Sunday, March 26, 2023

A glittering occasion

Noël Coward, one of the greatest international show business personalities of the 20th century, died half a century ago today. His published diaries give a marvellously glittering sense of the London, Paris and New York theatre worlds, such as when he is describing a night at the Palladium, or hobnobbing with royalty; but they also provide a gossipy self-portrait of his own celebrity status.

Coward was born in Teddington, near London, in December 1899. He began performing on the stage at an early age, thanks to his mother answering an advert for child actors, and appeared in several productions with Sir Charles Hawtrey, a successful actor, comedian and director since the 1880s.

By the early 1920s, Coward was writing as well as performing, and had some success with his own play The Young Idea. It was The Vortex - with veiled references to drugs and homosexuality - performed in 1924 at the Everyman Theatre in Hampstead which brought him into the public eye. Several very successful plays - including Hay Fever and Cavalcade - followed in the late 1920s and early 1930s. In Private Lives, Coward starred with his famous stage partner Gertrude Lawrence.

Coward was also a prolific song writer and a talented singer. During the war, he entertained allied troops; and, clandestinely, he worked for the intelligence services. His play Blithe Spirit (1941) broke box-office records for a West End comedy. After the war, his work remained commercial, but did not achieve the heights of popularity he had experienced in the 1930s. In 1945, one of his short stories was turned into the very successful film Brief Encounter. He continued writing and producing plays, also for television, and found new popularity as a cabaret entertainer - both in the US and UK. From the 1950s, he became a tax exile, residing in Bermuda, Switzerland and finally Jamaica, returning regularly to London (as well as New York and Paris) to perform or oversee the production of a new show.

From 1956 to the end of the 1960s when ill health began to affect his work, Coward also became a film celebrity, starring in films such as Around the World in 80 DaysOur Man in Havana, and The Italian Job. And from the mid-1960s, revivals of his pre-war plays, as well as revues of his work became highly popular on both sides of the Atlantic. Towards the end of his life, he was dubbed the greatest living English dramatist, and Time magazine said of his best work it ‘seemed to exert not only a period charm but charm, period.’ He was knighted in 1969, and died on 26 March 1973. His estate was then administered by Graham Payn, Coward’s companion since the 1940s and 20 years his junior. Further information is available from Wikipedia, Musicals101 or the Noel Coward Society.

Part of Coward’s estate included 30 years worth of diaries. These were edited by Payn and Sheridan Morley for publication by Weidenfeld & Nicolson in 1982 as The Noël Coward Diaries. In their introduction, the editors summed up the author as ‘playboy of the West End world, jack of all its entertainment trades and master of most’ and ‘the most ineffably elegant and ubiquitous of entertainers’. In a second edition, brought out in 2000, the American theatre critic John Lahr observed that all of Coward’s diaries were written with a view to posterity, and as part of his ‘charm offensive’. A few pages can be read at Amazon.

7 November 1954
‘On Monday I appeared at the Royal Command Performance at the Palladium. It was a glittering occasion, crammed with stars, all shaking aspens. The moment I arrived in the dressing-room and found Bob Hope tight-lipped, Jack Buchanan quivering and Norman Wisdom sweating, I realized that the audience was vile, as it usually is on such regal nights. In the entr’acte Cole and Charles came round from the front and said it was the worst they had ever encountered and that I was to be prepared for a fate worse than death. This was exactly what I needed and so I bounded on to the stage like a bullet from a gun, sang ‘Uncle Harry’, ‘Mad Dogs” and ‘Bad Times’ very, very fast indeed and got the whole house cheering! I was on and off in nine and a half minutes. The next day the papers announced, with unexpected generosity, that I was the hit of the show. This was actually true but it wouldn’t have been if I had stayed on two minutes longer. Bob Hope had them where he wanted them, and then went on and on and lost them entirely. [. . .] After the show we lined up and were presented to the Queen, Prince Philip and Princess Margaret. The Queen looked luminously lovely and was wearing the largest sapphires I have ever seen. She was very charming, everyone was very charming, and that was that.’

5 June 1957
‘London has changed, even in eighteen months; the traffic is appalling and all elegance has fled from the West End. Coventry Street, Piccadilly Circus, Leicester Square and Shaftesbury Avenue have acquired a curious ‘welfare state’ squalor which reminds me of Moscow.’

1 February 1959
‘I have a charming suite here [at the Ritz hotel] and I much prefer it to the Dorchester. It is Edwardian in feeling and quiet and I have a brass ‘pineapple’ bed which makes me feel rather like the late Mrs George Keppel. I have definitely decided to do the Graham Greene film with Alex Guinness and Ralph Richardson. I have had two lunches with Carol [Reed, director of Our Man in Havana], who is treating me en prince. In fact in London this time I am definitely ‘hot’. Every time I go out I am beset with by reporters and photographers.’

16 December 1965
‘Sixty-six years ago today I was propelled from the womb. There were no electric trains, and motor cars were exciting curiosities. There was not even the thought of an aeroplane in the winter skies, and horse-buses clopped through the London streets. There were no buses in Teddington.’

31 December 1969
[This is the first entry since 7 September, and in fact his very last. His 70th birthday had occurred two weeks earlier and was the occasion of many social and artistic celebrations which he dubbed ‘Holy Week’.] ‘I opened the National Film Theatre season of my films with In Which We Serve, which I am the first to admit is a rattling good movie. I wept steadily throughout, right from the very beginning when they were building the ship in the shipyard. The BBC gave a terrific birthday party for me in the Lancaster Room at the Savoy which was a terrific success. My birthday lunch was given by the darling Queen Mother at Clarence House, where I received a crown-encrusted cigarette-box from her, an equally crown-encrusted cigarette-case from the Queen herself, and some exquisite cuff-links from Princess Margaret and Tony. During lunch the Queen asked me whether I would accept Mr Wilson’s offer of a knighthood. I kissed her hand and said, in a rather strangulated voice, “Yes, Ma’am.” Apart from all this my seventieth birthday was uneventful.’ [Nearly 30 years earlier, George VI had wished to award Coward a knighthood, but had been dissuaded by Winston Churchill.]

This article is a slightly revised version of one first published on 26 March 2013.

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