Empire of King Gong

Ian McMillan meets the man on a mission to put movie mogul J. Arthur Rank’s Hull birthplace back on the map.

David Burns, or “Burnsy” to just about everybody, is a man on a mission. He’s fresh from presenting the mid-morning show on BBC Radio Humberside and he’s more excitable than anybody has a right to be on this drizzly morning down Holderness Road in Hull.

A man on a bike rattles by and gives us a wave and I’m sure he shouts “Gong!” Burnsy waves back then carries on pointing at the derelict house in front of us. The house has got metal shutters at the windows and you can tell it’s not been inhabited for some time. It’s a place that estate agents would call “ripe for development”. It’s substantial, true enough, and it looks like it would have been a nice family home at one time, as in fact it was.

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Burnsy is jabbing his finger at a blue plaque, the kind that Civic Societies stick on the walls of buildings all over Britain to underline the kind of social and cultural history that might otherwise be lost; this one, affixed at the start of the new millennium, tells us that J. Arthur Rank, the film maker and industrialist, was born in this house at the side of the A165 on December 23, 1888. Burnsy can hardly contain himself: J. Arthur Rank-related plans and schemes and ideas tumble out of him as fast as a chase in a silent film. He’s like a prospector who’s struck gold in Hessle or an explorer who’s discovered Atlantis on the Brough side of the Humber Bridge.

And in a sense that’s what he’s done: he’s potentially unearthed some treasure, potentially found evidence of a neglected slice of local history right under the noses of the people who walk and drive and cycle down this busy thoroughfare.

“I’ve got a vision of this place becoming a cinema, a museum, a café, a community centre, being a major part of the regeneration of this end of town,” he says, as we wander round the back of the house to look at the wilderness of the yard. “It could form part of a day or a weekend visit for people who come to Hull Truck Theatre and The Deep…”

I find an old glasses case and I speculate that it might have belonged to J. Arthur himself but Burnsy isn’t listening: he’s pointing out where the café might be, just by that collapsed outhouse and that black sack full of indeterminate junk. I bet he’s already planned the menu and got quotes from cutlery suppliers. The house is owned by a finance company and there’s a possibility that they may not want to sell it, but my guess is that Burnsy would enthuse them into submission after a while.

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I have to confess I had no idea that J. Arthur Rank was an East Riding lad, and callers to Burnsy’s show are divided between the ones who knew and the ones who didn’t until he started telling them. J. Arthur’s dad ran a mill nearby, just a little further down the road out of the city; the windmill’s still there, next to a pub called, appropriately, The Mill. We go inside to look at some old pictures on the wall. There’s Joseph, J. Arthur’s dad, looking every inch the 19th-century Methodist industrialist (and no doubt feeling uncomfortable at being displayed on the wall of a pub) and there’s J. Arthur looking, well, raffish, with his slicked-down hair and the scribble of a ‘tache giving a broad hint about the showbiz type he was to become.

James Rank wasn’t convinced of his son’s intellectual prowess, though, calling him a dunce at one point, and it was expected that like all sons of industrialists he’d take up the reins of the family business, getting flour on his hands for profit and gain, and that’s what happened. J. Arthur was a good boss and also a good Methodist, eventually becoming president of the National Sunday School Union, and it was Methodism that first got him into films. The church was concerned at the morality-sapping effect of motion pictures on the souls of the young of Hull and beyond, so J. Arthur formed a company to make improving films that could be shown at local cinemas to counter the corrosive effect of Hollywood romances.

This led to bigger and better movies produced at the purpose-built Pinewood Studios, films that have become part of the DNA of the British, like The Red Shoes, Great Expectations, Henry V and the greatest of them all, Brief Encounter. Rank wasn’t just a film-maker and distributor though: his fingers could be found in all sorts of pies, from milling through bingo and nightclubs (Top Rank on a Friday night, anyone?) to photocopying and printing. It’s true to say that there were very few areas of life in the 1960s and 70s that weren’t touched by this bloke from Hull. Particularly if you did a bit of photocopying and baking before you nipped off to the pictures and then on to a night club to finish the evening in style.

Burnsy wants to put J. Arthur back into the spotlight. It’s not that he’s been a lifelong advocate of “The Man Behind the Gong”; like any good local radio presenter he follows leads, sniffs out stories, makes connections across the city.

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“I didn’t know anything about J. Arthur Rank and Hull until a few months ago,” he says as we pick our way across the soaking back yard and I find a broken ceramic leprechaun on the floor “but somebody from Goole rang up and said: ‘Hey Burnsy, do you know about the J. Arthur Rank house?’ and I didn’t and I looked into it and it got me excited, it got me going, I could see the potential of it for this part of the world.”

That’s why that chap shouted “Gong!” at us; if you listen to David Burns’s show for any length of time, he’ll stick in a couple of gong noises from a sound effects CD to remind people about the house; it’s like a wake-up call to a place that doesn’t really know the potential jewel on its own doorstep.

In his advocacy of the house’s possible future Burnsy’s got the Rank Foundation, the charitable arm of the company, interested to the heartening extent that they’ve appointed a project manager, which is fantastic, and if I had a Gong sound effect handy I’d activate it now.

“I can imagine a red carpet down the 
full length of the Holderness Road!” he shouts, as a couple of blokes wheel an empty rabbit hutch past us in a wheelbarrow as though they’re in a 1950s Rank comedy. “Let’s get Joan Collins here, she was in loads of Rank Films! Let’s get Daniel Craig here, Rank distributed the Bond movies!”

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The rain is coming down steadily now, but neither of us care: I’ve really caught Burnsy’s enthusiasm during this brief encounter on a cold morning.

I’ll see you at the opening of The J. Arthur Rank House. Hire the dicky bow! Gong!

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