by Mark McKay (reprinted from LAUGH MAGAZINE #22, 2001)
Time can often be unkind to the comedy greats of yesteryear, especially top music hall draws of the 1920s and 1930s. However, one major performer from this period seems to have defied the odds and his comic exploits have endured. This is in part due to the entertaining fully-rounded character he created — a cocktail of contradictory emotions: in turn hare-brained, suspicious, crafty, gullible, audacious, timid, arrogant, fawning, charming and argumentative — and the new medium of film which captured his talent so successfully.
Will Hay was born in Stockton-on-Tees in 1888 to an engineer father also called William. A bright schooling was interrupted when the family moved to Manchester, where Bill senior set up his own company. His son took a job as an interpreter with a printing firm and married his childhood sweetheart, Gladys, in 1907. A few dinner-speaking engagements encouraged him to try his hand as a professional entertainer in the music hails, much to his parents’ disapproval.
But what form should his act take? His sister Eppie was to provide the answer. Being a schoolteacher she would amuse her siblings with tales of mischievous pupils and their waggish classroom capers. Will decided to adopt the character of a schoolmaster on the stage, and in so doing, trod his first steps on the road to success.
Will already possessed a skill which was to prove useful — an exceptional talent for calligraphy. His ability to write random words on a blackboard upside-down and back-to-front in beautiful handwriting never failed to impress theatre audiences. Evidence of this expert penmanship can be seen in the film The Goose Steps Out.
Naturally Will didn’t become a star overnight. Many years were spent on the halls and as a player in Fred Karno’s comedy troupe honing the act. A cheeky boy was introduced into the sketches, later joined by an elderly man playing ‘Harbottle’, a senile student clearly destined to see out his twilight years in short trousers. Over the next fifteen years a number of different performers took on the student roles, including Hay’s nephews Bert and Cyril Platt and son Will Hay Jnr. Even his wife occasionally appeared as the old man — with the audience none the wiser!
The skits, now billed as The Fourth Form At St. Michael’s, featured amusing schoolboy howlers (‘Who was Noah’s wife?’—‘Joan of Arc!’ … ‘Name four members of the cat family’—’Father cat, mother cat and two kittens’) and wearisome misunderstandings over names, later exploited to greater effect by Abbott and Costello. However it was primarily Hay’s inept but believable characterisation which created the greatest impression.
By the mid 1920s, Will and his ‘scholars’ were making waves in theatres all over Britain, and accepting offers to tour Australasia, America and South Africa. Back home, they were invited to appear before the King and Queen in the 1925 Royal Variety Performance. The act went down so well they were again booked for London’s most prestigious show in 1928 and 1930. Meanwhile special studio reworkings of the stage routines were recorded and released as double-sided discs.
While he was playing New York, Will went to see one of the new talking pictures. His verdict was that talkies were merely a passing fad and would hold no lasting attraction for the public. Little did he suspect that in less than ten years, sound movies would have completely superseded silents and one of their major British drawcards would be Will Hay.
His first feature film roles were a deliberate departure from the schoolmaster character. He played a straight-laced magistrate in Those Were The Days alongside a young John Mills, and a country vicar in Dandy Dick, both screen adaptations of Pinero farces.
Boys Will Be Boys saw Will’s debut in an academic role, that of Dr. Alec Smart, who becomes headmaster of Narkover school with the help of a forged reference. The students are quick to recognise him as a mug (‘You get his cheque book and I’ll get his autograph!’), but a cunning mind lurks behind the pince-nez and sniffy hooter. Not to mention a unique sense of fair play. In one nice scene he foolishly turns his back on the class just long enough to cop a slingshot pellet on the back of the neck. Determined to exact revenge, he asks the prime suspect to stand up. The lad in question is over six feet tall. Hay considers this for a while, then asks his innocent neighbour to rise. Satisfied that this boy is shorter, he gives him a swift cuff round the ears. Justice is done.
For the rest of his screen career, Will alternated between playing teachers and other figures of authority (notably policeman, prison governor, station master and fireman). In his third picture for Gainsborough, Windbag The Sailor, he was teamed with Graham Moffatt (as the impudent fat boy Albert) and Moore Marriott (as the silly old codger Harbottle). The pair partnered Hay in five more flicks, becoming the cinematic equivalents of his traditional young boy and old man stooges.
Born in 1919, Graham Moffatt was working as a call boy at the film studios before the tubby lad with the charismatic personality was offered small parts in current productions. Moore Marriott, on the other hand, had years of acting experience, having been a leading man in silent films. By the late 1930s he was associated with ancient curmudgeons, which he impersonated so convincingly few suspected his real age. Marriott possessed five sets of false teeth, his favourite a plate with only one centre tooth which he called his ‘onion chaser’.
One of the trio’s best loved pictures saw the three idiots muddling along as railway station staff in the sleepy Irish border halt of Buggleskelly. Many critics regard Oh, Mr. Porter! as Hay’s finest work, but what sets it apart from his other films is admittedly lost on me. Personally I prefer Convict 99, with new jail boss Will initially mistaken for one of the inmates, or Good Morning Boys, in which the pupils of St. Michael’s cheat their way to winning a trip to Paris, first prize in an inter-school exam competition.
While portraying a bumbling buffoon on stage and screen, in private Hay enjoyed an extraordinary range of interests and became proficient in them all. Studying textbooks, learning foreign languages and building model traction engines all helped to keep his mind active, but his principal hobbies were aviation and astronomy.
Will built and flew his own glider as far back as 1910, and was one of the first private plane owners in Britain. Later he performed dare-devil acrobatic stunts in bi-planes and impressed friend Amy Johnson with his piloting skills.
The interest in star-gazing went back to adolescence and the purchase of his first telescope. As he became more affluent, a lot of time and money went into the construction of a small observatory in his back yard in Norbury. His work in tracking comets (for which he designed his own micrometer measuring device) earned him a Fellowship of the Royal Astronomical Society. In 1933, Will hit the headlines with his discovery of a transient white spot on the surface of Saturn. Two years later he wrote a book on astronomy called Through My Telescope, described by Patrick Moore as ‘a very good general description’.
Will’s scientific studies brought him into the confidence of leading Oxbridge academics. Tommy Trinder recalled one occasion when an eminent professor phoned the Hay household in the early hours of the morning with news of an important breakthrough in particle physics. An excited Will rushed in to wake his sleeping wife. “Darling, what do you think? They’ve split the atom!”. “That’s wonderful,” Gladys yawned sleepily, “now they can both have a piece.”
The war saw a break-up in the partnership with Moffatt and Marriott (who both continued as a Gainsborough double act in the Hi Gang! movie and various Arthur Askey vehicles). In need of change, Will signed up with Ealing Studios and went on to make four more feature films. The Ealing productions were generally less believable than his earlier classics, often featuring corny cartoon-like finales. Interestingly, his final film, My Learned Friend, was a black comedy about a serial murderer, anticipating the great Ealing chef d’oeuvre, Kind Hearts And Coronets. For the memorable climactic scene, Will and Claude Hulbert are seen dangling from the clock hands of Big Ben in an effort to prevent the detonation of a bomb rigged to explode when the hour chimes. Curiously, the same ending later found its way into a serious thriller — the 1978 remake of The 39 Steps.
Although deemed unfit for active service, Will was able to contribute to the cause as a navigational instructor for the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve and troop entertainer with ENSA. Although he was still officially married to Gladys, their marriage had in fact broken down many years earlier. Fame had brought Will into contact with many attractive young women and he gained a reputation as a ladies man. His last serious relationship was with a beautiful Norwegian girl with the unlikely name of Randi Kopstadt.
Illness brought an abrupt end to Will’s film career. Ironically he had been notorious as an impossible hypochondriac. While shooting on location, studio staff would run a daily sweepstake conjecturing his alleged ailment that morning. However when cancer was diagnosed in 1943, he directed his energies to the less strenuous demands of radio.
Will’s first regular appearances on the medium, however, were in the less humorous mode of quizmaster on the Double Or Quits segments featured on the Army editions of Merry-Go-Round, which he began several months before launching a comedy series. In all, he appeared on over two dozen of these segments up to February 1946.
In The Will Hay Programme (‘The Diary Of A Schoolmaster’), Will was back in the familiar setting of St. Michael’s School for Boys as headmaster Dr. Muffin. Each episode began at his oppressive lodgings, where the insults flew back and forth between Muffin, landlady Mrs. Potts and her surly son Alfie. For the second half of the show, the action transferred to the classroom where the head was battling wits with his troublesome charges: young know-all D’Arcy, thick old boy Beckett and insolent mischief-maker Smart (played by Carry On stalwart Charles Hawtrey but minus the campness which became his trademark).
Despite ragged performances from some of the supporting players, the show was immensely popular — a welcome escape from more serious matters for a wartime British audience. In spite of its success, the radio show ended on a controversial note when, unhappy with inferior scripts, Will pulled the plug on the programme half way through the final series. The following year he suffered a stroke which left him partially paralysed.
On Good Friday 1949 he addressed an audience of his peers at a dinner organised by the Grand Order of Water Rats. He seemed in fine form and his health appeared to be improving, but sadly another stroke a couple of days later proved fatal. At 60 years of age, Will Hay had passed away at the official retirement age for schoolmasters.
Know Your Apples (1933 short)
Those Were The Days (1934)
Radio Parade Of 1935 (1934)
Dandy Dick (1935)
Boys Will Be Boys (1935)
Where There’s A Will (1936)
Windbag The Sailor (1936)
Good Morning, Boys (1937)
Oh, Mr. Porter! (1937)
Convict 99 (1938)
Hey! Hey! U.S.A! (1938)
Old Bones Of The River (1938)
Ask A Policeman (1939)
Where’s That Fire? (1939)
The Ghost Of St. Michael’s (1941)
The Black Sheep Of Whitehall (1941)
The Big Blockade (1942)
Go To Blazes! (1942 short)
The Goose Steps Out (1942)
My Learned Friend (1943)
The Will Hay Collection
contains Boys Will Be Boys, Where There’s A Will, Windbag The Sailor, Good Morning Boys, Oh, Mr. Porter!, Convict 99, Hey! Hey! U.S.A!, Old Bones Of The River and Ask A Policeman
The Will Hay Programme
Starring Will Hay (Dr. Muffin), Clarence Wright (Alfie), Beryl Riggs (Mrs. Potts), Charles Hawtrey (Smart), Billy Nicholls (Beckett), John Clark (D’Arcy).
Special: The Diary Of A Dominie
General Forces Programme, 21 July 1944 (30 mins)
Series 1: General Forces Programme, 18 August to 6 October 1944 (8 x 30 mins)
2 editions survive: Income Tax Assessment (date unknown), Cheque From Old Student (Sep 15)
Series 2: Home Service, 20 December 1944, 26 December 1944, 3 to 24 January 1945 (6 x 30 mins)
1 edition survives: The School Laundry (Dec 20)
Special: Will Hay Celebrates Victory At St. Michael’s – Home Service, 11 May 1945 (30 mins)
Series 3: Home Service, 31 July to 14 August 1945 (3 x 30 mins)
Will Hay also appeared in the Army editions of Merry-Go-Round, as quizmaster on Double Or Quits:
April 28, May 19, June 9, June 30, August 11, November 3, November 24 and December 15 1944,
January 5, January 26, February 16, March 9, March 30, April 20, May 11, June 1, June 22, July 13, August 3, September 14, October 5, October 26, November 16, December 7 and December 28 1945,
and January 18 and February 8 1946
BBC Archives has recordings of the Sep 14 and Dec 7 1945 editions
Will Hay, Master Of Comedy (BBC R4 2 June 1976, presented by Ronnie Barker)
Fletcher’s Friends (BBC R27 June 1989)
How Tickled Am I? (BBC R4 29 August 2000)
Hay There (ITV (London) 13 May 1958)
The Fourth Form At St. Michael’s (Parts 1 & 2)
Columbia 12” 78rpm 9689/Columbia 10” 78rpm FB-1540 (1929)
The Fourth Form At St. Michael’s (Parts 3 & 4)
Columbia 78rpm 5695 (1929)
featuring Will Hay and his scholars (Will Hay Jr. and Gordon Saunders*)
* not Moore Marriott & Graham Moffatt as quoted in some sources
The Fourth Form At St. Michael’s (Parts 5 & 6)
Columbia 78rpm DX-558 (1933)
featuring Will Hay and his scholars (with the boy played by a girlfriend)
Convict 99 (Parts 1 & 2)
Columbia 78rpm FB-2040 (1938)
extracts from the film soundtrack
all the above recordings are featured on
Comical Cuts 2 (EMI Comedy Classics double cassette ECC 14) (1991).
Note however that The Fourth Form At St. Michael’s Part 1 is taken from the shorter 10” disc.
The longer 12” version can be heard on Music Hall To Variety – Volume 2 (World Records LP SH 149)
BBC LP REC 134M (1973)
contains an extract from The Will Hay Programme (20th December 1944)
Good Morning Boys: Will Hay Master of Comedy
by Ray Seaton & Roy Martin (Barrie & Jenkins, 1978)
by Graham Rinaldi (2009)
also of interest
Funny Way To Be A Hero
by John Fisher (Frederick Muller. 1973)
contains a chapter on Will Hay
Make ‘Em Laugh
by Eric Midwinter (George Allen & Unwin, 1979)
contains a chapter on Will Hay
Frank Muir Presents The Book Of Comedy Sketches
edited by Frank Muir & Simon Brett (Elm Tree, 1982. revised Penguin paperback, 1992)
contains a Fourth Form At St. Michael’s script (transcribed from disc)