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Mad About the Man: A Celebration

February 09, 1988|CHARLES CHAMPLIN | Times Arts Editor

Sir Noel Coward, who died in 1973, is being honored this evening by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences with a Champagne reception at 6:30 and a program of film clips and reminiscences hosted by Michael York, starting at 8. It's one of the events in the UK-LA arts festival.

The rememberers will include the conductor-arranger Peter Matz, whose collaborations with Coward included his 1961 musical "Sail Away!"; Roddy McDowall, an old friend who did Coward's "Look After Lulu" on Broadway; cinematographer-director Ronald Neame, who photographed both "In Which We Serve" and "Blithe Spirit," and Sheridan Morley, Coward's biographer ("A Talent to Amuse") and the co-editor of his diaries.

There is much to remember because there was evidently nothing Coward could not do--luminously well and with an appearance of nonchalance--to entertain us.

He wrote melodies and lyrics that remain part of the underscoring of all our lives: "I'll See You Again," "I'll Follow My Secret Heart," "Somewhere I'll Find You" and "Mad About the Boy." Bittersweet sentimental, all of them, and in "Private Lives," for which he wrote "Somewhere I'll Find You," he mocks himself by having a character say, "How potent cheap music is." But who would deny it?

"I'll See You Again" was his biggest hit and Coward once wrote that "Brass bands have blared it, string orchestras have swooned it, Palm Court quartets have murdered it, barrel organs have ground it out in London squares and swing bands have tortured it beyond recognition."

In quite a different vein are his patter songs: "Don't Let's Be Beastly to the Germans" ("Let's be free with them, and share the BBC with them"), which he wrote in 1943 and which Winston Churchill liked so much, Coward said, "that I had to sing it for him seven times in one evening."

In 1955 Coward was playing Las Vegas for a rousing $30,000 a week, packing them in with his most famous patter song "Mad Dogs and Englishmen (Go Out in the Midday Sun)." The Life photographer Loomis Dean talked Coward into his dinner jacket and a well-stocked limousine and drove him into the desert for a picture proving the point of the song.

Alas, one of the magazine's grim and sharp-eyed researchers pointed out that Coward's lengthened shadow indicated that midday was long gone and the point not made. Dean, who thought it miraculous to have got Coward out of bed before midday, remains irate to this day. But the photograph, which became an album cover, of Coward standing elegant and insouciant amid the vast alkali flats is a classic.

His film appearances, as in "Our Man in Havana" and "Bunny Lake Is Missing," are so indelible it seems a shame there were not more. He brought a taste of campy delight to "Boom!" which critics were quick to point out was otherwise a bust.

Coward's plays, "Private Lives" most particularly, but also "Hay Fever" and "Design for Living" and some of his one-acts, seem likely to be revived forever.

It is amazing to realize that for a time, despite all his accomplishments (or perhaps because of the ease with which he appeared to do them), he was out of favor with critics and nowhere more so than at home in England. Too, for tax reasons he had taken up citizenship in Bermuda and Switzerland (in a house he was amused to call Shilly Chalet), and that had not gone down well either.

But by the early '60s a full-scale Coward revival was in process. Some hugely popular productions at the Hampstead Theatre Club had led to a production of "Hay Fever" at the National Theatre, with Edith Evans starring, Olivier in charge and Coward directing.

One of the Sunday papers had run an elegant portrait of him, which he said in a caption made him look like "a heavily doped Chinese illusionist." Amid these excitements, I went to interview him one day in a suite at the Savoy.

"It's been a bit of a morning for old Dad," he said, hurrying into the sitting room in a splendid brocaded dressing gown, looking at the age of 65 every inch the matinee idol. He told mildly scandalous stories of the production at the National, exulted in all the demands for his presence and proclaimed that it was indeed a time of "Dad's Renaissance."

What becomes clear from the nearly 700 pages of his diaries (Little, Brown, 1982) was that behind the dilettante facade was a hard-working and hard-driving professional who could revise as facilely as he created and who (which is not always the case) knew when rewrites were mandatory. He did major reworkings of "Sail Away!" out of town at what seems like breathtaking speed and amid a considerable social schedule.

He'd been born into what could kindly be called straitened circumstances, was on stage at 12, wrote his first play at 19 (although it wasn't produced until he was 26) and became a devout royalist snob who adored gossiping with the Queen Mother as only a lad from the tattered fringes of the middle class could.

He was also an acerbic critic and a man of taste. "Subtlety, discretion, restraint, finesse, charm, intelligence, good manners, talent and glamour still enchant me," he told his diary in 1961. "Is it because I am so much older that I am unable to distinguish these qualities in the majority of present-day books I read and shows I see? . . . I am not convinced."

He went on working, to his own standards. In 1963 one of the London critics wrote, "Can it be that we have underrated Coward all these years and that 'Private Lives,' far from being a badly dated relic, is in fact the funniest play to have adorned the English theater in this century?" The critic's answer was yes, and yes.

Ticket information: (213) 278-8990, ext. 287.

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