The outbreak of war in 1939 saw Coward working harder than ever. Alongside
his highly-publicised tours entertaining Allied troops during World
War II, Coward was also engaged by the MI6 (the British Secret Service)
to conduct intelligence work in occupied France. He was often frustrated
by criticism he faced for his ostensibly glamorous lifestyle, unable
to counter this criticism due to the clandestine nature of his work.
After his intelligence work, he entertained troops in Europe, Africa
and the Far East, frequently covering the expenses himself. He also
wrote and released some extraordinarily popular songs during the war,
the most famous of which are ‘London Pride’ and ‘Don't
Let's Be Beastly To The German’s, as well as writing and starring
in the naval drama film ‘In Which We Serve’ (1942), for
which Coward won an honorary Oscar.
The very late 1930’s and 40s also saw Coward write some of his
best plays. The social commentary of ‘This Happy Breed’
and the intricate semi auto biographical drama of ‘Present Laughter’
(both 1939) were later combined with the hugely successful ghost comedy
‘Blithe Spirit’ (1941) to form a West End triple-bill in
which Coward starred in all three simultaneous productions. Blithe Spirit
went on to break box-office records for a West End comedy not beaten
until the 1970s, and was made into a film directed by David Lean. The
play proved one of Coward's most popular successes, with character actress
Margaret Rutherford winning stardom as the eccentric Madame Acarti.
She repeated her role in a superb film version three years later.
Coward's popularity declined in the 1950s, but he still managed to maintain
a high public profile, continuing to write (and occasionally starring
in) moderately successful West End plays, performing an acclaimed solo
cabaret act in Las Vegas (recorded for posterity and still available
He also starred in films such as ‘Around the World in 60 Days’
(1956), ‘Bunny Lake is Missing’ (1965), and Peter Collinsons
‘The Italian Job’ (1969). He had befriended the ten-year-old
Peter Collinson, when he was the governor of the orphanage where Collinson
lived little to know that eventually Peter would later direct him! He
subsequently became Collinson's godfather.
He also left the U.K. for tax reasons in the 1950s and moved to the
Caribbean, first to Bermuda and then to Jamaica, where he remained for
the rest of his life.
The late 1960s saw a revival in his popularity, with several new productions
of his 1920s plays and a number of revues celebrating his music. He
was knighted somewhat belatedly in 1970.
In the early morning hours of Monday, March 26, 1973, Noel Coward suffered
a stroke at his home in Jamaica. A servant found him on his bathroom
floor, and was able to carry him to his bed. Insisting that there was
no need to wake his friends, Noel slipped away just before dawn.
Of his sexuality and alleged homosexuality – he simply never talked
about it. Part of it was no doubt rooted in his Edwardian upbringing
– there were things one simply did not discuss. When pressed by
friends to ‘come out’ Coward refused saying, in typical
Noel coward style, (yes you can hear him can’t you)
‘There are still a few old ladies in
Worthing who don't know yet…’
’I have a memory like an elephant. In fact, elephants often consult
have always paid income tax. I object only when it reaches a stage when
I am threatened with having nothing left for my old age - which is due
to start next Tuesday or Wednesday’
like long walks, especially when they are taken by people who annoy
‘I've sometimes thought of marrying - and then I've thought again’
Peter O'Toole] ‘If you'd been any prettier, it would have been
Florence of Arabia’
Present Indicative (1937)
Future Indefinite (1954)
Suggested films to see:
In which we serve (1942)
Our man in Havana (1959)
Blithe Spirit (1956) TV
The Italian Job (1969)