Noël Coward on Television

By Barry Monush

Mad About the Box


In a TV Guide interview, Noël Coward explained his affinity for television, praising “the warm sense one gets on TV of going out to someone’s country place to partake of a delightful party.”

By the time television arrived, Coward had already become a legendary name on London and New York stages as an actor, writer, producer, director, and composer. The new medium not only allowed for multiple interpretations of Coward’s plays but helped introduce Coward’s talents as a songwriter and singer to a whole new generation. He also proved a most winning interview subject with his acerbic observations and droll storytelling manner.

Noël Coward on Television Continues...

His Private and Not-So-Private Lives

Entering the world as Noël Peirce Coward on December 16, 1899, in Teddington, a section of the London Borough of Richmond, he very early on decided that he wanted to be a part of show business. At age 11, he made his professional acting debut in The Goldfish at the Little Theatre and received his first directorial credit the following year, on The Daisy Chain, a production put together by himself and the other children of the cast of another of his early stage appearances, Where the Rainbow Ends. In 1916 he wrote his first legitimate full-length song, “Forbidden Fruit.” Clearly, Coward did not want to waste any time establishing himself, nor did he have any boundaries when it came to displaying his talents. As Coward himself described this period in his life, “songs, sketches, and plays were bursting out of me.”

Serving as playwright, director, and leading man he had his first great West End triumph in the daring The Vortex (1924), which dealt with drug addiction back in an era when such topics were not the norm. Easy Virtue became the first of his playwriting credits to be staged in New York, and this, along with another success (as director/writer), Hay Fever (1925), made him the talk of London. Hailed as one of the brightest young talents to come along in years, Coward basked in his fame and became very much a part of the West End social scene, displaying the same degree of wit in person as was evident in his play scripts. His sharp, sometimes acerbic observations and droll quips, delivered in his plumy vocal tones, between drags on an ever-present cigarette, made him one of the most colorful characters in the business.

The hits continued throughout the 1930s and ‘40s, sometimes with Coward acting in his own plays, but often not, as his amazingly prolific output hardly allowed him to be occupied on the boards as frequently as the works kept getting produced. These included the operetta Bitter Sweet (1928), which brought forth the popular songs “I’ll See You Again” and “If Love Were All”; Private Lives (1930); Design for Living (1932); Tonight at 8:30 (1936); Present Laughter (1939); This Happy Breed (1942); and his greatest commercial success, Blithe Spirit (1941), which, at the time of its closing, held the record for the longest running non-musical in West End history (1,997 performances).

 

His many notable songs composed during this period ranged from the satirical “Mad Dogs and Englishmen” (which became his “signature” number) to the deeply patriotic “London Pride.”

By the 1950s, Coward was less inclined to receive strong support from the critics, who had convinced themselves that his style of sophistication was being replaced by a more edgy, realistic form of playwriting. This did not stop him from creating such works as Quadrille (1951), Nude with Violin (1956), and Suite in Three Keys (1966), which marked his last acting role on the London stage.

He was knighted in 1970 and died at his home in Jamaica on March 26, 1973. Since his passing, his reputation has risen even higher, as is evident in the many revivals of his best work, both in New York and London. Among the many posthumous tributes he has received is having the former New Theatre in London renamed The Noel Coward Theatre in June of 2006.

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New York Event

December 16, 2010, marks the 111th anniversary of the birth of one of England’s renaissance men, Noël Coward. Although Coward was quintessentially English and came to represent that country at its most stylish and sophisticated, he was always quick to point out that he thought of New York as his “spiritual second home.” To celebrate Coward in general and specifically his admiration for our country, the Paley Center presents a tribute, I Like America: Noël Coward in the USA, on his birthday. Performing Coward’s words and music are Nancy Anderson, Edward Hibbert, Steve Ross, and Tammy Grimes, who had the good fortune to work directly with Coward on several occasions.

Funding for this event has been provided by