Will Hay (1888 -1949) The Three Layers of Ignorance
April 9, 2018
Saturday mornings growing up in a little mining village in Wales were spent with my grandfather (Tadcu in Welsh always shortened to Gi). There would be an hour of cutting coal for the fire, and then we would sit down to watch BBC2 and whatever old black and white comedy was on. Those celluloid heroes of my Gi’s own youth in the twenties and thirties had a profound effect on me, and certainly influenced the kind of comedy I enjoy and write. The comedy greats I was introduced to included silent film stars like Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, Buster Keaton, Fatty Arbuckle (one of Gi’s favourites) and stars of the early talkies like Laurel and Hardy, the Marx brothers, Sid Field, Arthur Askey and any Ealing or Gainsborough comedy. All of these films would be accompanied by Gi’s commentary on the star’s life in detail (sometimes salacious in Arbuckle and Chaplin’s case). My grandfather’s favourite comedian was Will Hay; there would be no commentary during his films just laughter, but Gi would always tell me Hay discovered one of Venus’s moons (not quite true as you will see below).
Will Hay was born in Stockton-on-Tees in 1888 and took up comedy after seeing W.C. Fields perform. His wife Gladys would perform with him and she recalled in the 1970s how they would have to walk and hitch to and from gigs (from Manchester to Blackpool on one occasion) because the pay was so little. By 1914 Hay was picked up by the impresario Fred Carno, who ran a stable of music hall stars including both Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel before they left for Hollywood. ‘Fred Carno’s army’ was a popular phrase throughout the twentieth century to describe ‘a motley band of misfits who couldn’t organise a piss up in a brewery,’ (Yes, that’s one of Gi’s lines). Initially he played an old schoolmistress in full drag, with Gladys playing a decrepit old man called Harbottle so stupid that he had never been allowed to leave school. However, Hay changed gender as he developed the school routine. He was always a rascal, always a bit lower middle class aspiration, with a bald wig over his full head of hair, a pince nez on his nose and an assumed air of haughtiness.
One of his comic ideas developed in the school act is the three layers of ignorance. It was not a gag rich routine. Instead Hay’s authority as a teacher is first challenged by his own ignorance, then by his student’s incompetence, with the added idiocy of the senile old man. The characters interactions would degenerate into Hay ranting on and on to re-assert his authority, and always failing dismally. Unlike most of the comedians at the time who relied on jokes, it was the situation and the characters that created the laughter. The Fifth Form at St Michael's became his best loved routine in the music halls and clubs. Throughout the 1920s he performed his music hall act around the world and for royalty. He was big, but it was a dying genre. Having seen film making whilst touring in the US, and doubtless influenced by the success of former compatriots like Laurel and Chaplin, Hay made a move into films in the 1930s.
Throughout the 1930s Hay made a series of films for Elstree and Gainsborough pictures. He always played the incompetence of middle management: the schoolmaster, the stationmaster, a ship’s captain, a police sergeant, promoted way beyond his abilities through family connections or nefarious manipulations; full of bluster and bluff that would rapidly degenerate as he was challenged by insubordinate subordinates. His foils in so many of his best films were Moore Marriot as the Harbottle character and Graham Moffat as a chubby churlish teen (replaying the three layers of ignorance). The youtube scene is taken from Oh Mr Porter, perhaps Hay’s best film, and whilst the special effects have aged and the delivery is very 1930s, the routine is still sharp and understandable to a modern audience; British summertime jokes still have relevance.
By the end of the decade he was one of the UK’s biggest box office draws, although he never quite made it in the states. Fearing that he was getting stale as an act he dropped Moffat and Marriot from his films, but his comic concepts remained. During the war he replayed his St Michaels act in morale boosting films with a very young Charles Hawtry as a youthful foil. In the Goose Steps Out (1942) he plays an anti-nazi British agent training German spies with some classic slapstick. His last film in 1943 hinted at a move to darker humour, but Hay’s plans for more movies were cut short by illness. After surviving cancer, he suffered a stroke in 1946, and a further fatal stroke three years later.
Now, to his discovery of one of Venus’s moons. Actually he observed the great white spot on Saturn in 1933, measuring it with his own equipment. My Gi was partially correct, I suppose; Hay was a passionate astronomer all his life declaring to the Daily Mail in 1933 ‘If we were all astronomers, there'd be no more war.’ When he died in 1949 his equipment was bequeathed to the British Astronomical Society.
Hay’s influence on comedy has been recognised by some of the greats. Ronnnie Barker adored him, making a documentary about him in the 70s; Croft and Perry, the creators of Dad’s Army, openly cited his idea of the three layers of ignorance as a basis for the characters of Captain Mainwairing, Private Pike and Corporal Jones. If you look at Tom Basden's writing for ITV2s Plebs you can see the three layers of ignorance at work in the interaction between Ryan Sampson's Grumio (Harbottle), Joel Fry's Stylax (or Jason in Series 4) as Moffat, and Tom Rosenthal as Marcus in the Hay role. Similarly the same dynamic plays in all of the Blackadder series, with Rowan Atkinson playing the eponymous Hay role, supported by Baldric (Harbottle) and Percy (Moffat). Father Ted, Red Dwarf, Man about the House, Quacks; when you start looking for Hay's ignorance dynamic on modern comedy it is everywhere. Will Hay’s films are all available online, and still a joy to watch if you can find a good quality copy.