Will Hay: An Influential “Schoolmaster”

You will be evincing true variety connoisseurship if you demonstrate a familiarity with British comedian Will Hay (1888-1949). The son of an engineer, Hay saw W.C. Fields juggle in a Manchester music hall as a young man and resolved to go into show business himself. As early as 1910 he was doing a school teacher character in music halls, which he initially performed in drag. From 1914 through 1918 he performed with Fred Karno’s company, the same outfit that had earlier produced such comedians as Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel.

By the 1920s Hay was performing his schoolmaster routine, which he called “the fourth form at St. Michael’s” all over the world, including American vaudeville. His wife Gladys Perkins played various other characters in the act. As with Fields, with whom he was often compared, Hay was loved for the personality of the rather complex character he developed: at once distracted, ineffectual, irritable, transparently incurious and unintellectual, corrupt, lazy and hypocritical. The difference in school systems, social customs, and language, makes it necessary for Americans to make some mental effort in translating his comedy, but Hay’s character is a recognizable, universal human type it is easy to appreciate. There are many clips of him on Youtube, for he still has many fans among the British public. He was one of England’s top comedy stars, appearing in 20 films between 1933 and 1943. In 1938, he was the third most popular movie star in Britain, behind George Formby and Gracie Fields. By the end, he was also directing his own films, such as The Black Sheep of White Hall (1942), The Goose Steps Out (1942) and My Learned Friend (1943), although it is his earlier film Oh, Mr. Porter! (1937) that many cite as their favorite. My Learned Friend has been called a major influence on such well known later Ealing comedies like Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949) and The Ladykillers (1955).

By 1943 Hay’s health was failing. He briefly had a radio show in 1944 and had plans to produce, but a series of strokes made further work impractical. He died in 1949, just as a new era in British comedy was coming into being.

One interesting note about Hay’s work is that he himself was a learned gentleman. He spoke several languages and worked as an interpreter during his early years, and was also an accomplished amateur astrologer with his own observatory and several discoveries to his credit. He is said to have developed his famous character by observing a colleague of his sister’s (she was a school mistress).

To learn more about vaudeville, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and for more on classic comedy please read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.

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