Monday, 8 February 2010

Noel Coward - 'The Master'

Getting enormous pleasure reading a biography of Noel Coward (1899-1973) - surely a 'one-off' in British cultural history if ever there was one. Can't think of another person being so multi-talented in so many fields - composer/lyricist, writer (of novels, short stories, factual articles), playwright - of works, both serious ('The Vortex' written in his twenties featuring drug-addiction still has power to shock) and light 'frothy' comedies (Hay Fever, Private Lives, Blithe Spirit etc), serious actor of both stage and film, director - and, of course, raconteur par excellence. Some of his critics maintain that although he did dabble in so many creative areas he never produced a really undoubted masterpiece in any of them. I think that's unfair. His plays alone stand up today despite being very much products of their time, set almost exclusively within an upper-class milieu which, with a less skilled writer, could look very dated and irrelevant - but the wit is still undoubtedly there, and effectively so.
One can fully understand why he always strived to keep his sexuality private at a time when all gay acts in all circumstances were illegal, despite his wide circle of friends and acquaintances, including politicians (Churchill, among them) and royalty (especially the late Queen Mother and Princess Margaret) knowing, so one has to read between the lines when words like 'companion' and 'close friend' are employed.

There are so many delicious stories of his repartee one could mention. One of my own favourites is from the early 1950s when he and a friend were emerging up the steps from a London Underground station and were confronted by a large poster advertising a newly-released film - "MICHAEL REDGRAVE, DIRK BOGARDE - 'THE SEA SHALL NOT HAVE THEM!" . Coward stopped, looked up quizzically at the poster, and then, in his inimitable clipped voice - "I don't see why not. Everybody else has!"

His verdict on seeing the opening production of the stage musical 'Camelot' - "Parsifal - without the jokes."
(Note: I had originally written 'Gotterdammerung' here but my memory has since corrected me. Like all Wagner's operas, 'Parsifal' is ultra-serious, with the appropriate parallel of being, like 'Camelot', based on legend, in this case the search for the Holy Grail - long, long before the Monty Python team got its hands on it ;-) !

After seeing 'Blitz', the stage musical by (gay) Lionel Bart (who also wrote 'Oliver!'), set in London's East End during the Second World War - "As long as the real thing and twice as loud!"

On seeing musical stage version of 'Gone With The Wind' - "Would be vastly improved by two cuts - to the second act and to the little girl's throat!" (That 'little girl' being the character of Bonnie, child of Scarlett/Rhett, played on the London stage by the then insufferable child actress Bonnie[!] Langford.)

After being told by a newspaper critic, who had just lambasted his latest play, that he acted much better than he wrote, Coward's reply - "How odd. I'm always saying the same about you!"

It's interesting that when the first of the James Bond films, 'Doctor No', was being planned, Ian Fleming wanted Coward in the role of the megalomaniac Doctor. (Coward and Fleming had neighbouring homes in Jamaica). Coward's reaction - "Doctor No? NO NO NO!" Although the virtually unknown Joseph Wiseman was quite acceptable in the eventual role I do think that Coward would have been a better choice had he been willing. He would have brought the necessary disdain and menace that the character in the book displays, albeit in the film being on screen for only a few minutes with just the one extended scene.
I regret not having appreciated the man when he was still alive, despite the fact that even by the 1950s he was being regarded as out-dated, though in the following decade there was actually a re-surgence of interest and re-appreciation of him both here and in the U.S.A. which must have been very satisfying for him.

As I said, I can't think of anyone else who covered such a wide gamut of cultural creativity, certainly not in Britain. I wonder if there is or has been a similar multi-gifted person in America - or anywhere else for that matter. I'd be interested to hear of suggestions.


  1. I loved reading this post and it came at such a good time. I saw the revival of "Present Laughter" in NYC last week and it was, well, just delicious: faultlessly acted and the ravishing set displaying Deco-opulence just wowed me. I don't think that the witty, urbane dialogue would have worked in any other period of time. Your observations were spot on and were so evident in this charming, genial, entertaining sex farce. Coward is enjoying a rebirth in NY. His "Blithe Spirit" revived last year was a joy. I loved this just as much as I did the film with Rex Harrison and Margaret Rutherford. PS. His comment on Dirk Bogarde really made me laugh and I think it will keep me going all day. Oh, and I am wondering if you have read Bogarde's autobiography?

  2. I watched a TV documentary about Noel Coward a month ago and learned a little about him. I think I need to learn some more.

    This post was fantastic, Ray. I love reading about famous gay folks and gay history.

  3. Paul, thanks so much for your comment. I'm doubly pleased that the comment about Bogarde touched your 'chuckle-muscle'. I should have included in the note that I can't claim to have got the quotes I've mentioned word-perfect as they come from my memory rather than the book I'm reading - but I'm sure their thrust is spot-on. I've read the first two books of Bogarde's autobiography - but even as I was reading I was thinking that his recollections of conversations, and descriptions of aurroundings, clothes worn, wallpaper colour etc cannot be so accurate. I think there was some 'constructive imagination' employed. But I'd still like to read the remaining volumes. But what a closet-homo, eh? Right up to the very end he denied he was gay, even while he was living with his, ahem, 'chauffeur/gardener/servant', saying that the suggestion was 'hurtful' even when everybody else knew the truth. But gays do have a great indebtedness for his bravely taking the part of a gay lawyer in the 1961 film 'Victim', the first time a gay was portrayed as someone other than a pathetic, camp clown or a sadistic killer. Even though his character loathed being gay his sympathetic portrayal was a really major breakthrough and helped more than a little to bring about de-criminalisation here. But, Paul, I'm also delighted, even proud, to read of the current Coward revival over there. I think that once one accepts the times he lived in, his pieces then really do become truly timeless. Thanks, pal.
    Grateful thanks to you too, Larry. Pleased you're discovering this man of many talents. I can promise you it's a very rich seam of delights. Good luck - and let us know of any discoveries that appeal to you. Btw wish I could remember his acid comment about 'The Sound of Music' - I think it was something along the lines that immediately those odious children started singing the Nazis should have lined them up against a wall and shot them!

  4. Ray, one of my favorite quotes he uttered was sent in an opening night telegram, to his friend Gertrude Lawrence. Supposedly it read, "a warm hand on your opening." How can you not love someone who can say that to a dear friend?

  5. Well, Kyle, you've got one over me on that one. I'd never heard that before - and I'm having difficlty typng this cos Im roaring with laughs.
    Thnks, my friend.