong thing each time they made another film, because of deteriorating film stock or something, though whether they re-recorded the sound every time is not clear.

Oh, yes, the sound was recorded separately. You see, Dane, Wells, Nieman and Richmond never struck the gong. Never made a noise. The gong was made of papier mâché, and the strong men merely pretended to hit it. The actual sound of the gong was made off-stage by the top orchestral percussionist of the day, James Blades. (I saw Mr Blades once, many years ago, when he came to our school to do an illustrated lecture on percussion, and very good he was too, though not, I thought, as good as all my favourite jazz drummers. When he asked for questions from the audience I dared to ask him what he thought of Lionel Hampton, a man who could play the drums and vibraphone AND very fast two-fingered piano, but he didn't seem to have heard of Lionel Hampton...)

And, out of curiosity, I sat down in front of the TV on Saturday and watched our local man Ingram Wilcox get up to £500,000 and then Chris Tarrant said that time was up and they would have to come back next week, and I am not sure my interest in these things is strong enough to last until then. Especially as I know the answer already.

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