A publicity shot for the film
The Ghost of St. Michael's.
|Birth name||William Thomson Hay|
6 December 1888|
Stockton-on-Tees, County Durham, England
|Died||18 April 1949
Chelsea, London, England
|Influences||W.C. Fields, Laurel & Hardy, Charlie Chaplin|
|Influenced||Jimmy Perry, Ken Dodd, John Cleese, Tony Hancock, David Croft (TV producer)|
|Spouse||Gladys Perkins (1907–35) (separated)|
William Thomson "Will" Hay (6 December 1888 – 18 April 1949) was an English comedian, actor, film director and amateur astronomer. He was one of the most admired and well known Comedians throughout the 1930s and 40s, he was still an important influence on many Comedians after his death, such as Ken Dodd and John Cleese. The incompetent character played by Hay in his films, such as Oh, Mr Porter! was later mirrored by Arthur Lowe's character Captain Mainwaring in Dad's Army, Hay was also a key influence in other programmes such as in Hancock's Half Hour. Even many years after his death, his work was still admired, notably in Harry Enfield's 1989 Mockumentary Nobert Smith-A Life.
Hay was born William Thomson Hay in the house on 23 Durham Street in Stockton-on-Tees, County Durham in North East England, to William Robert Hay (1851–1920) and his wife Elizabeth (born 1859) (née Ebden) who married on May 31st 1883. Among Hay's siblings where Harold Gordon (born January 5th 1885), Evelyn Jane (born September 28th 1887), Lizzie (born April 26th 1891) and Annie (born May 6th 1893)., When Hay was less than a year old his family moved to Suffolk.
Stage and film career
Hay was trained as an engineer and joined a firm of engineers, before commencing a career on the stage at age 21. Hay began appearing in Manchester as a juggler after seeing W.C. Fields perform in a film, and later he took up acting in film. Hay had a relatively brief screen career: by the time he made his first film he was in his mid-40s and an established music hall artist, and his last role came less than a decade later. Between 1934 and 1943 he was a prolific and popular film comedian and was credited in several films as a writer or co-ordinator.
He worked at Elstree, Gainsborough, and Ealing; his time spent at Gainsborough was the most successful, particularly when he worked with the team of Marcel Varnel, Val Guest, Marriott Edgar, Moore Marriott and Graham Moffatt. Hay decided to break up the partnership with Moffatt and Marriott and established a successful working relationship with Claude Hulbert, who played Hay's side-kick in The Ghost of St. Michael's (1941). The Goose Steps Out (1942) for Ealing was an effective anti-Nazi piece of slapstick, and while he was never quite the same again without Moffatt and Marriott, My Learned Friend (1943) again with Hulbert, is considered a masterpiece of black comedy which some regard as his best. Prior to Hay's career in film he was very popular in the 1920s, with his famous "The fourth form at St. Michaels" sketches, because of his famous Schoolmaster gimmick he toured in various countries all over the world, including South Africa and Canada. Hay also toured in America with "The fourth form at St. Michael's" skecthes, and Hay was one of the only Vaudeville performers to have a successful film career.
The half-hour weekly Will Hay Programme began in August 1944, and was broadcast live from the Paris Cinema, which still exists in a basement just off Piccadilly Circus. There, St. Michael's schoolmaster Dr. Muffin (referred to by his pupils as Old Crumpet) barely kept a kind of order from his desk, perched slightly higher from his unruly pupils, Charles Hawtrey who played the cheeky Smart (later to go on to the Carry On films), John Clark, a child actor who played the annoying swot D'arcy Minor (later to gain fame as Just William), and an air force recruit, Billy Nichols, who on his days off played the really dumb schoolboy, Beckett. The series lasted about four months, and was prematurely cancelled, owing, it was said, to a dispute with the BBC over scripts. But it found a continuing life on the music hall stage, at the top of the bill at London's Victoria Palace.
The cast was brought together one last time for an all variety anticipatory celebration at midnight on 4 May 1945 for the Royal Family and many military notables at a private function at the Life Guards barracks in Windsor, which featured the leading comics of the day. The war in Europe ended just four days later. This may also have been Will Hay's last performance prior to his illness, and his son Will Hay, Jr. carried on his father's act for a while.
Aside from his day job as a comedian, Hay was a dedicated and respected amateur astronomer. His personal observatory sat in his garden in Mill Hill, the dome very visible from the main Hendon Road. He became a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1932. He is noted for having discovered a white spot on the planet Saturn in 1933; the spot lasted for a few months and then faded. He also measured the positions of comets with a micrometre he built himself, and designed and built a blink comparator. He wrote the book Through My Telescope in 1935, which had an impressive foreword by Sir Richard Gregory, formerly Emeritus Professor of Astronomy at Queen's College, London. At Hay's death, a few items of his equipment were bequeathed to the British Astronomical Association.
Graham Moffatt who was a stuntman to Hay through his films produced by Gainsborough said that Hay was a quiet and private person stating "He always struck me as being a lonely man. We never saw much of him when weren't working. We seldom went on personal appearances and tours together. He kept himself to himself."
He built a glider in 1909. Later he became one of the Britain's first private pilots and owners, and gave flying lessons to Amy Johnson. In 1942, as part of the war effort, he joined the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve (RNVR), serving in the Special Branch as a sub-lieutenant. He was able to put his hobby to practical use when he later became an instructor in astronomy and navigation with the Sea Cadet Corps.
As a favourite trick for his friends, he would rapidly write seeming nonsense on a blackboard, look at it thoughtfully for a minute with a puzzled expression, then turn the blackboard upside down and there would be a perfectly written statement of some kind. And he could take someone's dictation, and repeat the trick.
He married Gladys Perkins (1889–1982) in 1907, whom he had known since he was 15, but legally separated on 18 November 1935. They had two daughters and a son: Gladys Elspeth Hay, the Couple's eldest daughter was born on February 12th 1909., William E. Hay (b. 1913), and Joan A. Hay (1917–1975).
In 1947, Hay suffered a stroke which left him physically disabled. He died at his flat in Chelsea, London after a further stroke in 1949 and is buried in Streatham Park Cemetery, London SW16. Many collegues and admirers of Hay attended his funeral, including a collegue of Hay, Dave O'Toole who acted in minor roles in Several of his films. Also in attendence at his funeral was his wife, Gladys and three children, other Comedians and actors who attended where Jack Hylton, George Jackley, Ted Ray, Fred Russell, Chesney Allen, Reginald Purdell and Georgie Wood. Today Hay's grave is cared for by The Music Hall Guild of Great Britain and America.
On 13 May 1958 a tribute to Hay entitled Rediffusion's Hay There aired hosted by Jimmy Hanley who worked with Hay in his 1935 film Boys Will Be Boys it also featured friends and collagues of Hay and showed notable parts of his films and at the height of his film career with Gainsborough Pictures. Also in the 1950s, Madam Tussauds in London made a waxwork figure of Hay as his famous schoolmaster character where he stood between Norman Wisdom and Stewart Granger.
For Winston Churchill's 90th birthday on 30 November 1964 the BBC Celebrated the event and entitled it "Ninenty years On" it was a 90-minute spectacular of Comedy and music, Ted Ray performed as Hay, Gerald Campion as The young scholar and Wilfred Brambell as Harbottle.
After his autobiography "Through my Telescope" no other biography of Hay was published until 2009. This biography was written by Graham Rinaldi, with a short introduction in the book by Ken Dodd who talked about how Hay had influenced him and how he was his father's favourite. It is mentioned that a lot of Captain Mainwaring's character in Dad's Army was based on Hay: the co-creator of Dad's Army, Jimmy Perry, had been of a fan of Will Hay for a long time and was inspired by watching Oh, Mr Porter!.
It is also mentioned that Will Hay films can be difficult to see today. The only way to see his films is on DVD or on YouTube. Rinaldi mentions that he knows about Hay because he used to see his films on Saturday morning in the 1970s.
- Playmates (1922) (A silent short)
- Know Your Apples (1933) (A short and lost film)
- Those Were The Days (1934)
- Radio Parade of 1935 (1934)
- Dandy Dick (1935)
- Boys Will Be Boys (1935)
- Windbag the Sailor (1936)
- Where There's a Will (1936)
- Oh, Mr. Porter! (1937)
- Good Morning, Boys (1937)
- Hey! Hey! USA! (1938)
- Old Bones of the River (1938)
- Ask A Policeman (1939)
- Convict 99 (1939)
- The Big Blockade (1940)
- Where's That Fire? (1940)
- The Ghost of St. Michael's (1941)
- Go to Blazes (1942)
- The Goose Steps Out (1942)
- The Black Sheep of Whitehall (1942)
- My Learned Friend (1943)
Box office ranking
For a number of years, British film exhibitors voted him among the top ten British stars at the box office via an annual poll in the Motion Picture Herald.
- Radio comedy
- Cinema of the United Kingdom
- List of British actors and actresses
- English film directors
- 1891 UK census: RG12/1494 f.56 p.47 & p.48 – 192 Clapham Road, Lowestoft, Suffolk
- GRO Register of Births: MAR 1889 10a 49 STOCKTON – William Thomson Hay
- MNRAS 94 (1933) 85
- "=Music Hall Guild". Retrieved 16 July 2012.
- GRO Register of Marriages: DEC 1907 8d 287 SALFORD – William Thomson Hay = Gladys Perkins
- Hockey, Thomas (2009). The Biographical Encyclopedia of Astronomers. Springer Publishing. ISBN 978-0-387-31022-0. Retrieved 22 August 2012.
- GRO Register of Births: MAR 1909 8d 83 – Gladys Elspeth Hay
- GRO Register of Births: SEP 1913 8d 120 SALFORD – William E. Hay
- GRO Register of Births: SEP 1917 8d 64 SALFORD – Joan A. Hay
- GRO Register of Deaths: JUN 1949 5c 251 CHELSEA – William T. Hay, aged 60
- "PICTURES and PERSONALITIES.". The Mercury (Hobart, Tas. : 1860 – 1954) (Hobart, Tas.: National Library of Australia). 10 April 1937. p. 5. Retrieved 27 April 2012.
- "FORMBY IS POPULAR ACTOR.". The Mercury (Hobart, Tas. : 1860 – 1954) (Hobart, Tas.: National Library of Australia). 25 February 1939. p. 5. Retrieved 27 April 2012.
- Will Hay by Graham Rinaldi with foreword by Ken Dodd, Tomahawk Press, 2009
- Will Hay at the Internet Movie Database
- Will Hay.Comic Genius
- Astronomical obituary MNRAS '''110''' (1950) 130 – NB: this biography wrongly gives Hay's middle name as Thompson – it was Thomson
- The Next Train's Gone: Will Hay pages including bio and audio
- Radio files
- Will Hay and his telescopes: A comprehensive account of Hay's astronomical observations