Will Hay – Comedian, Film Star & Astronomer
Will Hay was one of Britain’s best loved comedy actors.
Born William Thomson Hay at 23 Durham Street, Stockton (two doors away from Ivy Close) on December 6th, 1888 to William Robert Hay and his wife Elizabeth.
In his early years the young Will did a tremendous amount of travelling in pursuit of his fathers engineering career. It was whilst in his infant years that Will left Stockton and moved to Lowestoft.
After a short stay it was on to Hemel Hempstead where Will enjoyed five years schooling before moving on again, this time to London, before moving on to Manchester, where his father was to establish his own firm, the Auto Lift and Runway Company. Will, not wanting to join his fathers company on leaving school and needing his own independence, joined a firm called Westinghouse as an apprentice engineer.
Being a very studious person he learnt German and French and gave up on his apprenticeship to become a interpreter for the Calico Printers Association in Manchester. Will soon made an impression and was soon put in charge of the companies foreign correspondence. He also learnt Italian to add to his list of languages. At this time Will was living in Pendleton, Manchester.
Will married at the age of 19, to a girl called Gladys Perkins. They set up home in rented accommodation at Higher Broughton, Manchester. On the arrival of their first child, whom they named Gladys, Will made up his mind to give the music-hall a try. He had been achieving moderate success as a stand-up comedian and giving after dinner speeches. He thought the time was right to try and make a better living for himself and his new family.
Will was in desperate need of new comedy material and it came from a unusual source, his sister Eppie. She was a school teacher and Will had long remembered how she had amused all the family with her classroom tales of energetic pupils playing pranks and how they were invited down to the front of the class after misbehaving and told to ‘bend down’. These tales gave Will the idea for a musical sketch which he went on to write and entitled it ‘Bend Down’, after his sister’s recollections. He would wear a mortar board and gown and sing several verses, each describing some kind of mischievousness the boys had got up to. This sketch got Will’s career off to a good start.
His first big show came in 1910 when he was offered a season at the Pavilion in Belper, Derbyshire. When that came to an end Hay and his wife Gladys found themselves running a cinema in Manchester for 25 shillings a week. It was not until 1913 when Will was invited to work a summer season on the Isle of Man with Charles Dare’s Minstrels that things really began to pick up. A year later he joined the Fred Karno troupe, famous for it’s comedy talent, which included Stan Laurel and Charles Chaplin.
It was while Will was under the Karno influence that his fortunes began to change and he began to get rave reviews. He was to stay with Fred Karno for four years. The Karno experience had taught him of the importance of having a sidekick, a stooge who’s contribution would emphasise the comedy of the main character. This is something Will would remember later on in his career with the introduction of two very famous stooges, namely Graham Moffatt and Moore Marriott.
It was in 1920 that Hay went back to his ‘Bend Down’ sketch and decided to play the parts instead of sing about them. This was the beginning of his ‘Fourth Form at St Michael’s’. The sketch was a big success. Audiences could relate far better to the visual comedy routines. Hay worked on the reactions of the audience. They laughed at his facial reactions to the boys insolence which challenged his schoolmaster authority. He introduced new characters into the sketch, one being the old man Harbottle.
Will’s nephew Bert Platt was the man who played Harbottle in the early days and on occasions the role was filled by Will’s wife Gladys without the audience realising that they were watching a female Harbottle. As the Fourth Form at St Michael’s sketch gained in popularity an offer came in for Hay to take it on tour to Australia which he duly did with great success. Hay returned to British shores eight months later and found he was in great demand. The British public had certainly not forgotten him. Another of Will’s nephew’s joined the team at this time and it was Bert Platt’s younger brother Cyril who shared digs with Will and his family. Will and his Fourth Form at St Michael’s sketch were chosen to appear in the Royal Command Performance at the Alambra Theatre, Leicester Square on 12th February 1925 before King George V and Queen Mary.
A tour of America now beckoned and after an initial resistance to the act and a few dialogue changes the tour went down exceptionally well. On returning to England he found he was as popular as ever and was often invited by Edward, Prince of Wales to private party gatherings at Windsor castle to entertain or just as a guest of the Prince. Will’s son Billy was the next family member to join the team. He played the boy in the St Michaels sketch. He toured with his father to South Africa in 1928. This also gave Will the chance to learn Afrikaans to add to his ever increasing list of languages.
In 1931,Will was elected King Rat of the Grand Order of Water Rats, which gave him great pride and a opportunity to acquaint himself better with like-minded fellow artistes within the exclusiveness of the club. The club was a charity organisation who fund raised for the less fortunate. Hay’s 1933 discovery of a white spot on the planet Saturn brought him right into the public forefront and he was offered the lead role in the film version of Sir Arthur Pinero’s play ‘The Magistrate’ which materialised into Those Were The Days. It was released in 1934 to much acclaim. Hay had made a Pathe short called ‘Know your Apples’ in 1933 and had appeared on celluloid in 1922 in a short sequence taken from his variety show ‘Listening In’ but this was his real cinema debut. Hay’s screen career was under way at the age of forty six.
The only sour note for Hay at this time was the break-up of his marriage after 27 years. A separation, not divorce was agreed by Will and Gladys. Gladys was granted a decree of judicial separation on November 18th 1935. Mrs. Hay was quoted at the time as saying “I shall never sue for divorce, I am a Roman Catholic.” The year 1935 had been a very good one for Will Hay. His screen debut ‘Those Were The Days’ was still doing the rounds and Radio Parade of 1935 and Dandy Dick were all the talk of the town. Hay also released his book ‘Through My Telescope’
Films like ‘Boys Will Be Boys’,’Windbag The Sailor’, ‘Where There’s A Will’ and ‘Good Morning Boys followed before Hay made the vintage comedy Oh, Mr Porter! Considered by many to be his crowning glory, the film took a massive £500,000 on it’s release in 1937. After the making of Convict 99, Hay made his intentions clear that he did not want to continue his film career with Graham Moffatt and Moore Marriott and that he would be taking a new partner for his next film ‘Hey, Hey, U.S.A.’ in the master of the double-take, Edgar Kennedy. The film only achieved moderate success and producers and writers insisted on the return of Moffatt and Marriott in Will’s next film ‘Old Bones of the River’.
Without a reconciliation in his marriage to Gladys and no talk of a divorce, Will was happy to remain ‘married’ and to go his separate ways. He had a reputation as a ladies man and was always in the company of a beautiful woman. He had met a girl half his age by the name of Randi Kopstadt, and returned to her native country Norway quite frequently as he kept a boat on the Norwegian fjords. It also gave him another opportunity to add Norwegian to his list of languages he had learnt. It was rumoured that if he had asked for a divorce from his wife and been given one, Randi would have been the girl to become his wife. Randi was to remain Will’s close companion until shortly before his death in 1949.
1939 saw the release of another two Gainsborough Studios efforts featuring Hay, Moffatt & Marriott. They were ‘Ask a Policeman’ and ‘Where’s that Fire?’ With the outbreak of the second world war, Will changed studios and went over to Ealing. His first film there was ‘The Ghost of St Michael’s (1941). An uncharacteristic appearance followed in the wartime propaganda film ‘The Big Blockade'(1942).
Hay’s second Ealing comedy was ‘Blacksheep of Whitehall (1942). Will was made a Sub lieutenant in the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve, Special Branch during wartime in which he would instruct on navigation and astronomy to Cadet Corps. Part of his duties would be to go to Westminster and the House of Commons to talk to a select committee on the subject of navigation. He was awarded a star in recognition of his work. Another war effort contribution that he made was the film short ‘Go to Blazes’ (1942) in which he shows how to deal with incendiary bombs. He would also tour the armed forces camps and factories giving lectures on astronomy.
It was whilst planning the film ‘My Learned Friend’ (1943) that Will first noticed the symptoms of illness. Will had suspected the start of cancer. He was examined and it was confirmed that he had cancer which was in it’s early stages and a successful operation took place. After a lengthy lay off Will resumed his shows and broadcasts. It was while Will was on holiday in 1946 that he suffered a stroke which left the right side of his body in a crippled state. It also affected his speech. Will was told by his doctors that he could only expect to make a partial recovery.
His final years are a bit of a sorry one for they were spent mainly in isolation and with very few public appearances. For his companionship it was to the Water Rats he turned. His health did slightly improve enough for him to think about trying his hand as a film producer but in 1947 his good friend Marcel Varnel who had directed him in many of his films died in a car accident and Will’s plans were never realised.
Will now relied on the Water Rat gatherings even more so now and on giving a speech on Good Friday 1949 he showed little signs of his illness and talked about his plans for the future. It came as a great shock to them when they were told the news that he had died following a massive stroke at his home in Chelsea on Easter Monday 18th April 1949.
Will Hay had been in the public limelight for a quarter of a century. There had been the odd comments that he had a dark side and that he could be obstinate and was prone to outbursts. Will Hay had the clarity in his visions for how his comedy should be performed and anyone who got on the wrong side of him in his ambition to achieve these visions saw the side of him that did not suffer fools gladly.
He had no pretensions away from the stage and cameras. Will Hay was one of a rare breed. He was detached from the showbiz circles who always wanted to talk about themselves all the time. He kept his private life away from his stage & screen work and would rarely talk about his career. He was a level headed man who would take pleasure in engaging intellectual discussion.
For more information on Will Hay please visit Trevor Buckingham’s website.