Monday, May 01, 2006



On Saturday we went to the beautiful Theatre Royal in Bath to see Noel Coward’s ‘Present Laughter’  It was a play I acted in years ago in my Am Dram  years and was a little concerned that Simon Callow was playing the leading role.  He is a gifted actor and writer but would be the first to admit he is no matinee idol.

In the first act belief was not suspended as Simon mooched about the stage looking like a small white- haired rhinoceros which had nubile young girls falling at its feet.  In the second act something extraordinary happened, as if the actor said to himself.

‘Ah, the hell with this!  I’ll do it my way.’

And the play metamorphosed into a rollicking French farce.  His movements and facial expressions became Chaplinesque and the audience roared with laughter.  His physicality was amazing.  There was a moment when his excitement got the better of him and he jumped .astride a pouffe three feet in the air, thrice – pouffe and all.  By the end of the play he had made the part his own and hopefully Noel would have stopped spinning in his grave and relished the tumultuous applause.  The rest of the cast were splendid and there was that excited buzz, as we left the theatre when people have had a jolly good time.

In my day Noel Coward was a great big star.  Even today his plays are constantly revived and many of his lines ‘Very flat – Norfolk’ are in common usage.  Most of his plays were full of wit and glamour and a blessed relief in the years of austerity.  He was a true patriot and was passionate about the film ‘In which we serve’ where he portrayed Lord Mountbatten (later murdered by the IRA) and his ship the Kelly.
We loved to hear on the wireless, his song,
‘Mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the mid-day sun.’  Unforgettable when sung by Noel in his clipped, stiff upper lip, terribly British voice.

He often acted with Gertrude Lawrence and I like to think of them as two cockney kids made good.  In fact Noel was born in Teddington and Gertrude in Newington and their childhood poverty was vastly exaggerated.  In their prime they were feted in London and New York yet always retained their common touch and mischievous humour.  When they were travelling through Italy once, they ran out of money and called at the Embassy for help.  As they were about to leave they went to sign the Visitor’s book and saw that the last signature was ‘Summers Cox.’
They wrote underneath.
‘And Some Avent.’  Giggling  they scampered off.

Noel was often surrounded by a coterie of friends including Cole Leslie, Joyce Carey and Graham Payne.  This helped to conceal his sexuality, about which he was always very discreet – essential in those times as homosexuality was a criminal offence.  Once he was taking afternoon tea with his chums in an Olde Tea Shoppe along with the genteel locals and their lady wives.  Noel discovered he hadn’t got a tea spoon and whined,

‘Coley – Noely hasn’t got a ‘poon!’

Whereupon choleric colonels spluttered earl Grey over their seed-cake  and hastily departed, snorting in disgust.  Naughty Noel!

Finally whilst watching the Queen’s Coronation ( the Queen Mother adored him) with a friend, they saw the very large Queen of Tonga go by in an open carriage with a  companion.

‘ Whose her friend?’ Noel was asked.

‘Lunch!’  quipped Noel.

Happy May Day everyone.  I know it’s May Day because we were roused at crack of dawn by the Hobby Horse – a traditional local way of raising money for charity.


Guyana-Gyal said...

Ah, I enjoyed this post!

I've never had the chance to see or read a Noel Coward play but I've heard so much about him. I should go check out our public library to see if his plays are there.

Oh, I did visit his home, Firefly, up on a cliff in Jamaica. It is absolutely WONDERFUL, a stone house with the blue sea below. His grave is there.

P.S. do you mean 'what would Noel Coward thin' or do you mean 'think'?

PI said...

GG: that's amazing - I was over at yours whilst you were here.
How I envy you having visited Firefly. He was so happy there it must be full of atmosphere. Are you near Jamaica? I do like to visit the graves of people I admire.
It was 'think'. I checked it was there - the k in Word but it got lost in transit. Maybe you are only allowed so many letters in a title.
Alas our travels are limited to the UK now so no paying homage to Noel's grave. Did you know that the famous film 'Brief Encounter' was originally one of his one-act plays.


'The Master' wrote some amazing plays. Seen three myself. Wish I'd been able to see him in them.

In David Nivens autobiography Niven says he and his family descended on Noel Coward for a visit and Niven pointed out that he was contracting chicken pox. "I want to make it perfectly clear that you cannot contract it here" said Noel.
Niven did. Cowards cure was rubbing alcohol onto the spots and administering sizeable 'belts' to Niven who then attempted to climb out of a window several floors up.
Whilst they were all quarantined in Noel's house he wrote 'Nude with Violin'.
My Grandad played piano for him at short notice when his regular pianist fell ill in the late '40's (I think)

PI said...

4D: glad you are an afficionado! And what q great story. Did your Grandad like the Master?

granny p said...

Read somewhere recently that NC is actually a great playright. I might even agree.... Was brought up on myself - his version of "let's Do it' among other things...

PI said...

granny p: I'd forgotten that was him. 'Even monkeys in the trees do it!'

fjl said...

When are you going to get blogroll?

Come on come on come on :-) xx

PI said...

fjl: I have just spent an hour trying to do just that. The names are there I just have to get them on the sidebar and I can't.
There doesn't seem to be a step by step guide. I'm giving up till tomorrow.

OldHorsetailSnake said...

You are SO lucky...

PI said...

Hoss: Yes I am lucky. And I'm very aware that there is no happy ending.
Safe journey home.