Thursday, January 31, 2013

Noel Coward: "A talent to amuse"

If images like Elsie swinging upside down from a chandelier and Freddie doing “half the Big Apple” strike a chord, then you, Sir or Madam, are an initiate into the trippy world of Noel Coward (pictured above with his great pal Gertrude Lawrence).
I went to a marvellous party
With Noonoo, and Nada, and Nell—
It was in the fresh air,
And we went as we were,
And we stayed as we were,
(Which was hell)
Poor Grace started singing at midnight,
And she didn't stop singing 'til four—
We knew the excitement was bound to begin
When Laura got blind on Dubonnet and gin
And scratched her veneer with a Cartier pin!
I couldn't have liked it more!
Coward was quite the polymath—so much so that he was deemed "The Master." He did get around, too—from Piccadilly, New York City, and the Café de Paris to headlining at Las Vegas and entertaining the army in Burma and Assam (using a piano that had traversed the jungle strapped to a jeep).
Success came easily in at least three senses. It came early. (He wrote and starred in a West End play at the age of 20.) It came fluidly. (A number of his biggest hits were composed not over months or years but over portions of a week. He needed only three days for “Hay Fever,” four for “Private Lives,” and if “Blithe Spirit” taxed him for a full five days, he could later boast that in production it required only two lines of revision.) And — most remarkable of all — success came in a dizzying array of disciplines.—New York Times: “Brio and Bons Mots”
A delightfully well-rounded portrait of Coward in his own words can be found in The Noel Coward Reader. Of the four short stories in the collection, the poignant “Mr and Mrs Edgehill” is one of the sweetest and most affecting portraits of a relationship I've ever read. (It reflects “the stoicism of a British couple quietly doing their duty upholding the principles and tradition of British rule in the most remote and unvisited Pacific island location” according to the Noel Coward Society. Apparently there's a BBC film with Judi Dench and Ian Holm, which I absolutely must track down!)
 As is well known, Coward's lyrics are marvels of cascading wordplay and imagery: “There is no time I can remember when I was not fascinated by words ‘going together’: Lewis Carroll, Edward Lear, Beatrix Potter, all fed my childish passion.... I can still distinctly recall being exasperated when any of these whimsical effusions were slipshod in rhyming or scansion.”
The “complicated rhythms and rhymes” of one of his most iconic songs were actually worked out while “jungles and river and mountain and rice fields were unrolling” past its author on a road trip from Hanoi to Saigon.
It seems such a shame
When the English claim
The earth
That they give rise to such hilarity and mirth.
Mad dogs and Englishmen
Go out in the midday sun.
The toughest Burmese bandit
Can never understand it.
In Rangoon the heat of noon
Is just what the natives shun.
But mad dogs and Englishmen
Go out in the midday sun.  


  1. Love this post about Noel Coward, very interesting. I just read his wikipedia, I had no idea he was in 1968's The Italian Job.

  2. And he wrote the script for "Brief Encounter", the film about two lovers who were much too sensitive and intelligent to have any fun at it.
    How I squirmed with the anxiety for a reckless break! They were right, of course, but how pointless it made the great emotion, how irrelevant it was to love!

  3. Apparently there's a BBC film with Judi Dench and Ian Holm, which I absolutely must track down!

    It looks like someone has posted the whole film on YouTube, in nine segments, beginning with this one.

    1. Thank you ... bless you for that! Judy D looks so young.