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Will Hay: Britain's bumbling star of the screen and skies

Comic actor and acclaimed astronomer extraordinaire

Full steam ahead

Then, in 1937, Moffat joined Marriot as Hay’s two sidekicks in the finest comic film any of them would ever be involved with, Oh, Mr Porter! wherein Hay discovers the (Northern) Irish railway station he’s been sent to run, Buggleskelly, is actually a run-down mess.

Oh, Mr Porter!

Will Hay and Moore Marriott make their acquaintance in Oh, Mr Porter! (1937)

Incidentally, one of the lines above – ‘He plays with the pixies!’ – was originally supposed to be ‘He plays with the fairies’ but it was changed before shooting as it was thought the censor would deem it ‘too encouraging towards homosexuality’. Now, ironically, it would almost certainly be seen as being too homophobic. As we see, even the Buggleskelly locals aren’t exactly encouraging to Hay’s station-master efforts.

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Encountering local knowledge – Oh, Mr Porter!

Despite all this – and gun-runners, ghosts, secret windmills and missing trains – Hay and his two stooges come out on top in a film that is, even now, genuinely funny, at times hilarious. Oh, Mister Porter! (1937) was a deserved box office smash in its day, taking some £500,000 in British cinemas alone – the equivalent now would be over £15 million.

The comedy Good Morning Boys! (1937) saw the great bumbler back in the schoolyard – again with the young, overweight Moffat as a cheeky pupil – and by now Hay’s reputation was such that he was voted No. 4 in the British actors film Top Ten (the next year he would be No. 3).

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Pointing the finger in Good Morning Boys (1937)

By then Hay, already an acclaimed amateur astronomer who’d built his own observatory and discovering spots on Saturn, published his own ‘philosophy of laughter’. It was only a light-hearted magazine piece but it did point out some eternal comedy truths

‘…Why does every one of us laugh at seeing somebody else slapped in the face with a large piece of cold custard pie? Is it because we're all naturally cruel? Or is it because there's something inherently funny in custard pies? Or in faces? Or in throwing things? No. No. and no! The real reason why we laugh is because we are relieved. Because we are released from a sense of fear. Wherever we may happen to be - in the cinema, theatre, or music-hall - we tend to identify with the actors we are watching. So that when a custard pie is thrown we fear for a moment that it as been thrown at us. And then, immediately we realise that it hasn't hit us, we experience a feeling of relief, and we laugh...’

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