Rank sounds the final gong for its film business
After more than 70 years, the only British movie company able to compete with Hollywood has cut its last tie with the industry
Saturday February 26, 2005
It was in 1933 that J Arthur Rank, a middle-aged Yorkshire flour magnate, decided to equip various Methodist halls and churches with their own movie projectors. Little did he know it then, but Rank had set in train a business that would provide British cinema history with many of its most sublime and absurd moments.
Seven decades on, Rank's long flirtation with celluloid has come to an end. The company he founded severed its last ties with the film industry yesterday when it sold its Deluxe unit, dedicated to DVD distribution and technical support. In 1997, the group hived off its distribution arm and film library to Michael Green's Carlton. Three years later, it sold Pinewood Studios to a consortium led by Michael Grade. Odeon was next on the auction slab, also sold off in 2000.
Even though Rank's exit from the film business had long been predicted, many fans of British cinema will react to the news with dismay. Among the glories of its output is the astonishing work carried out by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, and David Lean in the late 40s. Rank, eager to gatecrash the US market with prestige pictures, gave these film-makers carte blanche. "We can make any subject we wish, with as much money as we think that subject should have spent on it," Lean once boasted.
Left to their own devices, the film-makers rewarded their patron with such classics as The Red Shoes, A Matter of Life and Death, Great Expectations and Oliver Twist. In the same era, Rank also financed the bodice-ripping Gainsborough melodramas (The Wicked Lady, The Man in Grey) and the Ealing comedies.
By 1946, the Rank Organisation was as big as any Hollywood studio. It had a staff of 31,000. (By comparison, the National Health Service employed 34,000 people on its inception.) Rank invested in every aspect of the film business, from labs to distribution, from meteorologists (to predict when it would be sunny enough to shoot) to its eccentric Highbury-based "charm school", where various good-looking women and statuesque men were taught diction and deportment in the hope they would turn into stars. "I declined absolutely to walk around with a book on my head," Christopher Lee recalled of his stint under the school's martinet head, Molly Terraine.
Rank also had a knack for publicity, dispatching its starlets across glamour-starved, austerity-era Britain to open village fetes and garden shows. In one celebrated stunt in the 50s, publicity supremo Theo Cowan arranged for Diana Dors, a charm school graduate, to turn up at the Venice Festival in a mink bikini.
In the 50s, as costs were slashed by the manager, John Davis, the company's biggest box-office winners were a series of films featuring Norman Wisdom as the Gump. This was the era of safe, innocuous comedies like Doctor in the House and Genevieve.
While Hollywood had Marlon Brando, James Dean and Montgomery Clift, Rank countered with "chaps", actors such as Kenneth More, John Gregson, Jack Hawkins and (more ambivalently) Dirk Bogarde, seldom seen without tweed jackets or pipes. Rank also distributed the Carry On movies, and produced them from 1967.
Rank's growing disaffection with the film business was already apparent in 1956, when Davis struck a deal with a New York company which marketed photocopying machines, giving birth to Rank Xerox Ltd. Within a decade, film accounted for only a tiny proportion of the group's overall profits. Over the years, an outfit that had its origins in church halls began to invest in casinos, bingo, hotels, holiday camps and theme parks.
But even as it diversified, Rank remained the one fully vertically integrated British film outfit. What really galled UK producers in the 70s and 80s was how unwilling the company was to to support British film-makers. "Various managements came along which didn't in any sense match the vision of that early era," says the producer and director Don Boyd.
In the early 80s, Boyd and fellow film-maker Bryan Forbes raised city backing of Â£600m to launch a takeover bid. Their idea was to use the Rank machine for the benefit of the British industry, but the Rank board turned them down. Instead, Rank began to slowly break up that machine, even though this was the period when the industry was beginning to revive.
Now the one British film company which had the muscle of its Hollywood competitors has gone. As Boyd puts it, "we don't have a visionary, commercial studio system here. Instead, we see all the money going off to the States and no proper money going into the infrastructure of our industry here."