Sir Noel Coward

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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 on CD).

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 me’

’I 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’

’I like long walks, especially when they are taken by people who annoy me’
‘I've sometimes thought of marrying - and then I've thought again’

[to 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)



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