Noël Coward does not dig bebop

If I’d been able to take a few four-month holidays in beautiful private houses on spectacular hillside locations in Jamaica or Switzerland, I’d probably have been able to finish it a lot earlier. But, well, I ain’t no international theatre superstar and I gotta lot o’ work to do, ain’t it?

So, after about six months of on-off, on-again reading I’ve finally finished Cole Lesley’s pretty massive biography of that sleek peacock Noël Coward.

Phew. For someone who seemed to specialise in lengthy holidays, in hosting huge uproarious parties and having regular evening drinks sessions right into his seventies, Coward was horribly productive. Hundreds of songs, over 50 plays, musical revues, volumes of short stories, screenplays, a triple-decker autobiography, acting in The Italian Job (ahem) … yeah, Coward was a workhorse disguised as a louche high society waster. All very impressive.

But why am I wasting my own valuable time on Sir Noël bloody Coward? On the face of it I ought to hate everything about him - his adoration of the royal family, his ultra-English patriotism, his tax-minimising relocations, his cornball theatrical skits-cum-songs, his anti-intellectualism - the whole cast of his life. And … in a way I do, but I also find myself kind of drawn to him. 

Anyway, since hearing Peter Greenwell’s piano-and-vocals rendering of some of his most famous songs (Sail Away, Mad Dogs, Bren Gun, Mrs Worthington, Mad About The Boy) about 20 years ago, I’ve had ... an interest. (By the way, Greenwell's plainer versions are in fact generally better than the over-orchestrated Coward originals in my humble view). 

So Lesley’s opus magnum …

If you can accept that Lesley (Coward’s personal secretary/valet for over 40 years) was a super-ardent Coward admirer who treated “The Master” as a none-too-minor deity, then The Life Of Noël Coward is a perfectly enjoyable read. In fact, it’s well written, with lots of detail and a crisp elegance to it (which is fortunate, seeing as you've got 500 pages of this stuff).

All well and good, but still why - I hear you wondering - why is the great Niluccio devoting an entire blog post to boring old Noël Coward? Conventionally enough, it’s partly a liking of Coward’s wordplay (“In a bijou abode in St Barnabas Road”; “We’ve got some ammunition / In a rather damp condition”; “Our regular crossword-solver / Has got an excellent revolver”), with the theatrically precise diction always entertaining (in a Quentin Crisp sort of way).

What else? Well, contrary to the received image, it’s not all flippant parlour song humour. Though it’s done with a characteristically light touch, there's real emotion in a song like Sail Away, especially with its beautiful melody. And to me there’s often a wistful lost-never-to-return quality to his best music.

Coward’s not, you realise from reading Lesley’s biography, just one thing. By the 1950s he was generally pinned as a cultural throwback, someone who was still peddling old-fashioned plays set in country houses. But he also championed Harold Pinter’s early work (“Nothing happens except that somehow it does. The writing is at moments brilliant and quite unlike anyone else’s”). He was thought of as a Wildean wit, but he was also very kind and loving to his own close friends.

I must admit there was one moment in Lesley’s biography when I utterly groaned at Coward’s idiotic conservatism. He gets taken by Tallulah Bankhead to a jazz club in Chicago in 1947 and … well, read for yourself:

“ … we drove all around Chicago to a dive where there is a trombonist, a saxophonist, a drummer and a pianist who play the latest swing and bebop. The audience, mostly callow youths, become hypnotised and began to wriggle and sway and scream exactly like a revival meeting. To me, the whole thing was completely abominable. I loathed it. The heat, the violent noise, and Tallulah still shrieking. From there we went to Dixieland music. We were driven back into Chicago to a beastly little club and given a table right under the trumpet whereupon I walked out and came home. I am 47 and sane.”

Bloody hell, Noël! You walked out on one of Miles Davis’ legendary early gigs. You big, bow-tied idiot! (And weird that Coward should be so tin-eared when he obviously drew on the blues for some of his own music). 

No, Noël Coward’s a complicated figure, not always exactly my cup of tea but genuinely interesting and in the end surprisingly likeable. There’s an odd lightness to the way he lived his life. He was talented, immensely fortunate, rich, successful, famous, yet … you still can’t really resent him his life. He somehow deserved it. Even his death occurred quite gracefully. He just woke up one morning at his house in Jamaica, had a heart attack, crawled back into bed, and sailed away ...


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