1888 - 1949
Will Hay is much loved comic actor of the Music Hall, Radio and Cinema. He was also a skilled pilot, accomplished amateur scientist, engineer and astronomer.
Will Hay made his professional debut at the Empire, Hull, in October 1909 as a Schoolmaster character singing a self-penned song entitled 'Bend Down'. The act toured the country until in 1915 he re-wrote Bend Down as a fifteen minute sketch and included a young pupil and renamed it The Schoolmaster and the Scholar.
In 1918 he joined the famous Fred Karno troupe in two sketch revues, Nosey Knows and Moonstruck. He returned to his Schoolmaster routine in 1920 and created a new sketch, Find the Beetle, which evolved into The Fourth Form at St Michael’s with an added student, the old scholar Harbottle. The St Michael’s sketches would become the cornerstone of his career and launch him as one of the biggest and most successful acts on the variety circuit. The sketches toured Australia, New Zealand, America and South Africa.
During the 1920’s Will Hay also wrote and starred in two revue shows; Listening In and Vanity Box. In 1922 he was the first comedian to broadcast on British radio and in 1925 he made the first of his four Royal Command Performances. The other appearances were in 1928, 1930 and 1945.
As well as being an accomplished linguist – he spoke fluent French, German, Italian and Afrikaans – Will Hay’s two passions were Aviation and Astronomy. He built his first glider in 1909, flew and owned his own planes from the mid 20’s and was a close friend of pioneering female aviator, Amy Johnson.
His life-long study of astronomy came to the public’s attention in August, 1933 when from his Observatory at his Norbury home he made the historic discovery of a white spot on Saturn. He was made a fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society and wrote a book on the subject, Through My Telescope.
In 1934, he began his film career with the Pinero farce, Those Were the Days. After two more films he signed a contract with Gainsborough Pictures in 1935, where in four years he starred in ten films that would make him a major movie star and a box-office success. Comedy film classics during this period include Boys Will Be Boys, Ask a Policeman and the timeless railway comedy, Oh, Mr Porter!
Away from the screen, during World War Two he became the Chairman of the Variety section of ENSA taking a touring party to entertain the troops in France; he was King Rat in 1940 for the Grand Order of Water Rats, an organisation he had joined in 1930; Section Commander of the Hendon Local Defence Volunteers and the Honorary Chairman of the Variety Artist Federation.
Throughout the war, as a Sub-Lieutenant in the Royal Navy he gave lectures on astronomy and navigation to the sea scouts.
In 1941 he returned to film making with The Ghost of St Michael’s for Ealing Studios. He starred in four films for Ealing, co-directing three of them including his last picture My Learned Friend in 1943. Ill health forced him to abandon his film career and return to radio with three successful series’ of The Diary of A Schoolmaster, appearances on the illustrious Brain’s Trust and as the quiz master on Merry Go Round. Resuming his St Michael’s stage career in 1945, he performed at the Stoll Theatre for eight months in the revue For Crying Out Loud. His performing career came to an end in 1946 when he suffered a stroke.
The remaining years of his life were spent travelling to Norway and South Africa. He died on April 18th, 1949. His achievements as a comic actor and astronomer were honoured in 2000 with the unveiling of an English heritage Blue Plaque at his former Norbury home.