Wednesday, October 03, 2007

EDW: Noël Coward

Where to begin? A raconteur, entertainer, smoothie and wit, Coward is one of the greatest Englishmen of all time. Where would Morrissey and Stephen Fry be without him, after all?

There are so many reasons to admire the man. Don' t be fooled by his debonair drawl, Coward came from distinctly humble south London stock, but, decided as a young man to create a rather more exotic persona for himself. And, as any true gentleman would tell you, one's style and character are far more important than mere upbringing.

He was a consumate performer, as this clip illustrates. His final movie role, as Mr Bridger in The Italian Job would also be reason enough to remember him.

But Coward was also a formidably talented writer and songwriter. His wit is most obvious in songs such as Mad Dogs and Englishmen (I like to think of it as the first hip hop song), Don't Let's Be Beastly to the Germans ("though they've been a little naughty to the Czechs and Poles and Dutch, I don't believe those countries really minded very much") and Imagine the Duchess's Feelings.

Then there are the plays. Witty, drawing room comedies on the whole, things like Blithe Spirit and Present Laughter. The latter is on at the National Theatre just now. I was fortunate enough to be invited along to the preview, it's most entertaining.

But some of his cinema screenplays show he was that he was capable of stirring – moving even– stuff. Coward was the writer of the superior World War Two propaganda piece In Which We Serve (he also starred as the ship's captain) and, possibly his finest hour, he also wrote Brief Encounter (based on his play Still Life).

There is an element of the wartime to this saddest of love stories too – it was shot in 1945, after all. The decision of the characters played by Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard to sacrifice their own happiness for "duty" probably resonated better with wartime audiences than it does today. One can also see a coded message about Coward's homosexuality in the film, especially the idea that social mores might make personal fulfillment impossible.

Still – and I'm assuming you've all seen it; if not, go get a copy now – you'll know there's so much more to it. Even my upper lip might quiver slightly after watching it.

Oh, and couldn't he just wear a dinner jacket?



Blogger Glamourpuss said...

In Which We Serve is a masterpiece of wartime propaganda. Excellent choice, Bill. The man created so much and retained his dignity throughout - elegance personified indeed.


11:14 am  

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