Saturday, June 17, 2006

Will Hay and his Comedy Divine - a Good-Looking Englishman's Perspective

by Geoff Collins

Well, after Aaron's article, what else could I call it?

Will Hay's entitlement to Third Banana status is fully justified, even in sleepy old England. Most of his movies are available on DVD here with the exception of some early ones and the elusive single-print Fox masterpiece Where's That Fire? - but they hardly ever appear on television, so poor old Will is just as obscure now in his native land as the rest of his contemporaries. It has to be said, though, that he's always been regarded over here as a bit special; it's rare indeed for a middle-aged comedian with such non-existent romantic appeal to have such a successful film career. As Aaron points out, this has much to do with the fact that Hay is always a real person. Apart from his closing remarks to the audience in The Ghost of St. Michael's, he's always within the film, earnestly but inefficiently trying to get on with whatever job he has to do in the mistaken belief that his superiors are blind to his ineptitude, while simultaneously using whatever nominal authority he has in order to generate a bit of extra cash for himself through some minor scam. Unlike Robb Wilton, another comedian who specialized in bumbling officialdom, Will knows deep down inside that he's been promoted far beyond his capabilities, but he feels that he's sharp enough to bluster his way out of trouble if his failings are exposed. His subordinates, insolent fat teenager Graham Moffatt ("Albert") and venerable rascal Moore Marriott ("Harbottle"), if anything even more dishonest than Hay himself, are quite happy to rob and blackmail him, and each other, if the opportunity arises. We've all known people like this.

This, then, is The Secret of Will Hay: he was a great actor as well as a great comedian. He doesn't seem to be acting at all, never appears to be trying to be amusing. It's the art that conceals art. Kenneth Williams knew this; he was flamboyant and artificial, which explains his deep dislike for Sid James who turned up and gave a flawless reading of the lines with the minimum of apparent effort, so he could get paid and get on the phone to the bookie. And let's not forget the obvious fact that Moffatt and Marriott were Hay's equal in film technique.

So, yes, Hay, Moffatt and Marriott are the British equivalent of the Marx Brothers; far more acceptable candidates than the usual contenders for the title, the Crazy Gang. The Gang, three mid-life double-acts of variable quality (Flanagan and Allen at one end of the scale; Naughton and Gold very definitely at the other) made their movies at the same studio (Gainsborough) and at the same time as Will Hay, and sometimes with the same director and writers (Marcel Varnel; Edgar, Orton, Guest) and they are excellent, funny films; but the Gang are pure Music Hall, overstated and stagey, whereas Hay and his stooges, despite the farcical situations, always inhabit the real world. Buggleskelly, Bishop's Wallop, Turnbotham Round; they seem like real English (or Irish) villages where Hay's petty bureaucracy and mismanagement would be accepted and cherished. In a perfect world Hay would have stayed at Gainsborough with his two cronies and made beautiful comedies all through the war (can you imagine the Turnbotham Round Home Guard, with Hay as Captain Dudfoot? Bliss!) But he didn't. He abandoned Moffatt and Marriott and turned out some efficient but far less outstanding comedies for Ealing in which, deprived of his sidekicks, he always seems a bit lonely. However! There was enough time left for one genuine classic: My Learned Friend. In this blackest of black comedies, made during the war but with no internal reference to the conflict, Hay is teamed once more with dithery drip Claude Hulbert, and he's a barrister on the run from a homicidal maniac. If this isn't enough, it features probably the nastiest baddie in all black-and-white movie-comedydom [what???]; razor-wielding London gangster "Safety" Wilson. Ugh! But Hay and Hulbert end up on top - on top of Big Ben, actually, in a climax oddly borrowed years later by the Robert Powell Thirty-Nine Steps.

Aaron mentioned the reluctance of the American film companies to give Stateside promotion to the product of their own British studios (another example being the Max Miller's Warner quickies which are unfathomable outside the southern half of England). Yet Where's That Fire? was made by 20th Century Fox, albeit with the full Gainsborough team, and only survives because a print turned up in the Fox vaults in Hollywood. How ironic that the finest film (I agree with you, Aaron) of this so-English comedian should be re-discovered after thirty-five years, six thousand miles from home in a land Will Hay should have conquered, but didn't. It's the culmination of all that Hay, Moffatt and Marriott did best: seamless script and direction, and such natural performances from the three stars that it makes you want to live there (unless your house catches fire); and comedy sequences (not "routines") of such pure joy that you find you're not laughing - you're absorbing it.

When the Marx Brothers tried to play Real Human Beings they produced things like Room Service. Don't misunderstand me; I think the Marxes are wonderful. Hay, Moore and Marriott, equally wonderful, brought about their anarchy from inside the real world, by undermining stuffy old 1930s England where order and efficiency mattered. Did it really? Or were we a suppressed nation, waiting for all that dull Ealing-type crap to get out of the way so we could get to the 1960s? Will Hay was the most popular English comedian of his time, and I believe this is because (a) the crafty old bugger was absolutely real, and (b) we'd all like to be as devious and shifty and sloppy as he is and (c) get away with it. If Ask a Policeman has a flaw, this is it: Hay and his pals don't get away with it. In Where's That Fire? they do.

There's not enough space in this one article to discuss Hay's early movies, before he encountered the Dynamic Duo, but they're mostly unsuccessful attempts at trying to find a "persona" for him. Three or four films in, someone realized it was there all the time: the seedy schoolteacher was adaptable to any kind of tatty authority. Needless to say, in these early efforts Hay's acting is always exemplary, even when he isn't funny at all (as in Radio Parade of 1935).

Nor is there space to examine the fact that the "pupils" in his schoolmaster act on the halls invariably comprised a lippy "Albert" and an ancient "Harbottle"; and that Moffatt and Marriott were the perfect cinematic replacement for long-forgotten stage stooges. These characters existed long before Gainsborough, and the proof is there on Hay's 78rpm records of 1929, and a brief 1928 newsreel clip available on www.britishpathe.com. Have a peek; it's not Marriott on there, but it looks just like him.

Ditching Moffatt and Marriott was probably the greatest mistake of Hay's career; but on the basis of the six movies he made with them, he's entitled to eternal membership of the Third Banana. So move over Ted, Joe, Bert, Cliff... and let another Englishman join your ranks. And what will be his first words on arrival? He'll peer over his glasses, give everybody the Dreaded Stare, sniff, shrug his shoulders and say:

"Good morning, boys!"

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