No. 45 The Chase, Norbury

Will Hay’s house is just over the imperceptible boundary between Streatham and Norbury. South of Streatham Common, Victorian semis become inter-war, and the River Graveney runs above ground, but out of sight, between Strathbrook Road (Streatham) and Briar Grove (Norbury). Until 1965 this was the edge of London, and the county boundary with Surrey ran along the river well within living memory. The distinction is invisible but not yet forgotten. Will Hay moved into a new build in urban Surrey in 1927. It is a comfortable looking place, but a modest choice for a star. He stayed for seven years, so he must have liked it and probably appreciated the anonymity. Although scarcely remembered now, Hay was one of the great comic actors of his time. During the 1930s, a succession of films in which played incompetent authority figures completely out of their depth as schoolmasters, stationmasters and policemen made him recognisable to all. For ten years he was the third highest grossing British actor, behind only George Formby and Gracie Fields.

Hay’s house now has a blue plaque but his reputation remains high only with enthusiasts. He is, however, also remembered as an astronomer, a separate career which he pursued with great success. While living at The Chase he became a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society and, a year later in 1933, made an early observation of The Great White Spot, a swirling storm system on the surface of Saturn. The street where he lived has a uniformity, a 1920s vision of modern living, that still seems to offer a blank canvas. From here Hay could lose himself in the stars, shaking free the comedy that made his name which was immersed in the society of the past, funny because it was familiar, and already well on the route to becoming forgotten.