The Gongman

'Bombardier' Billy Wells was not the only man to bang the gong for the Rank Organisation; but he was the most famous, and he was almost certainly the only one that was a former British heavyweight boxing champion.

The forerunner of the Rank Organisation was General Film Distributors, founded in the 1930s by Charles M. Woolf and J. Arthur Rank. They needed an opening sequence to use as a trademark, along the lines of MGM's roaring lion. A howling wolf was suggested, but rejected as too predictable. It was Woolf's publicity secretary (or manager) who suggested a man banging a gong.

The first Gongman, according to most accounts, was Carl Dane – a former circus strongman, born in Denmark in 1891. He was originally filmed in 1932, and the sequence had to be re–created several times as in those days the film itself deteriorated rapidly.

Dane went on to carve a career as a bit–part actor, appearing in such films as A Connecticut Yankee at King Arthur's Court (1949). When work in Hollywood dried up he returned to England, and lived the last twenty years of his life in Crick, Northamptonshire, where he died in 1982 aged 91. An article in the Northampton Chronicle, dated 2003, describes him as "one of the most known unknown movie stars ever".

Carl Dane's replacement as the Gongman was the aforementioned 'Bombardier' Billy Wells. Known as 'Beautiful Billy' to his fans, Wells had been British and Empire heavyweight champion from 1911 to 1919. He has been described as one of the best fighters of the 20th century, though he is said to have lacked ruthlessness.

Wells died in 1967, aged 77. It was probably in 1948 that he was replaced as Gongman by Phil Nieman – about whom little seems to be known. Nieman was replaced in 1955 by Ken Richmond, a former wrestler who had won a bronze medal for Great Britain at the 1952 Olympics. Richmond was a Jehovah's Witness, and had spent several months in prison during World War II as a conscientious objector. He was the last Gongman, before the closure of the Rank studio in 1980. He died in 2006, aged 80.

In a contribution to The Guardian's Notes and Queries section, Quentin Falk omitted Carl Dane completely – saying that when Woolf's secretary came up with the idea of the Gongman it was Wells that she had in mind. I think we have to dismiss this as an oversight, since almost every other source names Dane as the first Gongman. (Quentin Falk is a former editor of both Screen International (a British film magazine, founded in 1975) and Academy (the magazine of BAFTA). He has also been a film reviewer for the Daily Mail, the Daily Telegraph, the Sunday Mirror, and the Catholic Herald.)

One other source that doesn't mention Carl Dane is Wikipedia, which is strangely reticent on the subject of the Gongman. It actually says that Billy Wells was the third Gongman, but it names only two others on its Gongman page: Ken Richmond (see above), and someone called George Francis Moss Snr. I can find no other reference to the latter in this or any other context (except where people are clearly regurgitating stuff from Wikipedia).

Maybe he was one of "one or two who were trialed and ruthlessly dropped", as mentioned in an article on the Chester Cinemas website (possibly the best–informed source on this subject). Chester Cinemas does name one of them: Martin Grace, a stuntman who had appeared in the Milk Tray adverts and in several Bond movies. He was apparently intended as a replacement for Ken Richmond, but his footage remained on the cutting room floor and Richmond's image continued to be used until the demise of Rank Studios in 1980.

The Chester Cinemas article includes video clips of Carl Dane, Billy Wells, Phil Nieman and Ken Richmond in action as the Gongman. It also has a fifth clip, in which the Gongman may or may not be the aforementioned Martin Grace.

The last film made by the Rank Organisation, and the last to feature the Gongman, was Silver Dream Racer (1980), starring David Essex and Beau Bridges. The Rank Group today specialises in gaming, and has three main brands: Blue Square betting, Grosvenor Casinos, and Mecca Bingo.

In 2012, to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the role, the Rank Group held a competition to find a new Gongman. There were two categories: 'Classic' and 'Extreme'. The winners were Chris Rowley (25), an insolvency administrator and semi–professional rugby player from Stoke (Classic), and Kate Holderness (28), an actress who has appeared in Emmerdale and Heartbeat (Extreme). In practice, the competition appears to have been little more than a publicity exercise; the winners posed for photographs in the famous manner (as shown, along with a rather gratuitous still from a Carry On film, on the Daily Mail website), but little or nothing has been heard of them since. You can watch Rank's video of the winners on You Tube. (I was apparently the 145th person to watch this, only five years later!)

© Haydn Thompson 2017