Growing up, I vaguely came to know of Noel Coward, but only this Noel Coward.
The witty, frothy, let’s face it pretty irrelevant dandy with cigarette so finely held.
I don’t even know he was a playwright. Once I did, he was everything real drama, real literature, real art was against; I was a kind of small-beer Essex successor to the angry young men of the ‘fifties (to come).
I first got know something different through his films. In Which We Serve is a wartime classic, and it’s cast list stellar: the young John Mills and Richard Attenborough make their mark. There is death, heartache; a nation fights on. Coward wrote the screenplay, composed the music, starred as the ship’s captain and co-directed with David Lean.
Lean directed Brief Encounter; Coward wrote the script. It is one of the great early British films, about an adulterous affair that doesn’t quite happen. Brilliantly played Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard, the film was a breakthrough in the history of British cinema. Yes, the accents are that strange RP only the queen now speaks, the rude mechanical working class parts bloody patronising. But, it’s beautifully shot (a David Lean trademark), Carnforth station made a wonderfully dramatic backdrop and the stiff upper lips are moving and real. If you don’t need to wipe way a tear at the end, you have no soul. Watch the whole thing, you won’t regret it.
Coward’s screenplay was an adaptation of his one-act play, Still Life. In the film, there is no doubt; in the play, do they or don’t they?
Coward’s drama was often condescended to, perhaps on part because his best work was written before the war. It was not forgotten, and has grown in stature since. There is something of Ibsen and Chekov to Private Lives, for example. Harold Pinter directed the 1976 revival of Blithe Spirit. Looking back, Coward emerges as a substantial dramatist, and a very acute observer of the first half of the twentieth century.
And the songs? Well, a witty take on unrequited (gay) love was later turned into this