PLAYWRIGHT Dave Windass is to research and write a new play about British film mogul J Arthur Rank with the aid of a Grants For Arts award of £4,500 from the Arts Council England.

The grant will help bring to life the as-yet-untitled drama about Rank, who was born in east Hull in 1888 and worked as a flour miller from the age of 17, before he established Britain's most successful studio and had Hollywood quaking in its boots.

Rank gave filmmakers David Lean and Powell and Pressburger free rein to make classics such as Brief Encounter, Great Expectations and The Red Shoes, and enabled the production of Laurence Olivier's screen versions of Shakespeare's Henry V and Hamlet.

Hull playwright Windass's play will chart the rise of Rank, from his early days in the mills of his father, Joseph "Holy Joe" Rank, through his screenings of religious films for Sunday schoolchildren, to his role as the dominant force in British film and expansion into other areas of leisure, entertainment and technology.

"A play about J Arthur Rank is long overdue, and I'm surprised that nobody's got round to doing it before me, " says Windass, who wrote theatre reviews for The Stage for a decade and has written two plays for Hull Truck Theatre.

"Rank's story is rich with drama and twists and turns, the tale of a simple lad that worked in a flour mill who became the biggest mover and shaker in the history of British cinema.

"He was a man that single-handedly created a British film industry and was at the helm of a studio that, in its prime, was bigger than any film studio across the Atlantic.

Why hasn't this play been written already?

"Personally, I think this is an exciting project, a story that really needs telling and I'm enormously happy and feel very privileged that I have the backing of Arts Council England."

The playwright and silver screen mogul may share Hull roots, but this was not a primary factor in Windass's decision to write his play.

"The name J Arthur Rank and many of the films made under his banner travelled the world so it's not a play about Hull, it's a story that transcends the city.

"Saying that, like a lot of people in Hull I've taken the huge flour mill that stands by the River Hull for granted for years, barely even acknowledging that the name Rank that stands high and proud in six-foot letters on that building is the same name that you see at the beginning of hundreds of films, " Windass says.

"I walked past the house in which Arthur was born, and, noticing how tatty it had become, thought that it was perhaps time that we stopped taking the man for granted."

As with any play that looks back to the so-called 'glory days', Windass believes his play can prompt thoughts about where we are now.

"The big Rank flour mill in Hull now stands empty and awaits redevelopment; the house in which Arthur was born is being allowed to fall into disrepair; the blue plaque fixed on the family's first mill is weather-beaten and unreadable. How have we allowed that to happen?

"For a short period of time, Arthur Rank was at the helm of a real industry that employed thousands of people; his studio turned out films of the highest quality; he really did have Hollywood on the back foot - they were scared he'd be taking more than his fair share of their profits. How did we allow that to come to an end? These are questions for now, questions that couldn't be answered back then."

Rank had a reputation as a dullard. Not so, says Windass.

"He was more of an enigma, I'd say. The more you read about him the less you know. As far as I can gather he was a plain-speaking Yorkshireman and not the sharpest knife in the drawer. He liked to shoot; adored his gun dogs; spurned his limousine to travel by pushbike; used to interrupt big power meetings in Hollywood to write postcards to his Sunday school pupils; ate inordinate quantities of chocolate, and loved his cigarettes, except, for some reason, in February, when he wouldn't smoke at all.

"He was tee-total, which I always find somewhat unnerving, and at debauched celebrity parties he'd stick to his ginger ale and lime while all hell broke loose around him.

"There's no Fatty Arbuckle scandal to be had, but so what if he had his dull moments. This towering, bumbling man with an enormous nose managed to thrive in one of the most exciting industries imaginable and had American film bosses eating out of the palm of his hand. He strikes me as an absurd character, the type of man you couldn't make up without people telling you it was unrealistic."

How will Windass turn all this into a piece of theatre? "Looking at the mounds of rich research in front of me, I already know that this will be a roller coaster ride of a play, and there's so much to cram in. I like the pace to be frenetic at times and then, when people are least expecting it, to slow things down, before sending them hurtling, at great speed, in another direction - and all of this can be achieved through the clarity of simple storytelling, " he says.

"This is a story about a cinema legend and there's no reason why the grammar of cinema can't be borrowed as a tool to tell the story, as well as classic moments from the films. All I know is that it won't be boring and dull. And you won't have to be a fan of every Rank film to enjoy yourself."

The script will be given a public reading at Hull College, hopefully in late February, before the project is developed further. First option will be given to Hull Truck, where Windass's comedy Kicked Into Touch and his biography of Rugby League legend Clive Sullivan, Sully, both played to full houses.

Windass is mulling over the title of his latest work: "I started off with Top Rank, but then I thought about a line from Pygmalion, so it could be J Arthur Rank? Not Bloody Likely! ?but it'll no doubt change again!"

Dave Windass's Sully returns to Hull Truck Theatre from May 10 to 26. Box office: 01482 323638.