1999 marks the centennial of the birth of Noel Coward and Great Performances provides us early in the year with this two hour biography from the BBC. Lushly produced and carefully researched, the program takes us chronologically through Coward’s life, utilizing interviews with many of Coward’s biographers and surviving contemporaries, videotaped interviews with Coward himself, as well as onsite visits to the many places he lived during his life.
The program takes a rather factual approach, honestly including aspects of his life that Coward himself would probably have left unspoken. It is an entertaining and useful document that left this viewer longing for more analysis and insight into the meaning of the life, as well as a critical look at the work that Coward created. But perhaps that is a different show.
Several themes loom large in this exploration of Coward’s life. His father was a piano salesman and the family lived in genteel poverty, frequently moving due to financial need. Coward’s early success as a child actor evidently kept the family afloat. His "friendship" at age 14 with painter Philip Streatfield (the only relationship about which the program is somewhat coy – homosexuality may have reached a greater level of acceptance today, but man-boy sex is still taboo) led to a connection with aristocrat Mrs. Ashley Cooper, and indeed, residence at the Cooper estate. Mrs. Cooper’s granddaughter takes us on a tour of the mansion, pointing out that Coward lived on the farm, not in the house. "It wasn’t considered, a boy of his background, staying in the Hall, now was it?" she says.
The rigidly stratified class structure of England was surely a motivator for Coward. He transcended his unglamorous family background and moved successfully into the highest reaches of English society, finally achieving knighthood at age 70. The ascent was accomplished with talent, hard work, and perspicacious opportunism over the course of his career. While Coward may have tested the edges of upper class proprieties, it would appear that he thoroughly integrated their values. Pauline Kael has referred to his archness as "a smart, dissonant style to cover the traditional pieties."
A second running theme in Coward’s life was his homosexuality. Note that Oscar Wilde was thrown into prison in disgrace just twenty years before Coward made his stage debut. Clive Fisher describes Coward in his biography: "the languid, fey dilettante with dressing gown and caustic tongue." That Coward was homosexual was unmistakable to the public; so long as it was handled discretely, he was allowed to "pass."
"Keeping his image polished was precious to him, but not only for pure publicity concerns. His image also worked to protect him from the attacks of a society that would not tolerate the open admission of homosexuality," Fisher wrote. And yet, Coward’s first major success as a playwright was in 1924 with The Vortex, a scathing picture of the English upper class which included a "toyboy"for an older woman, drugs, and hints of homosexuality as well. His instinct for the theatrical edge, for notoriety and the attention it would draw to his work, tested the edge of what was acceptable, but he seemed to know just where to stop and protect his flank, as it were.
The program tells us of his first extended relationship, with American stockbroker Jack Wilson. While they were in Hawaii together, Coward suffered a nervous breakdown, mentioned here, but left unexplained. The strain of the relationship? The emotional toll of living a double life? Those questions are not addressed. The Wilson alliance lasted about a decade. Coward’s later partner, Graham Payne, an actor, appears here in an extended sequence in their home in the mountains of Switzerland.
Coward’s period of major productivity was from the late 1920’s into the 1940’s. The best of the works are titles still familiar, sometimes revived: Hay Fever, Private Lives, Design for Living, Blithe Spirit, Present Laughter. Then the creativity seemed somehow to dry up and little of substance was created in the later years. Coward successfully reinvented himself as a cabaret performer, playing on his fame, his show business connections, and the familiarity of some of his songs to attract a new generation of admirers.
The Life of Noel Coward loses some steam in the second half, providing us more detail than we really need about the Swiss and Jamaican residences, how the lobster mousse would not defrost when the Queen Mother was coming for lunch, about the recipe for Bullshots, Coward’s favorite cocktail. Nonetheless, the show provides a fine introduction to Coward and the events of his life. He is quoted: "I liked to be contemporary and bright as a button, but I don’t think I was all that keen on being significant."
A sequel that focuses on analyzing and evaluating the significance of the body of work he left behind would be an invaluable companionpiece.