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The Master - Noël Coward
Report of the lecture given by Frances Hughes
on April 28th 2010

Always sleek, forever smooth with a shining helmet of Brylcream, the whole country recognised this tall man instantly as Noël, Master of the Revels. His casual clothing showed a silk dressing-gown assisted, naturally, by a long cigarette holder.

For half a century his work produced gales of laughter and a knowing understanding of minimal and staccato phrases where a pause carried as much weight as the clipped words. Is Norfolk as flat as he magisterially reminds us? His work could stand repetition and is still produced to the delight of thousands.

His ancestors were creative and musical with parents singing in a church choir as well as Gilbert & Sullivan productions - the latter perhaps instilling his love and proficiency for sharp riposte and songs which are virtually patter. Mother was doting and determined that he should become a performer: thus formal studies ceased at ten years but the profession of acting, dancing and singing continued without pause. From being a child star in London, by the time he was twenty-five he had written "Hay Fever" (currently revived yet again in the West End) followed shortly by "Private Lives", an offering known by heart apparently by a large proportion of the population who revel in its verbal fencing and innuendo. "Design for Living" (1932) and "Blithe Spirit" (1941) were commentaries upon the way we lived but there were other, less well-known offerings.

A quite different type of performance in 1931 was the great glittering tableau of "Cavalcade", an historical play demonstrating Noël Coward's extraordinary versatility. The general population recognise warmly the musical plays and revues that he not only wrote but in many cases composed the music also. "Bitter Sweet" and "Words and Music" are followed by "Pacific 1860" and, again, who does not recognise the Englishman as a hot, mad dog, or homes for the rich being the stately homes of England even as Mrs Worthington sought advice concerning her daughter's putative stage career?

Films garnered his attention two of which, "Brief Encounter" and "In Which We Serve", were highly successful and still fill cinemas wherever they are shown even seventy years after their original screening.

Having met Ian Fleming whilst they were both engaged in mysterious work during the 1939-45 War, he was introduced to Jamaica for living and holidaying, finally moving there with his household. This gave impetus to one of his life-long interests which had not flourished as yet.

Having produced designs for his cabaret and entertainments, he now had infinite time for painting, originally in watercolour, but after discussions with artist friends he moved to oils developing a simplified modern technique of shape and colour, all as experienced in Jamaica. He had become friends with Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother and he gave many paintings to her.

The boy, born in Teddington in 1899, died in 1970 with hosts of friends and in such regard was he held as writer, composer and entertainer that he is buried in Poets' Corner, Westminster Abbey.

Ron Ringshall

Frances Hughes spent 38 years in Education. She is now a guest lecturer in Art & Theatre History at the Theatre Museum, the National Portrait Gallery and the London Centre for Theatre Studies. She is Hon. Secretary of the Shakespeare Reading Society (founded 1875) and Chairman of the Irving Society

Photo: Frances on the left with two of our members.