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Rank Outsider

On the 75th anniversary of the release of one of the best British films of the 20th century, we take a look at the school career and life of a campaigning Old Portmuthian who wrote the source novel.
26 Feb 2024
Written by John Sadden
OP updates

The anonymous critic did not mince his words in his review of a school production of scenes from Corneille’s Horace in October, 1884. “The great defect was that the actors scarcely seemed to appreciate the spirit of the play, the accompanying gesture was weak and often inappropriate”. The fact that the script was in French, the actors were fifteen-year-old boys, and that some were in drag clearly cut no ice. “Most of the performers seemed to lack the true dramatic fire.” 

The critic, probably a teacher at the end of a long day, searched for something positive to say. The make-up of the female characters was “particularly effective”. And, not least, and without any more hints of barrel-scraping, “the best piece of acting by far was R. Horniman’s representation of the Roman warrior Valère; his long speech of thirty lines was delivered unhesitatingly and with unfaltering accent”. 

Roy Horniman was a restless spirit. Born in 1868, he ran away from home and roamed the Continent with an Italian circus, before being recovered by his parents and enrolled at the Portsmouth Grammar School in 1883. His father was William Horniman, Paymaster in Chief for the Royal Navy, whose career had brought him to Britain’s premier naval port from Hastings. Sarah, Roy’s mother, was said to be a member of the Greek aristocracy, though this did not prevent the family settling down in Cottage Grove, Southsea. 

The household bustled with six children, one mother-in-law and one overworked domestic servant. Roy’s younger brothers, Benjamin and Charles, were to follow him into the school. For the son of a paymaster, Roy’s mathematical abilities were poor but it was clear from an early age that he was not going to follow in his father’s nautical wake. The boy’s strengths were theatrical, linguistic and literary, and he put himself forward as an editor of The Portsmuthian (the Port was plural in those days). There were four applicants for the post and Horniman secured 52 pupil votes, coming second. 

The outcome must have been a disappointment, but the number of votes Horniman received appears to contradict a description of him given by a fellow pupil, who remembered him as “self-absorbed and lacking in the kind of communal geniality which endears a boy to his schoolfellows”. Certainly, at the time, great status was attached to the team sports of rugger and cricket, and there is no evidence to suggest that the young Horniman, “a largish, rather red-faced chap”, was remotely interested in such activities. Rather, he chose the challenge and stimulation of the School Debating Society.  

Horniman’s approval of the motion that “capital punishment is unworthy of a civilised country” saw him in a minority, a situation he was to become accustomed to throughout his life in more ways than one. In the debate he was up against unyielding Bible-quoters and boys who were, perhaps, a little less cultured, thoughtful and sensitive.  

Horniman left the school after sitting his final exams in July 1885. He is reported to have travelled to Bruges to complete his education before taking to the stage at the age of 19, playing a number of Shakespearian and other parts at various London theatres and in the provinces. He was evidently successful, going on to appear alongside some of the greatest actors of the age, notably Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree and Sir Johnston Forbes Robertson.  

But Horniman appears not to have been satisfied with an actor’s life and his dramatic interests were finding another outlet in theatrical management and authorship. He was attracted to the personality and work of the playwright Oscar Wilde at a time when Wilde’s name was taboo outside of theatrical circles, but the Wildean influence was to emerge regularly in Horniman’s work. He took up the tenancy and management of the Criterion Theatre, and, in 1899, his first play, Judy, was a success at the Prince of Wales’s Theatre. This was followed by equally popular original comedy productions such as Bellamy the Magnificent, and several successful adaptations of English novels. His own novels and plays were the basis for several films in the 1920s.  

A contemporary described Horniman as “a well-to-do bachelor who knew what did and what did not suit him, marriage being in the latter category, the social round in the former”. The euphemistic phrases “confirmed bachelor” and (in obituaries) “he never married” were used from Victorian times as to indicate a gay man. It had only a few years before Horniman was born that practising gay men faced execution and, after 1861, imprisonment for ten years. And it was not until 1967, when a progressive Labour Government legalised homosexual acts between men, that the use of such euphemisms subsided. 

But it was not only in theatrical circles that Horniman moved. During the First World War, he did his bit by becoming chairman of a charity which sent tobacco to soldiers and sailors on active service. Anger at the flagrant wartime profiteering of the private railway companies prompted him to research and write How to Make the Railways Pay for the War which ran to three editions.  

A vegetarian, Horniman was also a pioneering campaigner for what we now describe as animal rights. He was treasurer, and then chairman, of the Blue Cross Fund, a “society for the encouragement of kindness to animals”, and was particularly concerned about the suffering of army horses at the front. He also served on the committee for the Suppression of Cruelties to Performing Animals and was an active campaigner for the British Union of Anti-Vivisectionists. Following his death in 1930, the latter’s magazine, The Abolitionist, described Horniman as “the most eloquent speaker on our platforms… the grace of his diction, and his forceful personality, sent his message straight home to any audience…although a very busy man, he never refused to travel any distance to speak for us…”.  

The sense that Horniman’s work had not been fully appreciated in his lifetime was clear in the diary entry made by his nephew, serving in the army in what is now West Pakistan. Having learned of his death in a newspaper, he wrote, “Perhaps he’ll be recognised at his true value now he’s dead.” 

Three years after Horniman’s death the film A Bedtime Story, starring Maurice Chevalier, was adapted from one of his novels and met with some success. But it was Horniman’s novel Israel Rank, published in 1907, that was to prove his lasting legacy, albeit bastardised, but in a good way, by a talented and equally underrated film director called Robert Hamer.  

Israel Rank was written by Horniman when he was in his late thirties. It told the story of the murder of six people who stood between the eponymous half-Jewish anti-hero and a dukedom. The Wildean influence is clear in both the wit and the story, which critic Hugh Kingsmill compared favourably to Dorian Gray. It was suggested that its theme is essentially the same, that of “the apotheosis if the complete egotist”. Early in the book the teenage Rank hides in a hedge at his school’s sports ground with a trip-wire to fell his rival in love, an obnoxious anti-Semite who is in training for a mile handicap. The rival is downed and is off school for two weeks with concussion, much to Rank’s satisfaction.  

His story, told in the first person, tells of a gradual progression to serial-killing - the witty and charming and shocking confession of a psychopath.  

Few people have heard of this novel today, but many have seen the loose screen adaptation which is recognised as one of Ealing Studios’ finest films. 

In Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), the director Robert Hamer replaced Horniman’s Israel Rank with Louis Mazzini, of Italian descent, who was played with suave campery by Dennis Price. Recasting the murderer as originating from the birthplace of fascism clearly made sense after the war, when the horror of the Holocaust was fresh in people’s minds.  

Horniman’s depiction of a bitter and ambitious murderer as Jewish has been criticised, as has his sympathetic portrayal of the character, but a more informed interpretation, perhaps, is that the novel is a daring parody of the very real anti-Semitism of Edwardian England. 

The eight members of the D’Ascoyne family, representing aspects of the British social order - the church, the legal system, the class system, the City and middle-class values - are portrayed with remarkable skill, authenticity and glee by Alec Guinness, who gamely dies eight times, neatly and with great style. 

Horniman’s book is far darker than the film. The psychopath Israel Rank lives to enjoy his hard-earned dukedom in the final pages. But the Ealing film, for all its wit and wonderful performances, cannot commit to this in the final reel. It is implied that Mazzini gets his come-uppance at the end of a rope (which was made explicit in the American version to meet the censors’ demands).  

Perhaps it was just as well that Horniman, who debated against capital punishment as a pupil at Portsmouth Grammar School, who campaigned against censorship as an adult, was not around to see it, though any disappointment at what had been done to his novel might well have been offset by an appreciation of what Simon Heffer has described as “the most perfect and the most subversive of all British films” 

Sources: The Portsmouthian, The Times, Illustrated London News, Simon Heffer, book review of Israel Rank, Hugh Kingsmill, intro to Israel Rank 1948 edition. With thanks to Verity Andrews of the University of Reading for the extract from Horniman's nephew's diary and the obituary from The Abolitionist. 



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