For the greater part of the 20th century, few stars shone so brightly as Noël Coward. In a career spanning over 50 years, Coward was an actor, a playwright and director; a singer, composer and impresario. He painted and entertained, traveled and partied. He consorted with movie stars, singers, statesmen and royals. It was a full life, and one that defies easy summary. When the BBC’s Arena arts strand featured Coward as a subject in 1999, it took three separate installments to cover his life and works.
Now issued on DVD, The Noël Coward Trilogy covers Coward’s life from its inauspicious beginnings, through his huge successes before the Second World War, and onto his later years, as an international man of the arts and public figure of world renown. It’s a project of some ambition, and it is no small praise to report that it is done very well, indeed.
Several figures from Coward life are interviewed, as is the man himself, (in excerpts drawn chiefly from an Omnibus interview from 1969). Analysis is provided by three of his eminent biographers, whose passion for Coward is as evident as their knowledge of his works. Most charming of all however is the footage shot by Coward himself, a noted cine camera enthusiast, who obtained his first camera shortly after his initial successes made him very famous and wealthy, indeed.
Given the vastness of this success, it is easy to forget that Coward was largely a self-made man. The trilogy’s opening piece, The Boy Actor introduces us to the young Coward, and shows us how quickly he was able to ascend the social ladder. Early acting roles in the West End brought him to the attention of Philip Streatfield, a painter who introduced the youngster to high society, and Sir Charles Hawtrey a successful actor who gave Coward the theatrical apprenticeship that would serve him so well.
The First World War caused a shortage of young male actors, and Coward, who was excused from military service because of ill health, found a great opportunity to rise through the theatrical ranks. Nevertheless, for all his talent on the stage, it would be his writing that would catapult him to the top.
The film underscores the fact that Coward’s initial celebrity was of a recognizably modern type. It was founded on a combination of notoriety and artifice that has since become de rigeur for stars from the Rolling Stones to Paris Hilton. His early play, The Vortex, features allusions to drug abuse and a cross-generational relationship as well as the theme that would recur through the majority of Coward’s work, homosexuality. Such topics still attract some measure of controversy even today; in 1924 they were more troublesome still.
The controversy allowed Coward to enjoy a public image that portrayed him as a ‘reckless bohemian playboy’. Still, as with many celebrities, the truth was somewhat different. Rather than the decadent figure of popular repute, Coward was industrious and diligent and still lived in a cheap, tiny boarding house in London. All the same, appearances had to be maintained, and at 26 years of age, Coward bought his first Rolls-Royce. Publicly at least, he had arrived.
Although the trilogy runs in a linear fashion, leading us through Coward’s life episodically, the contributions from Coward’s biographers provide a considerable weight of analysis that take the documentaries beyond mere hagiography. John Lahr, author of Coward the Playwright explains how Coward used modern recording techniques to telegraph his fame in a way that his predecessors could not. ‘He could be everywhere at once’ he says, ‘like Faust’. Indeed, as his career progressed, Coward’s mercurial talent permitted him not merely to move between media and modes, but also into new social territories. His contacts book swelled in parallel with his fame. He was soon mixing with the highest in the land, and, in some respects at least, became one of them too.
Captain Coward, the second film in the series, examines Coward’s life during the Second World War. Following the pattern of wartime performers both before and since, Coward used his magnetic stage presence to keep the troops entertained on tours around the world. Better traveled than most of his audience, who prior to the war had hardly left their home towns, Coward used his experiences to make light of the comical elements of the Brits in hot climates, no more famously than in Mad Dogs and Englishmen. This unforgettably self-deprecating classic remains one of Coward’s best known songs, and it is a real treat to hear it performed by the man himself in front of a crowd of laughing Australian soldiers.
Coward’s best known contribution to the war effort was In Which We Serve, a naval epic designed as propaganda for the Allies. Determined that the film would succeed, Coward took on several responsibilities, including writer, co-director and star. The production would bring him into contact with several people who would develop illustrious careers of their own, Richard Attenborough, John Mills and Ronald Neame, who notes how Coward would play the parts that his roles demanded – hardworking and authoritative when directing, petulant and difficult when acting. As ever, Coward couldn’t do anything but play a role, and play it well.
The film was a huge success, and Coward felt that he had been able to fulfil his duty in the war. Bereft of any substantial position, he had written one for himself, and left his mark on the war effort.
Once the war was over, things changed. The world that emerged from the hostilities was very different from the one that had started them. Coward found it increasingly difficult to fit in, and struggled to find a place for himself. His plays lost favour with both critics and audiences, and Coward himself was beginning to seem like an anachronism. The bright spark that had made a vocation out of reinvention had no new identities to offer. The ‘mediocre’ Britain of the 1950s had nothing for him, and he had nothing for it. By the end of the decade, he had left Britain altogether, and found a new life as a tax exile, firstly in Switzerland, and later, finally, in Jamaica.
The final chapter of the trilogy, Sail Away, shows Coward in these declining years, and naturally, concentrates more on his life than his works. Aside from a final flourish of success, touring his persona around fashionable nightspots in Paris and Las Vegas, these were quieter times for Coward. He was finally able to find stability in his personal life, and settled down with his long-term partner, Graham Payn, who appears in the film, and shows us around the home they shared.
It is Payn who gives us the most touching moment in the entire trilogy, as he sits listening to a scratchy recording of his younger self singing “Matelot” in 1945. The song was written especially for him by Coward, who tried in vain to advance his lover’s career. The aged Payn remains silent as the tears well in his eyes.
The film ends as it started, with Coward’s voiceover of the opening lines of his autobiography, recalling his poor beginnings in Teddington, the grainy black and white visuals replaced by sweeping shots of the sumptuous home he had built in Jamaica. It’s a resonant coda to an incredible life, and a plaintive end to a superb documentary.