Sir Noel Coward
(1899 - 1973)

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Mention the name Noel Coward to most people and they immediately think of silk dressing gowns and cigarette holders, with a very clear clipped voice, evoking the greatest of Britishness aristocracy, but nothing could be further from the truth. He became a playwright, director, actor, songwriter, filmmaker, novelist and wit; but he was born in Teddington, Middlesex to a very ordinary family.


He was a December baby at the turn of the century (1899), with plenty of time for Christmas (which explains the name), into a highly musical family. His parents met at choir practice and his father was a piano tuner, with one grandfather an organist at the Crystal Palace. He made his debut with the public whilst at school some 8 years later, and was encouraged by his devoted mother, who having lost her first son to meningitis, lavished all her attentions on Noel. At the age of ten he possessed a toy theatre, and was never really far from the real thing, with regular trips to matinees.


In 1910, his mother noticed an advert in The Daily Mirror that was looking for a 'talented boy with an attractive appearance' to appear in an all child production of Lila Field's, ‘The Goldfish’, and she replied at once, getting Noel an audition. Noel was given his first engagement at one and a half guineas a week, to which Mrs Coward replied that she couldn't afford that, but was promptly told that it was she who would be getting the money, not having to pay! Noel had his first job.


Work presented the chance for him to travel and it was whilst in Manchester that he first met Gertrude Lawrence, where she gave him an orange, told a few mildly dirty stories and he loved her from then onwards. This was a serious friendship for Noel, and he went on to write many of his best works for Gert. Although Noel was allegedly homosexual, there is no doubt that Gertrude Lawrence played one of the most important roles in his stage and sometimes private life. She was the partner that he most often wanted to work with, and when she prematurely died of cancer, there was a large void left in his life.


It was in 1924 that Noel first started to make a name for himself when ‘The Vortex’ was staged at a small theatre in Hampstead. The script had themes of drugs and sex, and nearly fell foul to the Chamberlains office, but due to a strong performance of the play, it became an overnight success, with a West End opening on Noel's 25th birthday. A revue followed within the year as well as two comedies (including Hayfever), but success came to a halt with a nervous breakdown, and Noel was convinced that he would never write another word. Whilst convalescing on an Hawaiian beach, the idea for Room With a View came to him, and again his career took off.


Much of Coward's best work came in the late 1920s and early 1930s, enormous (and enormously popular) productions such as the full-length operetta ‘Bitter Sweet’ (1929) and ‘Cavalcade’ (1931), a huge extravaganza requiring a very large cast, gargantuan sets and an exceedingly complex hydraulic stage, were interspersed with finely-wrought comedies. Examples of these would be ‘Private Lives’ (1930), in which Coward himself starred alongside his most famous stage partner Gertrude Lawrence, and the black comedy ‘Design for Living’ (1932), written for Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne. Coward again partnered Lawrence in ‘Tonight at 8:30’ (1936), an ambitious cycle of ten different short plays which were randomly "shuffled" to make up a unique playbill of three plays each night. One of these short plays ‘Still Life’ was later expanded into the 1945 David Lean film ‘Brief Encounter’.


 














 

 

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