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. He became a playwright, director, actor, songwriter,
filmmaker, novelist and wit; but he was born in Teddington, Middlesex
to a very ordinary family.
He was a December baby at the turn of the century (1899), with plenty
of time for Christmas (which explains the name), into a highly musical
family. His parents met at choir practice 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 promptly told that it was she
who would be getting the money, not having to pay! Noel had his first
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
a few 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 allegedly 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 prematurely 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.
Much of Coward's best work came in the late 1920s and early 1930s, enormous
(and enormously popular) productions such as the full-length operetta
‘Bitter Sweet’ (1929) and ‘Cavalcade’ (1931),
a huge extravaganza requiring a very large cast, gargantuan sets and
an exceedingly complex hydraulic stage, were interspersed with finely-wrought
comedies. Examples of these would be ‘Private Lives’ (1930),
in which Coward himself starred alongside his most famous stage partner
Gertrude Lawrence, and the black comedy ‘Design for Living’
(1932), written for Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne. Coward again partnered
Lawrence in ‘Tonight at 8:30’ (1936), an ambitious cycle
of ten different short plays which were randomly "shuffled"
to make up a unique playbill of three plays each night. One of these
short plays ‘Still Life’ was later expanded into the 1945
David Lean film ‘Brief Encounter’.