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

Comic actor and acclaimed astronomer extraordinaire

Dark matters

Hay's tenth film appearance – in Hey Hey USA! (1938) – saw the US film star Edgar Kennedy and a teenage Roddy McDowall replacing Moffat and Marriot in a, fairly unsuccessful, attempt to crack the American market.

Albeit a comparative flop, Hay had remained teamed up with M&M in two other films that year – Old Bones of the River (1938) and Convict 99 (1938), following these up with Ask A Policeman (1939) and Where’s That Fire? (1939) – before World War Two put a spoke in things. Even so, films were still being made during wartime – The Goose Steps Out (1942) was Hay’s own propaganda effort – and the dark days of conflict saw Will Hay’s very own black comedy, My Learned Friend with his co-star being classic ‘upper class twit’ Claude Hulbert.

The po-faced Hulbert played a useless naive young barrister who tries to prosecute Hay, an ex legal eagle who’s been reduced to writing begging letters. The inefficient Hulbert fails to jail Hay, of course – ‘Were you often an orphan or often not?’ – before teaming up with him as the latter gets pursued by psychotic serial killer Mervyn Johns.

The climax is a Buster Keaton tribute as Hay and Hulbert end up hanging off the clock face of Big Ben as Johns’ maniac threatens them (before the police finally come to the rescue). My Learned Friend (1943) is Hay’s sharpest film in many ways: ridiculous, occasionally menacing and full of one-liners and slapstic, as well as a fascinating (if not entirely serious) look at dodgy East End night-clubs.

My Learned Friend – complete film

My Learned Friend (1943) features wordplay early on that no doubt inspired Ronnie Barker – complete film

It should have been the harbinger of even greater cinematic things to come – but it was sadly not to be. After being diagnosed with cancer in 1944 Hay managed to recover but was then hit by a stroke in 1947. Even so he seemed to be getting better in the months that followed but, after giving a rousing Good Friday speech to the Grand Order of Water Rats (a charity he’d once managed) he was hit by a second stroke which killed him a few days later, on Easter Monday, April 18th 1949.

Yet Will Hay remains the definitive pre-TV star of British comedy, his shambolic manner was an influence on many comedians from Eric Morecambe to Tommy Cooper to Harry Worth. And so Hay will always live on as the classic stumbling schoolmaster – with a far-fetched excuse on his lips, a twinkle in his eye…and one hand in the petty cash… ®

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