Noël Coward on Television

Design for Living Rooms

Although few people were even aware of the existence of television back in 1939, and certainly only a select handful had access to a set, the young medium presented the first known adaptation of a Coward work, Hay Fever, on NBC-RCA on August 1. Of interest is its inclusion of eighteen-year-old Montgomery Clift in the cast; the one and only time the actor would play a role on the small screen.

Noël Coward on Television CONTINUES...

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The first notable Coward television adaptation was the Producers' Showcase version of Tonight at 8:30, which marked Ginger Rogers’s first acting role (or rather roles) on television. Rogers took on the challenge of playing three very different ladies in “Red Peppers,” “Still Life,” and “Shadow Play.” Her leading men in the first and third were Martyn Green and Gig Young, respectively, but it was the middle portion that was significant because Trevor Howard once again returned to his 1945 screen role of Alec Harvey, for this shortened version of Brief Encounter. The show (which, in fact, was the premiere presentation of Producer’s Showcase) aired on October 18, 1954, under the direction of Otto Preminger, in his only credit for the medium.

The following October, Coward himself decided to venture into the world of television for the first time, tempted by CBS’s offer of $450,000 to participate in three live specials. Making sure that he had as much control over this venture as possible, Noël himself wrote and staged the first show, a 90-minute revue which paired him with Mary Martin. The special was crammed with Coward-penned songs, including “Dance Little Lady,” “World Weary,” and, of course, “Mad Dogs and Englishmen,” plus three especially written for the telecast, “Together with Music,” “90 Minutes is a Long, Long Time,” and “What’s Going to Happen to the Tots?” Shown as part of CBS’s Ford Star Jubilee (October 22, 1955), Together with Music received glowing notices, with the New York Daily News calling it “the brightest, most intelligent, and most captivating musical revue I have ever seen on video. It would bring Coward his sole Emmy nomination, in the category “Musical Contribution,” shared with Mary Martin.


Having made the transition to the new medium with complete assurance, Coward now had two more assignments to fulfill for Ford Star Jubilee, starring in adaptations of his own plays, Blithe Spirit (CBS, January 14, 1956), as the ghost-plagued Charles Condomine, and This Happy Breed (CBS, May 5, 1956), in an atypical turn, as working class family patriarch Frank Gibbons. Blithe found him cast alongside Claudette Colbert and Lauren Bacall, while his costars in the latter included Edna Best and a young Roger Moore. 

Despite his very positive experiences working on these productions, television did not become a regular occurrence in Noël Coward’s life. Instead, he mostly limited his time spent there to being interviewed, including Small World (CBS, March 22, 1959) and Person to Person (CBS, April 27, 1956), in both instances taking questions from Edward R. Murrow. He could also be seen performing some of his own songs on two episodes of The Ed Sullivan Show (CBS, April 8, 1956, and December 8, 1956); trying to disguise his voice as the “mystery guest” on two different episodes of the popular panel show What’s My Line? (CBS, March 1, 1959, and January 12, 1964); and, later down the line, talking with David Frost (WNEW, September 16, 1968, February 19, 1970, and May 4, 1970) and Dick Cavett (ABC, February 10, 1970).

 

Amid all these television appearances as himself, Coward was coaxed into playing an actual role, that of the very haughtily self-satisfied Emperor in a musical based on Bernard Shaw’s Androcles and the Lion (NBC, November 15, 1967). This was a rare opportunity to enjoy Noël singing songs that were not his own, but instead written (lyrics as well as the music) by Richard Rodgers. His sly renditions of “The Emperor’s Thumb” and “Don’t Be Afraid of an Animal” (a duet with the show’s top-billed star, Norman Wisdom) were among the special’s highlights and made one wish there were further opportunities to utilize Coward in the medium as such, with or without songs.

One of his last television appearances occurred when he received his special Tony Award on April 19, 1970 (presented by Cary Grant), honored as one of the great renaissance men of the theater.

Noël Coward on Television pages: 1 | 2