Comedian, Film Star & Astronomer – Will Hay
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.
Will originally intended to follow in his father’s footsteps and become an engineer but he found that the lure of the stage proved too strong and by 1909 he was treading the music-hall boards not only in this country but in South Africa, Australia and America.
Will Hay’s stage career really took off when in the 1920’s he realised that his bumbling schoolmaster routines began to strike a happy note with his audiences, it was said that the routine was influenced by 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’.
He later decided to play the parts instead of sing about them, which in turn became his most famous sketch ‘Fourth Form at St.Michael’s’. He went onto take this sketch on an Australian tour and perform it at the 1925 Royal Command Performance as well as private gatherings for Edward, Prince of Wales.
In 1931, he was elected King Rat of the Grand Order of Water Rats, a show business charity organisation which raised funds for the less fortunate. He also became known for his discovery of a big white spot on the planet Saturn on August 8th 1933, thus achieving a considerable reputation as an astronomer. During WWII he was made a sub-lieutenant in the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve Special Branch 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. He was also interested in flying and was one of the first private aeroplane owners in the country.
Radio appearances followed and these broadcasts had some of the biggest listening figures in BBC history. He then made his film debut in ‘Those Were the Days’ (1934), followed by ‘Boys Will Be Boys’ (1935), where he used his school master persona for the first time on screen, having co-written the script. With his comedy stooges, Moore Marriott (old Harbottle) and Graham Moffatt (chubby boy Albert), he went onto become one of the top ten money making stars of the era in such films as ‘Convict 99’ (1938), ‘Ask a Policeman’ (1939) and most famously ‘Oh Mr. Porter’ (1937), a classic of British film comedy. He made his last film in 1943, ‘My Learned Friend’, one of a number of films he co-directed and an early example of an Ealing black comedy.
Will died age 60 on Monday 18th April, 1949 in London after a number of years of ill health. He had been in the public eye for a quarter of a century.