There is an old, old British play by Arnold Ridley (1896-1984 after a fall) which was written originally in 1927 and was made into a film a couple of times under its original title of The Ghost Train. It is not supernatural, despite the title, as it relates to a phantom train that passes through a Cornish train station where people are stranded one evening.
The film versions include a 1931 version which is critically respected but of which only the final two reels of the movie still exist. This version stars husband and wife comedy team Jack Hulbert (1892-1978) and Cicely Courtneidge (1893-1980), while there is another one from 1941 starring Arthur Askey (1900-82) which is just too silly… The best version though is the one starring comedian Will Hay (1888-1949 stroke) entitled Oh, Mr Porter! Which was made in between those adaptations in 1937.
With a title taken from a music hall song, the action of the play, which was originally Cornwall, is moved to a railway station in Northern Ireland.
It is probably one of the purest of British comedies as it has no love interest to interrupt the humour. Oh, Mr Porter! is basically a three hander with Hay and comedians Moore Marriott (1885-1949 heart disease) and Graham Moffatt (1919-64 heart failure). These three comedians were partnered together in several Hay led movies.
Hay began his success in films and on the stage with a character who was a seedy schoolmaster, something which evolved over the years, while Marriott’s character was always a toothless old man and Moffatt an overweight schoolboy.
Hay’s character was basically an incompetent authority figure who is often immoral. Hay has been compared to the great American comedian W.C. Fields (1880-1946 gastric haemorrhage) whose sympathetic characters were often self-centred scoundrels. In fact, it is reported that Hay was inspired to become an actor after seeing Fields juggle on stage in Manchester.
His acting evolved into his schoolmaster sketches and one of the most famous was performed at the 1925 Royal Command Performance in front of King George V and Queen Mary.
One of his first film appearances was Dandy Dick (1935), which was based on a fifty-year-old play by prolific playwright Arthur Wing Pinero (1855-1934) who also wrote the drama The Enchanted Cottage which was turned into a cult film in 1945.
It was Dandy Dick that first introduced Marriott as a co-star to Hay and Marriott’s character would soon always be known as Harbottle. While that film was made at Elstree, it was when Hay moved to Gainsborough Studios that some of his most memorable work resulted.
The first was Boys Will be Boys (1935) where Hay’s schoolmaster got a good workout. It was successful enough to inspire his further adventures in Good Morning, Boys (1937) and The Ghost of St. Michaels (1941). In the meantime, Graham Moffatt appeared in Hay’s Where There’s a Will (1936) as Willie the office boy. But it wasn’t until Windbag the Sailor (1936) that Moffatt’s plump cheekily insolent street savvy youth was dubbed Albert. He is known by this name in all the Hay-Marriott-Moffatt films, which along with Windbag and Oh, Mr Porter!, also include Old Bones of the River (1938), Convict 99 (1938), Ask a Policeman (1939) and Where’s that Fire (1940).
The final one was considered a lost film for many years but can now be viewed in all its glory as it’s probably their next best film after Oh, Mr Porter!
The director of most of these films was Marcel Varnel (1892-1947 car crash), who also directed several of Lancashire comedian George Formby’s (1904-61 heart attack) movies. Varnel’s death more or less ended an era of British comedy – certainly the glory days of Formby, as Hay had retired a few years earlier due to ill health.
Go back to Hay’s Boys Will be Boys and the censors gave the film an A or an adult rating because of it being subversive to authority. Still it was a hit.
But it is Oh, Mr Porter which has endured to become Hay’s cult classic…
It is reported that one of the writers of the hit tv show Dad’s Army (1968-77) based the trio of Captain Mainwaring, Corporal Jones and Private Pike on Hay and his two companions. Also, note that original The Ghost Train writer Ridley appeared as Private Godfrey in Dad’s Army.
Oh, Mr Porter! was written by Hay regular Marriott Edgar (1880-1951) and Val Guest (1911-2006 prostate cancer). Guest would direct the Quatermass sci-fi films of the 1950s as well as Hammer movies and would end up doing a soft-core sex comedy as well as others such as Confessions of a Window Cleaner (1974). Guest’s most famous script is the award winning The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961).
The script for Oh, Mr Porter! is a mass of slapstick, action and many a funny quip in its pre-World War II setting.
With Hay’s character’s sister getting him a job from “a common wheel tapper” to station master at the rather rundown and neglected Northern Ireland station of Buggleskelly… the last station master thought in the end he was Napoleon and resigned… It is on his way there in a coach at night that Hay gets a Dracula-like introduction to the area:
“It’s a brave man who walks the roads near Buggleskelly at night…”
“Is it damp or something?,” asks Hay.
He’s told of One-Eyed Joe the Phantom Miller who was murdered by the railway and they point to a ghostly windmill. Apparently, Cockeyed Joe as Hay calls him cursed the railway and the station causing trains not to emerge from the local tunnel.
“Well that would mess up the timetables a bit, wouldn’t it?,” says Hay.
We’re introduced to Marriott and Moffatt as two station guards who don’t mind helping themselves to any food in transit whether it’s cheese or piglets.
While Hay’s character drinks, you never see him drunk and, indeed, the comedy is all based on his character being totally unsuited to the job. Hay was not one to ad lib as a comedian.
“He plays with the pixies,” says Harbottle about Albert before his appearance.
“Oh, does he? Well, all that’s going to stop from now on,” says Hay endlessly clearing his throat in Albert’s presence, who says after delivering a jug for Harbottle’s supper: “He’s got a nasty cough hasn’t he?”
The best British comedies or this era, including those by George Formby, don’t travel particularly well beyond the British Commonwealth. Even in Britain today the audience for Will Hay’s movies would be minimal. And yet this film made over half a million pounds upon release, which is over thirty million pounds in today’s money. While it was not Hay’s biggest hit, it was certainly one of his most popular even though George Formby and Gracie Fields (1898-1979 pneumonia) were bigger box office draws in the late 1930s and early 1940s. The Hay films didn’t travel to America where screwball comedies were the order of the day. It is remarked that the reason for this came down to the timing of the English comedies as well as the accents.
“This is going to be an important station,” says Hay, who plans to stop the first train through ‘his’ station for no reason at all. With a signal box so overgrown it looks like Kew Gardens, laundry hung on the signals and crossing gates that don’t work, it’s not surprising Albert remarks Hay will “cop it”.
“It’s an eyesore, a dump,” says the conductor on the train Hay stops to “introduce myself”. There’s so many quips, it’s hard to keep count. If you’re wondering what the plot to Oh, Mr Porter! is… well it’s got something to do with the legend of the ghost One-Eyed Joe and, well, I don’t like to reveal as there’s an 90-year-old steam engine named Gladstone which comes to the rescue.
So many classic scenes litter this movie, such as when the three argue what time the express is coming through… as they can’t work out if it’s summer time daylight savings and if it is – do you put the clocks back an hour or forward an hour – the train is either imminent or will arrive in two hours!
It’s all good clean fun as Hay tries to drum up business for a day trip to Connemara at the local pub but it only ends up in an all-out brawl… Hay sells tickets to a guy out in the back room named One-Eyed Joe… It could be gun-runners as the source material The Ghost Train turned out. And who is Cock-eyed Bill? But I’m giving it away now!
Hay’s last movie, My Learned Friend (1943), was made at the end of his sojourn in the 1940s at Ealing Studios. It is also Hay’s darkest film as he plays a seedy lawyer who finds he is marked for murder by a criminal who he unsuccessfully defended.
He teams up with another incompetent played by Claude Hulbert, Jack’s brother, as they try to prevent a succession of murders that the insane criminal has committed in revenge for his conviction for forgery. Mervyn Johns (1889-1992) makes a delicious madman.
With the judge getting knocked off – “did he fall, or was he pushed?”
Hay and Hulbert make a good team and Hay gets a co-director credit with Ealing regular Basil Dearden (1911-71 car crash). It’s amazing the directors of both of these films died in car accidents.
The pair go to an East End dive of a pub to save a criminal who’s also on the list.
“Grimshaw’s out and he’s out to do you in,” says Hay to the boys in the backroom and they all laugh. “If you think it’s funny to be murdered.”
Yes, it’s a black comedy and Hulbert’s dancing in the pub is incomparably silly as Johns knocks off his latest victim with a razor… more killings follow.
Hay, who was an amateur astronomer, said in an interview with The Daily Mail in 1933 that “he believes astronomers to be the finest brotherhood on Earth, the only men who see life in true proportion.” In fact, Hay discovered a Great White Spot on the planet Saturn in 1933 which is why the interview was performed.
“If we were all astronomers, there’d be no more war,” said Hay. “All astronomers are philosophers,” he said.
I should also mention that Hay was an experienced aviator and flying instructor. Where did he get the time?!
You will either love Oh, Mr Porter! and the rest of Hay’s brand of humour, or it will leave you cold and disinterested… personally I always liked him and only discovered him on the BBC when I was living in London in my mid-20s. I even forked out to see Oh, Mr Porter! on the big screen at the National Film Theatre for the experience.
The Hay-Marriott-Moffatt team were an almost English version of the Marx Brothers with Albert as Chico, Harbottle as Harpo and Hay as Groucho. Hay had possibly seen the Marx Brothers in London on one of their pre-film career tours where they performed their sketch with Groucho as a German accented teacher and Chico and Harpo as students. Anyway, it’s a possible influence. Just as the climax of Oh, Mr Porter! is influenced by Buster Keaton’s (1895-1966 lung cancer) The General (1926).
As for the climax of My Learned Friend, it’s epic and on the face of Big Ben. Looking at it and you can see it all came down to the timing in terms of the hands of the clock and the comedian’s art of timing itself. And so, it seemed both as an astronomer and a comedian Will Hay’s death also had a sense of timing… Hay died on April 18 of 1949. Hay’s death date is ironic in an astronomical sense. It is the first Thursday after April 18 which is the earliest date that is The First Day of Summer is celebrated in Iceland where seasons of light and dark are delineated. So, Hay died on the cusp in this tilted world. Tilted towards lunacy and hopefully toward laughter in the case of Will Hay. If he was not a star, he was certainly influenced by the one in our solar system.
To quote from the British daylight saving of summertime scene in Oh, Mr Porter!: “On April 19, summertime will begin…” and it’s no end of trouble! And yet it is the beginning of a new season of sunshine and hope.
It’s probably fitting that in 2018, the Will Hay Appreciation Society unveiled a memorial bench to the trio in Oh, Mr Porter! in Cliddesden in Hampshire where some of the filming took place as Buggleskelly. Hay passes a bench in the station marked Buggleskelly sometime during the movie.