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Mad About the Boy: the Noël Coward Story, BBC Two review - the making of The Master | reviews, news & interviews

Mad About the Boy: the Noël Coward Story, BBC Two review - the making of The Master

Mad About the Boy: the Noël Coward Story, BBC Two review - the making of The Master

The extraordinary life and times of the boy from nowhere

David Frost and Noël Coward

They called Noël Coward “The Master”, and Barnaby Thompson's 90-minute documentary marking 50 years since his death reminded us why. Though there was nothing here in the way of hitherto unknown revelations, the tale of how a boy who left school at nine and had no musical training yet became one of the world’s most prolific playwrights and composers undoubtedly has something fantastical about it.

With a commentary by Alan Cumming, quotations from Coward’s own writings voiced by Rupert Everett and bags of time-travelling period footage, the film pieced together the story of this son of an out-of-work piano salesman and a mother who ran a rooming house in Pimlico. The young Noël began writing plays at age 10, and his success as a child actor meant he was the family’s main breadwinner when he was barely into his teens. On a trip to New York, he was galvanised by the pace and precision of American stage productions, a revelation which fed into his first major stage hit with The Vortex, a succès de scandale featuring sex and drugs (and implicitly, homosexuality) among the louche aristocracy (pictured below, Coward with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor).

Mad About the Boy: the Noël Coward Story, BBC TwoHis ensuing string of box-office triumphs would include Hay Fever, Private Lives, Present Laughter and Blithe Spirit, not forgetting the provocative ménage-a-trois drama Design for Living. Coward’s talent for self-reinvention as “well groomed, witty and decadent… a talented, sophisticated playboy” was balanced delicately against his gift for pushing against social taboos without ever quite showing his hand, avoiding the fate of his friend John Gielgud who would be arrested for “persistently importuning men for immoral purposes”. As the critic Kenneth Tynan wrote, “like Gielgud and Rattigan, like the late Ivor Novello, he is a congenital bachelor.”

His gift for hiding in plain sight caught the attention of the intelligence services. As World War Two broke out, they recruited Coward (after a bout of training at Bletchley Park) to set up a Bureau of Propaganda in Paris, feeding disinformation to the Germans. Then Coward was despatched on a US tour, where he had whisky sours mixed for him by President Roosevelt and traversed the States aiming to galvanise pro-British feeling among the Americans. “I was the perfect silly ass,” he reported. “Nobody considered I had a sensible thought in my head, and they would say all kinds of things I would pass along.”

Mad About the Boy: the Noël Coward Story, BBC TwoHe achieved a staggering mid-Fifties reinvention by conquering Las Vegas – the sleeve of the album Noel Coward at Las Vegas pictured him standing in the Nevada desert with cigarette-holder and cup of tea – and his ability to walk both sides of the line was uncanny. A subversive social commentator in his work, he also created the rampantly patriotic tour-de-force of Cavalcade, and became close friends with the Queen Mother (who would fix it for him to be knighted in 1970) and with Louis Mountbatten, whose experiences on HMS Kelly, sunk during the battle for Crete, formed the basis for Coward’s film In Which We Serve (pictured above, Coward with Lynn Fontanne and Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother).

John Mills, one of its stars, commented that for all Coward’s elegantly frivolous props of cigarette-holders and silk dressing gowns, “Noël was carpet slippers really, and a steak and kidney pie and baked beans. He ate the most filthy food and ate it constantly.”

Coward bowed out of acting after his appearance in The Italian Job (1969), where he played Mr Bridger, the crime boss who runs his operation from his prison cell. The film’s director was Peter Collinson, who’d been in the Actors Orphanage when Coward was its president. Coward also became his godson. A man of many parts, indeed.

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