TV Cream

Hall of Fame

HAY, Will

hayA genius. No, really. And we don’t even feel the need to preface that with the mealy-mouthed ‘of course, the word “genius” is bandied about all too often these days…’ rejoinder. Just look at it this way. Music hall sketch: dopey teacher, interfering schoolboys who, it quickly transpires, know more about the subject being taught than he does, capers galore, thwarted dignity, twenty minutes, wind it up, on with the performing seals. It was Hay’s job to take that sturdy enough but unpromising scenario, and take it, and by extension the art of the music-hall sketch, away from its gag-‘n’-catchphrase bottom end and into the high realms of character-driven high dudgeon. When he got onto film ’twas even better. And when the mortar board came off, well, things fairly flew. His acting skills, flanked by Moore Marriott and Graham Moffat, shone like no other comedian-turned-actor. While others were putting the comedy clocks back with their banjoleles and cockney asides, Will was bravely putting them forward. Even if it did mean he nearly got run over by a train.

FINEST HOUR: My Learned Friend’s as good a place as any to start. Not only for inventing The Thirty-Nine Steps (Big Ben Edition) ending, but also that masterful mix of pride and deviousness exhibited in his trial. ‘Don’t tell me, you wrote that one up against the Workhouse wall.’



  1. Glenn Aylett

    November 1, 2020 at 3:38 pm

    In the days before Eggheads and the yoof strand on BBC Two, Stockton’s best known actor had a regular run of his films on BBC Two opposite the news. I thought I wouldn’t like them when I first saw them in 1980, but soon found Where’s That Fire, The Ghost Of St Michaels and The Goose Steps Out as amusing as the black and white comedies from America Two liked to show. Also Hay provided Charles Hawtrey with his big break as an annoying grammar school boy.

  2. Sidney Balmoral James

    November 1, 2020 at 6:09 pm

    I recommend Graham Rinaldi’s biography of Will Hay – given the length of time which has elapsed, it’s incredibly detailed – although Hay doesn’t come across as a very warm or generous figure from the book – a hard taskmaster, quite serious off screen, and not a quick man with a pound, like a number of his contemporaries. With the passing of Bobby Ball, worth noting that the terrible The Boys in Blue in 1982 was directed by Val Guest, who had – remarkably – been one of the screen writers of Oh Mr. Porter a mere 45 years before!

  3. THX 1139

    November 1, 2020 at 6:49 pm

    Also an expert on astronomy, I believe. I loved his films as a kid and still like to watch one every so often now.

  4. Glenn Aylett

    November 1, 2020 at 7:20 pm

    @ THX 1139, he was a well known astronomer and it was his main interest aside from acting. Obviously whether or not Hay was very pleasant in his private life is hard to say now as his contemporaries are long gone, but he does come across as someone who could be irritable and a perfectionist.

    • Glenn Aylett

      November 2, 2020 at 7:06 pm

      Oh Mr Porter has the hilarious scene where the elderly locomotive falls to pieces after the chase with the criminals and Hay and his colleagues salute it. However, my favourite Hay film has to be The Ghost Of St Michaels where Hay plays a teacher who is so useless the class know more than him and he’s constantly being thwarted by a young Charles Hawtrey.

  5. Richardpd

    November 1, 2020 at 10:53 pm

    I’ve seen Oh! Mr Porter many times, it’s a typical weekend afternoon film to be re-watched every now & again but not too often.

    I can’t remember when I first saw it, but probably my late Dad said it was something I would enjoy & he wasn’t wrong.

  6. Droogie

    November 2, 2020 at 2:28 pm

    Did Hay wear a hairpiece? In some of his early films his hair is noticeably thinner and looks like a combover. Or was he wearing a bald wig in these films to make his character look older? When he does have a full head in later films it looks quite convincing if it is a piece.

    • Sidney Balmoral James

      November 2, 2020 at 10:34 pm

      I think he wore what was known as a scratch wig, to give him the appearance of thinning hair, when playing the schoolmaster at least.

  7. Droogie

    November 2, 2020 at 11:42 pm

    That makes sense. Will Hay is a hero for playing the first unsympathetic British lead in a series of comedy films. A pompous deluded twit that inspired Hancock ,Fawlty, Partridge and Brent

    • Richardpd

      December 13, 2022 at 10:18 pm

      Something a bit alien to Americans until The Big Bang Theory, when Sheldon Cooper showed how such a character would work for them.

  8. Glenn Aylett

    December 14, 2022 at 8:45 pm

    Hay might have played a pompous, deluded twit, but quite often he was an unlikely hero, when he uncovers a Nazi spy in The Ghost Of St Michaels and helps a group of Austrians escape from the Nazis in The Goose Steps Out.

    • Droogie

      December 15, 2022 at 12:29 pm

      @Glenn Aylett. I actually painted Will Hay in The Goose Steps Out for an illustrated project I’m doing on swearing and obscenity in popular culture. There’s a chapter in my book on flicking the V’s which Will memorably does with a group of Hitler Youth to a giant portrait of Adolf. I’m pretty sure this was the first allowed use of the rude V gesture in a British movie and was only permitted at the time for propaganda reasons as it’s aimed at Hitler.

  9. Richardpd

    December 18, 2022 at 10:22 pm

    I was reading a bit about Will Hay earlier, someone reckoned after he stopped working with Moore Marriott and Graham Moffat the quality of his work started slipping, similar to Tony Hancock after he dropped most of his co-stars.

    His astronomy was quite important, being one of the first people to observe the white spot on Saturn.

    He had a radio show late in his career when he became too old to perform physical comedy.

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