British playwright Noël Coward’s plays and musicals are in continuous production around the world, including Thea Sharrock’s current West End revival of Blithe Spirit at the Apollo Theatre, starring Alison Steadman.
Here, journalist and author Clive Hirschhorn remembers a meeting with the ‘Master’ in the 1960’s, an immodest encounter in which the man offered an opinion on just about everything.
The very first time I actually saw the Master in the flesh was at a first night at the Haymarket Theatre in 1964. The party he was with included his long-time costume designer Gladys Calthrop, his companion Graham Payn, and his personal secretary, Cole Lesley. Coward arrived in expansive mood and smiled graciously at the battery of photographers whose winking flashbulbs he took in his elegant stride. At the end of the performance he seemed to be in a hurry to leave the foyer. Just as he was about to step into a waiting limo outside, a rather effeminate young man rushed up to him and said: ‘Oh Mr Coward, when are you going to write us a new play?’ ‘Remind me next Thursday,’ said the Master without missing a beat, and stepped into his car. Seconds later he and his party were speeding down the Haymarket – probably to The Ivy Restaurant for dinner.
The following year I spent an hour in his scintillating company when I interviewed him in suite 411 at the Savoy Hotel for the Sunday Express. He had recently had an enormous success at the Old Vic with his production, for the National Theatre, of Hay Fever, whose celebrated cast included Dame Edith Evans, Maggie Smith and Lynn Redgrave. Dame Edith had just been replaced by Celia Johnson, and Coward was in town supervising the take-over.
The interview was set for 12 o’clock and I was told by Mr Lesley, who had arranged the meeting, that I would have precisely one hour, prior to a luncheon Coward was having in the Savoy’s Grill Room with Ian Fleming.
I arrived at suite 411 five minutes early. Noël Coward was on the telephone in an adjoining room and his voice, like a cultivated poodle, was elegant and clipped. Finally he emerged, dressed in a light-blue suit, blue tie and red carnation.
‘My dear boy,’ he said, extending a welcoming hand, ‘it’s been utter, utter chaos and confusion this morning. Do forgive me!’
With a pronounced stoop – as though he had all the problems of the world on his shoulders, he made his way to a settee, sat down, and with the studied grace of a ballet dancer, crossed his legs.
‘Do I look tired?’ he asked. ‘Well I am. I’ve just come back from that ridiculously phoney film festival in Cannes – and before that I’d been filming with Larry (Olivier). And, my dear boy, the telephone hasn’t stopped ringing for a moment. Ghastly invention, the telephone – but terribly, terribly necessary.’
He peered at me, looking more like a Chinese Buddha than I would ever have imagined possible.
‘I suppose being inundated with telephone calls is the price one pays for fame,’ he said, and leaned forward to pour me a brandy and ginger ale. We drank to each other’s health and he said: ‘You’re very lucky, you know. I rarely give private interviews. But I was having lunch with Vivien (Leigh) last week and she assured me you were quite, quite charming.’ He lit a cigarette and sat back against one of the several cushions piled high on the settee.
Then he spoke about England. ‘I am England, and England is me. We have a love-hate relationship with each other. It’s everything I stand for, but day by day the place changes. I hardly recognise it anymore.’
But did he not think it was changing for the better, I asked? (We were, after all, in the midst of the Swinging Sixties).
‘Dear boy,’ he said. ‘Who can tell. If I said no, I’d be called a reactionary. And really, I’m a very modern human being. Really I am. I simply adore this country. But oh dear, it’s becoming more and more impossible to live in. And I’m not only referring to the ghastly income-tax situation, which is bad enough. People here have such huge chips on their shoulders these days. Why can’t we stop trying so self-consciously hard to be a “world force” and act a bit more naturally? Today, everyone here is so damn rebellious – and honestly, dear boy, I simply can’t think why.
‘Take modern youth, for example. All this insufferable long hair. Why? What on earth has the Englishman done to deserve this gross exhibitionism? Long hair is all very well if it hangs loosely on brocade, or silk, or velvet, but it seems all wrong when it’s supposed to offset some smelly sports shirt, don’t you think?
‘You can’t walk through Leicester Square these days without getting the decidedly uncomfortable feeling that you’re witnessing part of some nightmarish pantomime in which men and women are interchangeable.
‘We were such an elegant nation once,’ he said. ‘Now that is no longer the case. Which is such a pity, don’t you agree? I mean, take today’s women, for example. They really do look insufferable. When I was a youth – some 50 years ago, women endeavoured to look like women, with the result that the English “gel” was, probably, the most attractive creature in the world. But today that’s all gone and forgotten. Talk about your English rose! English weeds would be too much of a compliment.
“I mean, take today’s women, for example. They really do look insufferable.”
‘Femininity, it would appear, is passé,’ he said. ‘And so, for that matter, is masculinity in men. The youth of today go out of their way to look sexless, which is all rather depressing – and, need I say it, confusing? I’m 65,’ he said, ‘though 25 is the age I prefer to answer to because I feel no older than that. But dear me, most youngsters of 25 today are far too blasé and worldly for their own good.’
So why, in his opinion, were things taking such a turn for the worse?
‘Because today, we tend to revere youth out of all proportion to its worth. I know Shaw said youth was wasted on the young. But youth is a natural condition, not a privilege, and the sooner we return to treating our offspring like ordinary children and less like tin Gods, the better it will be for all concerned.
‘We’re just beginning to recover from two dreadful World Wars,’ he said, ‘in which we lost half our men, but this is no excuse to allow weakness to pass off for progress.’
Have we really changed all that much then? ‘Our system of values is all wrong, now. Elegance and style are dirty words.’
At the time (1965), Coward had homes in Switzerland and Jamaica. I asked him if he would ever return to Britain as a permanent resident.
‘I fear not,’ he said. ‘The taxes alone would cripple me, dear boy. I’m fairly comfortable today – not nearly as rich as some people think, you understand – just comfortable. But if I decided to settle here, I’m afraid I’d be rather hard up. I don’t know how people manage to remain wealthy in this country. I know people think I’m a millionaire, but I’m not. And believe me, if I lived here, I’d just be able to cope with my day to day expenses! And, as you can see, now I manage to live quite well. You know, hotel suites, chauffeur-driven cars, caviar. All as it should be, of course!’
I asked him whether it was a strain living up to his reputation as one of the world’s wittiest men.
‘Not at all,’ he said. ‘I’m a naturally witty man. I always have been. Also, I’m an enormously talented man and it’s no use pretending I’m not. My name was a household word before I was 25. Ever since the age of six I was brilliant. I have always had a natural facility for entertaining others,’ he said, ‘and this, no matter what the critics may say, has never deserted me. And of course, I’ve always had a highly developed sense of humour – and in my time, yes, I have said some exceptional and memorable things. But I have never felt obliged, like Oscar Wilde, to sit down at a dinner table and hold forth for a couple of hours non-stop. I’m not saying I couldn’t, mark you – but oh! How boring for the poor guests. It would be like listening to a joke book read aloud.
‘Wit,’ he said,’ is like caviar, it should be savoured in small, elegant portions and not spread about like marmalade. I have never felt obliged to make a conscious attempt at being funny. That’s for clowns and I’m not a clown. I’m a civilised human being with a great God-given capacity for humour.’
“How else can you account for the continued popularity of my plays amongst people who will never see the inside of tasteful drawing room?”
Do people still appreciate his kind of upper-class humour, I asked?
‘But of course! The lower classes like nothing better than to adore the upper classes. This is their goal in life. Surely the art of living is synonymous with the art of bettering oneself? If the lower classes had nothing to look up to and emulate, life would be unspeakably dull for them,’ he said. ‘How else can you account for the continued popularity of my plays amongst people who will never see the inside of tasteful drawing room? All people are dreamers, no matter what their walk of life. The lower classes dream of nobility and royalty – who, in turn, dream of the lower classes, no doubt! It’s a vicious circle.
‘People are always trying to be what they’re not,’ he said. ‘This is one of the axioms of life. That’s what the theatre is all about. We all need escapism, and you can stand on your head, but that’s an undeniable fact. I mean, how else can you account for the popularity of James Bond?’
At 65, what, I asked him, is the most valuable lesson he has learnt from life? ‘To take everything with a pinch of salt,’ he said. ‘Life is far too short to let it get you down. I don’t like what’s happening in Britain today, but I don’t let it get me down. If you have a big, generous heart, I’d say you can’t go wrong. Some cynics say that no good deed goes unpunished. This is not true. No good deed goes unrewarded, and the reward is self-satisfaction. And if this sounds smug – well, maybe it is.
‘I love human beings, and I’m not being corny about it. Life is nothing but what you and I, ordinary human beings, make it. I’m dedicated to making the world a better place to live in and therefore you can imagine how distressed I am when my efforts are labelled reactionary by some people and some critics who have only hatred in their hearts. Where is the wrong in bringing humour, warmth and goodness into people’s lives, particularly in view of all the sorrow we’ve endured over the last fifty years?
‘The British have always had a generous spirit,’ he said, ‘and that is why we have always been great. I find it almost suicidal that today people go out of their way to knock everything this country stands for. It’s so bloody perverse, and what are they putting back instead? Kitchen sinks, cockroaches, free thinking – which is always confused with unprintable smut – and gloom-strewn pessimism. This is not the stuff of greatness, and if we held our contemporary attitudes in 1940, we wouldn’t be here today. I continue to tell foreigners how great we are. Well, before I die, I truly would like to believe this myself.’
“I have always had a natural facility for entertaining others, and this, no matter what the critics may say, has never deserted me.”
At this point in the interview Cole Lesley appeared. The hour was up and Noël, he said, had to get ready for his luncheon with Ian Fleming.
Coward stood up, and just before leaving, I congratulated him on the success of Hay Fever.
‘Yes, it is gratifying,’ he said, ‘and now that dear old Edith – who was totally wrong for Judith Bless – has left the cast and Celia has joined it, the whole thing is far, far better,. At least you can understand what Celia is saying. And that, dear boy, is strictly off the record.’ Then he turned to Cole Lesley. ‘How very, very nice,’ he said, ‘to be interviewed by a non-journalist.’
To this day I’m not sure whether that was a compliment or not.
A version of this article appeared in Applause magazine.