Noel Coward virtually invented the concept of Englishness for the 20th century. An astounding polymath – dramatist, actor, writer, composer, lyricist, painter, and wit — he was defined by his Englishness as much as he defined it. He was indeed the first Brit pop star, the first ambassador of “cool Britannia.” Even before his 1924 drugs-and-sex scandal of The Vortex, his fans were hanging out of their scarves over the theater balcony, imitating their idol’s dress and repeating each “Noelism” with glee. Born in suburban Teddington on 16 December 1899, Coward was on stage by the age of six, and writing his first drama ten years later. A visit to New York in 1921 infused him with the pace of Broadway shows, and he injected its speed into staid British drama and music to create a high-octane rush for the jazz-mad, dance-crazy 1920s. Coward’s style was imitated everywhere, as otherwise quite normal Englishmen donned dressing gowns, stuck cigarettes in long holders and called each other “dahling”; his revues propagated the message, with songs sentimental (“A Room With A View,” “I’ll See You Again”) and satirical (“Mad Dogs and Englishmen,” “Don’t Put Your Daughter On the Stage, Mrs. Worthington”). His between-the-wars celebrity reached a peak in 1930 with “Private Lives,” by which time he had become the highest earning author in the western world. With the onset of World War II he redefined the spirit of the country in films such as This Happy Breed (1944), In Which We Serve (1942), Blithe Spirit (1945) and, perhaps most memorably, Brief Encounter (1945). In the postwar period, Coward, the aging Bright Young Thing, seemed outmoded by the Angry Young Men, but, like any modern pop star, he reinvented himself, this time as a hip cabaret singer: “Las Vegas, Flipping, Shouts “More!” as Noel Coward Wows ‘Em in Cafe Turn” enthused Variety. By the 1960s, his reappraisal was complete — “Dad’s Renaissance”, called it — and his “Hay Fever” was the first work by a living author to be produced at the National Theatre. He was knighted — at last — in 1970, and died in his beloved Jamaica on 26 March 1973. Since his death, his reputation has grown. There is never a point at which his plays are not being performed, or his songs being sung. A playwright, director, actor, songwriter, filmmaker, novelist, wit . . . was there nothing this man couldn’t do? Born into a musical family he was soon treading the boards in various music hall shows where he met a young girl called Gertrude Lawrence, a friendship and working partnership that lasted until her death. His early writings were mainly short songs and sketches for the revue shows popular in the 1920s, but even his early works often contained touches of the genius to come (“Parisian Pierrot” 1923). He went on to write and star (with Gertie) in his own revues, but the whiff of scandal was never far away, such as that from the drug addict portrayed in “The Vortex.” Despite his obvious homosexual lifestyle he was taken to the hearts of the people and soon grew into one of the most popular writer/performers of his time.
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