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Resurrected by a Song

The real Ivor Novello, actor, composer and Noel Coward's friendly rival, wrote the tunes his namesake sings in 'Gosford Park.'

January 12, 2002|CHARLES DENNIS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

No, those aren't obscure Noel Coward songs Jeremy Northam sings in Robert Altman's new film, "Gosford Park." In the film, a comic sendup of '30s-era British murder mysteries, Northam plays Ivor Novello, who--unlike any of the other two dozen or so characters in the ensemble piece--was a real person, the one who actually wrote those tunes.

The similarity to Coward's music (or vice versa) was far from coincidental, and the two men enjoyed a close friendship and professional rivalry for 35 years. Who was this largely forgotten actor-composer, and how did he come to materialize 50 years after his death in this witty film that has already won many pre-Oscar awards for its director, screenwriter and actors?

Novello was Britain's first pop star of the 20th century. A child of humble origins, the drop-dead-handsome Welshman adopted the stage and screen persona of a devil-may-care nobleman. His first success came as a composer of popular songs in the late teens and early '20s. His legend was enhanced as Britain's biggest silent screen star and later as the author of some dreadful stage potboilers, which played in London's West End for years solely because of his star power, and, finally, as the writer of a series of romantic musicals.

His fame was such that five years after his death in 1951, the Ivor Novello Awards, known as the Ivors, were created by the British Academy of Composers & Songwriters to honor outstanding contributions to British music. Paul MCartney, John Lennon, Elton John and Andrew Lloyd Webber are some of the many recipients

Novello's presence in "Gosford Park" is far from haphazard. Screenwriter Julian Fellowes used this commoner posing as a nobleman to underscore the serious theme of this deceptively entertaining thriller.

"I'd already written the screenplay in 2000 when Bob Altman said he wanted to use Ivor Novello's music throughout and have Ivor as an actual character," Fellowes said in a recent phone call from New York, where he'd gone to receive the New York Film Critics award along with director Robert Altman and co-star Helen Mirren. (The three are also nominated, along with actress Maggie Smith, for Golden Globes.) Novello is very much a chorus figure, both with his beautiful melodies and as a symbol of England's class wars.

"If you're not born into the upper classes, you're never one of that crowd," says Fellowes. "Ivor accepts the fact that he's the 'Jester.' When [a character in the film] asks how he can put up with these weekends where he's basically the unpaid entertainment, playing piano on request, he replies poignantly: 'I make my living impersonating them.'"

He was born David Ivor Novello Davies in 1893. His mother was a music teacher who left her 6-month-old child behind in Cardiff, Wales, to shepherd her girls choir to the Chicago World's Fair, where the girls "cleared the board of every prize possible" (according to her son) and were subsequently invited to entertain Queen Victoria. "It was almost a national sensation," Novello wrote years later.

Little wonder that Novello went on to sing and play the piano by age 3 and to win a scholarship to Oxford at 10. At 16, he went to London, where his first song was published the next year. Four years later he became world-famous and wealthy with a World War I tune, the super-patriotic "Keep the Home Fires Burning."

Novello's continued success as a songwriter and his good looks--he was referred to in the press as "the handsomest man in England"--brought him to the attention of movie director Louis Mercanton, who, in 1919, cast him as the lead in "Call of the Blood." With no professional acting experience, Novello became the biggest film star in England until the advent of talkies, while continuing his very successful career as a songwriter. Two years after his first screen appearance, he made his stage debut in the West End, where he remained a force until his death 30 years later.

In 1917, Novello met a struggling 17-year-old actor named Noel Coward outside the Midlands Hotel in Manchester. Coward was in awe of Novello's talent, celebrity and great beauty but later wrote of this first encounter: "Ivor was wearing an old overcoat with an Astrakhan collar and a degraded brown hat, and if he had suddenly produced a violin and played the 'Barcarolle' from the 'Tales of Hoffman,' I should have given him threepence from sheer pity."

Seven years later Coward joined Novello's celebrity circle with the overnight success of his play "The Vortex," in which he also starred. The two men worked together only once, 10 years later in Coward's play "Sirocco," the biggest failure in either man's career. (Coward was spit on by an incensed audience when he left the theater).

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