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. Noel Coward was born in Teddington, Middlesex, over 100 years ago, to a very ordinary family.
He came into this world on 16th December 1899, with plenty of time for Christmas (which explains the name), into a highly musical family. His parents met a chior practise 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 promtly 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 afew 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 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 prematurly 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.
His career was far from troubled though, as the press decided to go against some of his plays, but although there was these sort of waves of popularity followed by the troughs of bad press, he made it into the 1930s with his more well known plays, Bitter Sweet, Private Lives, and the extravagant Cavalcade. It is Private Lives that has established Coward in theatrical permanance, and productions still occur in the West End, and the BBC have released a dramatisation with Stephen Fry and Imogen Stubbs, that was first broadcast on Radio 4 in January of 1995. This is coupled with another of Cowards brilliant plays, Hayfever with Dame Judi Dench and Michael Williams, on a double cassette priced £8.99 (ISBN 0563 558 695). Both of these productions are excellent and rival any other recordings I have heard. It was a particular joy to listen to Stephen Fry as Elyot in Private Lives, and Geoffrey Palmer, in Hayfever. My only complaint about these tapes is the cackhanded editing of the productions to fit on the sides of the cassettes. I would have much rather preferred to pay a little extra to allow for a bit more tape so that the sides ended at the end of scenes, rather than find there is silence at the end of a sentence! Included on the second double cassette, An Audio Biography, are Sir Lawrence Olivier, Lord Mountbatten, Dame Edith Evans, and Joyce Carey, all paying tribute to the great man, and linking is provided by Sheridan Morley, Noel's Godson, and is littered with extracts of interviews, forming an insighful and amusing picture of one of the Twentieth Century's theatre greats. Although the tape is both informative and has various clips of the Master himself, the Las Vegas, Mad Dogs and clips from him with Gertie Lawrence in Private Lives, the commentary by Sheridan Morley does leave a little to be desired, and his pronunciation is not to my tastes. Also the Noel Coward Musak is appalling, and I cannot help but thinking that the Master himself would have had something to say about it. This aside, the tape is well worth a listen and at £8.99 is not bad value for money. It is already available (ISBN 0563 557 427).
His life has been documented in his own Autobigraphy, which is in three parts: Present Indicative, Future Indefinite, and the uncompleted Past Conditional. All have been published in one volume, although I am not sure of the availability of this now, and it is just sad that, the by this time, Sir Noel, had died before he could complete the works. There have been many other biographies that can give more information than I can on this page, and details of some of these are below, with the latest complimenting the release from the Rafio Collection of Private Lives. Noel Coward: An Audio Biography is a celebration of Britain's Best Loved Playwright, and the releases have been made as a tribute to the centenary of his birth.
The BBC do not have a monopoly on his works though, and EMI released a wonderful boxed set of CDs some while back. The four CDs contain all of his HMV recordings from 1928 to 1953, and are a wealth of tracks. Classics such as Mrs Worthington, Mad Dogs, and Nina are all here, as well as some of the more sentimental tracks, and it is well worth hunting down if you want to have a good representation of his work.
There is also a CD from the Naxos Nostalgia range and I must say that it is a welcome addition to my collection of recordings. With a total of 16 tracks, A Room With A View, The complete recordings Volume 1: 1928-1932 has some classic songs, and excerpts from The Master's plays, there is even a nice medley from Cavalcade running to over 8 minutes. The booklet that is included with the CD gives full recording dates and the original release details (many on the HMV label), and, of course, a potted biography. Certainly, if this is the start of a series, all I can say it is most promising, and I shall be keeping an eye open for the rest. The only downside that I can find, is the company are based in the States (not particularly a problem if you live there!), but with e-commerce such a normal part of life these days, I am sure the title can be ordered via their website.
In addition to books and on audio, is the release of Noel Coward - A Private Life and Private Lives as a double video boxed set. The first tape is the hour long documentary containing material that has never been seen on TV before, and includes interviews with various people and Cowards own home movies. The second tape is the production of Private Lives from 1976 starrung Alec McGowan and Penelope Keith. The set is priced £24.99, so is not such value as the audio releases, and comes in one of the new style cardboard boxes, which to my mind, may look more stylish to start with, but is not as robust in the long run and seems to be a case of scimping. This said, they are both interesting tapes and well worth getting if you are a fan (BBCV 6669).