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Will Hay

The music-hall performer who became a much-loved big-screen comedy star

Main image of Will Hay

Music hall star Will Hay became a major screen comedian in the late 1930s in partnership with veteran character actor Moore Marriott and the young Graham Moffatt.

On stage, Hay specialised in portraying inept schoolmasters who know far less than their pupils. Several films cast him in this role, including Boys Will Be Boys (d. William Beaudine, 1935) and Good Morning, Boys! (d. Marcel Varnel, 1937).

In Windbag the Sailor (d. Beaudine, 1937), which Hay co-scripted, he played a braggart forced to take charge of an unseaworthy ship. For the first time he was teamed with Marriott and Moffatt to form a trio who bicker among themselves but unite against outsiders. The rich interplay between these contrasting performers began a series of immensely popular Gainsborough-produced comedies, in which Hay portrayed a bungling authority figure with Marriott and Moffatt as his assistants.

Oh, Mr. Porter! (d. Varnel, 1937) made Hay a stationmaster in northern Ireland ; Convict 99 (d. Varnel, 1938) had his schoolmaster mistaken for both a prisoner and a prison governor; in Old Bones of the River (d. Varnel, 1939), he was a missionary educating African pagans; in Ask A Policeman (d. Varnel, 1939), a village police sergeant; and in "Where's That Fire?" (d. Varnel, 1939), the head of a local fire brigade.

The skilful dialogue by scriptwriters Val Guest and Marriott Edgar (often working with J.O.C. Orton) was enhanced by the fluid direction of Marcel Varnel, the convincing sets by Vetchinsky, and moody photography (frequently by Arthur Crabtree). These films are not only funny: they are made with great care and have many moments of endearing camaraderie and warmth.

Hay moved to Ealing Studios in 1941 where he starred on his own, co-directing three comedies with Basil Dearden, including The Goose Steps Out (1943), but his output there was no match for his earlier work.

Allen Eyles

Related Films and TV programmes

Thumbnail image of Ask A Policeman (1939)Ask A Policeman (1939)

A policeman is forced to commit crimes to avoid the sack

Thumbnail image of Convict 99 (1938)Convict 99 (1938)

Comedy with Will Hay mistaken for both prisoner and governor

Thumbnail image of Goose Steps Out, The (1942)Goose Steps Out, The (1942)

WWII comedy with Will Hay dropped behind enemy lines

Thumbnail image of Oh, Mr Porter! (1937)Oh, Mr Porter! (1937)

Will Hay as a bumbling stationmaster in his most famous comedy

Thumbnail image of Windbag the Sailor (1936)Windbag the Sailor (1936)

Will Hay comedy that puts him in charge of a most unseaworthy vessel

Related Collections

Thumbnail image of ComedyComedy

Movies made to make us laugh

Related People and Organisations

Thumbnail image of Hay, Will (1888-1949)Hay, Will (1888-1949)


Thumbnail image of Gainsborough Pictures (1924-51)Gainsborough Pictures (1924-51)