The Rank papier-mâché gong & the Gongmen who struck it

rank movie gongThe papier-mâché gong displayed at the London Film Museum
There are many conflicting accounts on the history of one of the most famous British trademarks, the Rank Gongman. Many believed, incorrectly, that Bombardier Billy Wells was the first. The actual count is four men have struck the gong that appeared on cinema screens. There has also been one or two who were trialed and ruthlessly dropped.

In 2012, to celebrate the Gongman’s 75th anniversary, The Rank Group, the gaming company that in 1996 acquired the remaining business interests of The Rank Organisation as well as the rights to its logo and name commissioned a new version of the Gongman featuring a model. The sequence was filmed in Sale, Manchester above the Mecca Bingo Club. This version was to promote a nationwide competition to find a new Gongman, or woman for the 21st century revamp of the famous trademark.  The production of the latest version displays a real talent on how this new title has managed to  retain the dramatic impact of the original format, and yet makes it more acceptable in this digital age.  Chris Rowley from Stoke won the Gongman competition.


In the 1930’s Charles M Woolf and J Arthur Rank founded General Film Distributors. They required an opening trademark. Predictably, a wolf howling was one of the first ideas put forward. This was deemed to be similar to the MGM’s roaring lion. Woolf’s publicity secretary suggested a man striking a gong. When the Rank Organisation was established much later, with General Film Distributors within the company’s framework, the trademark title was adopted for the whole organisation. The Gongman filmed sequence depicts a man striking a huge gong with a deep resonant sound. The gongs used in the films were props made of papier-mâché, with the sound of the gong done at one recording by James Blades on a Chinese instrument called a tam tam.

Carl Dane

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Carl Dane a former circus strongman, was the first gong-banger. He filmed the first strikes in 1932 for the opening logo of General Film Distributers. Fast deteriorating nitrate film stock meant the sequence had to be re-filmed frequently. Dane struck the gong 3 times. Later gong men struck it only twice.


bombardier-billy-wellsBilly Wells
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. Rank had acquired GFD.  Wells was the first gongman to be used on the “J Arthur Rank presents” title/logo. He was filmed at Walton Hall Studios, Isleworth. He continued in the role until after the Second World War.

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gong man pnPhil Nieman
Then in 1948, it was deemed that Wells should be replaced and his successor was Phil Nieman, who was filmed at Gainsborough Studios, Shepherd’s Bush. Nieman’s image headed J Arthur Rank’s films until he too was replaced in 1955 by the most famous Gongman of them all, Ken Richmond.

As the curtains parted in countless cinemas worldwide, millions of filmgoers who watched Richmond’s sweeping strikes of the huge gong were watching 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.

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archive-pa30399-16Ken Richmond

Ken Richmond had the distinction of being the first Englishman to win a Commonwealth Games wrestling gold medal, when he won the heavyweight title in 1954. He had won the bronze medal four years earlier. A super-heavyweight freestyle wrestling champion who took Olympic bronze in the 1952 Melbourne games.

Ken Richmond

He was also a prolific film extra’s. Ken’s 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.

His 19-stone frame and walk-on roles led studio bosses to approach him in 1955 about the Rank gong role, which he immediately accepted. He was paid a one off fee of £100 to pull on those shorts and glisten on a Sunday afternoon at Pinewood Studios.

Richmond remembered, “If you had hit that gong, you would have gone straight through it!”  It was his image that endured the longest on screen, with little alteration, other than to the overlay titles, and to update the original sound of the gong strike. As the curtains parted on countless cinema screens worldwide, millions of filmgoers who watched Ken Richmond on the screen were looking at a man who had a strong dislike of violence. A Jehovah’s witness, he was a conscientious objector during the Second World War and served several months in prison.

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 in 2001 had caused serious damage to a lung before he suffered a heart attack and died on 3rd August 2006. 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. But if you brought it up, he was happy to talk.

As Rank’s gong banger he was simply irreplaceable.

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James Blades

Few knew who made sound of the gong.It was James Blades. He was one of the most distinguished percussionists in Western music, 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.


gong blue



In 1978, Rank discovered stunt man Martin Grace, who had been known for his Milk Tray adverts, and later as a stunt man in several 007 Bond movies. Grace remained on the cutting room floor and Richmond’s image was still used, until Rank left the film side of the business. He was the final gongman as far as heading Rank  presentations on the cinema screens.

1980 marked the end of Rank feature films produced at Pinewood Studios. The final feature film made by Rank with the gongman on the opening was “Silver Dream Racer” starring David Essex. After that point the trademark gong was still used, now with Rank Film Distributors overlaid.


The Gongman image remains to this day, restructured, owned and used by The Rank Group.

Gongman 1         CARL DANE

Gongman2          BILLY WELLS

Gongman 3         PHIL NIEMAN

Gongman 4         KEN RICHMOND copyright white