It’s easier to make the British laugh than to make the French even smile. Yet, one of the biggest successes at the Paris Cinémathèque in the late 80s was a retrospective of British comedy curated by Bertrand Tavernier. Among the discoveries for the French was Will Hay, who, with his henchmen Graham Moffatt (the fat boy) and Moore Marriott (the wizened old codger), perfectly represented a certain type of bumbling British humour. One of the best of their films was Oh, Mr Porter! – and the French were pleased to find that it was directed by Paris-born Marcel Varnel. One of the great directors of British comedy in the 30s, Varnel considered Oh, Mr Porter! his best work.
Will Hay often used to play – in the music halls, on radio and on film – a pompous schoolmaster, permanently sniffing and wiping his nose, who invariably got himself into difficulties of his own making but managed to get out of them by luck rather than judgment. Moffatt was equally incompetent, while Marriott seemed the epitome of virtually senile density. In Convict 99, Marriott appeared as a long-term prisoner who spent years digging a tunnel, only to find that it opened in the warden’s office. I seem to recall that all he said was “Damnation!” as he attempted to scuttle back down again.
In Oh, Mr Porter! Hay plays a railway porter with ambitions of becoming a stationmaster. Somehow he gets himself appointed to the virtually derelict station of Buggleskelly in Ireland, where Albert (Moffatt) and old Jeremiah Harbottle (Marriott) are his assistants. Desperate to justify himself, Hay organises a day excursion but gets mixed up with gun runners. He fortuitously captures them after a long locomotive chase and, once again, becomes a hero despite himself. There is a wonderful windmill sequence that has everyone hanging on for grim life but never quite falling off.
Varnel pursues this daft but very funny story with vigour, timing the gags to perfection and watching closely as Hay, Moffatt and Marriott spit out their famous routines. The script was written for them by Val Guest but often taken directly from the music hall, and it mocks a dozen or so sacred cows of the day, from the police to imperialism.
Hay’s films were made between 1934 and 1943 and helped to lay the ground for the post-war Ealing comedies, which may have been richer in cinematic invention and characterisation but were seldom as sharp about Britain. His characters were oblivious to irony: serious-minded nincompoops, they escaped from calamity by sheer good fortune and then claimed they had known how to do so all along.
He, Moffatt and Marriott made a superbly foolish trio which, though now largely forgotten, has never been beaten. Like George Formby, Old Mother Riley and her daughter Kitty (Arthur Lucan and Kitty McShane), they formed part of a flourishing British comedy scene that became part of everybody’s consciousness. They were so popular, in fact, that they frequently beat big Hollywood attractions at the box office. They made me laugh as a boy. And they still do now.