Once in a while, you come across a biography of a film star written not by an accredited film historian, or a professional writer on an assignment, but an uberfan. You can tell them by the copious illustrations sourced from “Authors Own Collection”, a tendency towards hagiography, and a tedious writing style, such that you imagine meeting the author in the pub; he starts to tell you of his subject, you feel compelled to edge away before escaping through the toilet window. Well, while Graham Rinaldi is obviously an uberfan, and many of the said copious illustrations are indeed from Authors Own Collection, there the similarity to the stereotype ends. Because Mr Rinaldi writes pretty well, albeit with idiosyncrasies, and while he doesn’t dig dirt, he’s not so in love with the subject as to be blind to the man’s flaws.
Because William Thomson Hay was a complex man; and in a variety of ways, a brilliant one. Leaving formal education at 14, he nevertheless built a reputation as an astronomer; an amateur performer who by the 1920′s was going on tour for the astronomical £700 per week; a pioneering private pilot who evangelised for flight, but who gave it all up when a friend is killed; a once-married, never divorced, family man with a string of female companions that cost him his knighthood; a man of the stage who gave it all up for nine years of filmmaking; a philanthropist and charity founder who could be less than generous to his supporting actors; a comedian to whom comedy was a very serious business.
A lot for a writer to cover, then; a lot to research, however much of a fan you are. But Mr Rinaldi has done the work; immense amounts of material; interviews and papers from the family, from those who worked with him, a few still alive, a few who wrote of him in their autobiographies. Scripts, from his stage sketches as well as from the films themselves, illustrate perfectly the genius the man had; for on paper, they are nothing; less than nothing, often not even having the power to raise a wince. And yet… £700 a week indicates that he went down a storm, night after night, with this frankly slight material. The combination of Hay’s personality, technical mastery and years of accumulated knowledge on how to “Put Over” a gag… that was the secret. The audiences were too busy laughing to realise quite how thin the stuff was.
And then the move to filmmaking, at first tentative, and then full-bloodedly using the stage character so honed over 20 years; fortunate to work with top directors like William Beaudine and Marcel Varnel who understood and respected him, and allowed him to create input within the process, from the script stage, and would listen to his opinions during rehearsals.
Ex-Hollywood Beaudine had worked with the silent greats; he rated Hay’s timing as ‘perfect’, and was fulsome in his praise of Hay’s craft.
Which is where we, as audience, come in; the stage memories are in the minds of a very few survivors, but the films live on, in occasional TV revivals, and of course on DVD; there we can witness a master at work… just don’t analyse the scripts too hard.
Graham Rinaldi has written a fine book; it conveys the man’s personality, quirks and all, without glossing over his faults or indulging in speculation. Equal weight is given to his stage and film careers, both analysed carefully and with insight as to how one informed the other. Every fact is backed up with a reference; there is a full appendix of Narkovian papers, a filmography and discography; the research is prodigious. And yet, the research is worn lightly; Rinaldi has a quirky style himself, with occasional digressions into more contemporary popular culture to illustrate a point. The book is only heavy if you drop it on your toe – 450 pages of octavo, even in the reprinted paperback, is a chunky tome. Go get it; if ever a book deserves to be described as definitive, this is it.
Will Hay by Graham Rinaldi is published by Tomahawk Press.