I recently caught up with ‘Windbag The Sailor’, a Will Hay vehicle from 1936. This is the sort of film that
used to show regularly on a Saturday morning and I remember seeing it several
times in my teens and early twenties. However, it doesn’t seem to have been on
television for years – so a discovery of the full film on You Tube delighted
me. The film is standard Will Hay fare, which I do not mean to sound derogatory
in any way. Standard Will Hay fare is
miles better than most other stuff, and the belly laughs are guaranteed.
‘Windbag’ stars Hay at his “pompous ass” best, pretending to have led a heroic life on the high seas in order to secure an endless supply of free booze in the pub. Of course it turns out that the nearest he has been to captaining a ship is driving a coal barge down the canal. However, a gang of sea-faring criminals coerce him into captaining their ship and he soon finds himself lost at sea. His sidekicks Graham Moffatt and Moore Marriott are with him all the way, adding to the delights to be found in Windbag’s company.
|Will Hay by @aitchteee|
One of the trio’s bits of business on board the ship reminded me of a similar scene in ‘Oh! Mr Porter’. In both films, they find themselves in the position of needing to solve a mathematical problem. In ‘Windbag’ this is working out how many miles they have travelled in order to find their approximate location. In ‘Porter’ the scenario is working out when the express train is due to pass. I think that this spotlights the variety stage roots of Hay and his sidekicks. For the routine to be more or less repeated like this, I feel sure that it must have been something that was a great success in front of a live audience. A Hay trademark, perhaps. And thinking about it, this would have been the case because it was so reminiscent of scenes in households across the land. We are watching a period in time before the invention of the pocket calculator. People did have to rely on their own brainpower and a pencil and paper to make sure that their grocery bill was right. Some people have a better aptitude for maths than others, and perhaps households or streets had their go-to person who was known to have a head for numbers.
Many years ago, my uncle apparently made a tape recording of my great grandmother and great aunt working out how much they owed each other for catalogue purchases. He did this because the conversation was so convoluted that he found it very funny. It was played repeatedly for family entertainment purposes. I have no doubt that they were not alone in regularly tying themselves in mathematical knots, just like Will and friends in these films.
Will Hay was a clever man with a good grasp of maths, which is probably why he came up with the routine. He wasn’t afraid to make himself look the fool though, and I love the comic way that he uses his fingers to count on alongside the corner of his mouth. And as well as making us guffaw, he reminds us how daft a lot of us would have felt before we had access to our own mathematical machines.