Writer Myles Usher paid The Noël Coward Room in Clerkenwell a visit.
We bustling big city folk long for and cherish the quiet serenity of those dear little hideaways off the beaten track. The quaint little hotel bar that no one’s heard of, the small book shop that seems to be stuck in a time warp, the walled garden that genuinely feels like a secret or, in my case, the Noël Coward Room just by Smithfield Market – a place where I can hide away from the world and immerse myself in the glory of a true theatrical master.
I first stumbled across Noël Coward’s work as a 12-year- old, when I heard an extract from a live recording of his Las Vegas concert from 1955, and I was immediately intoxicated by his voice. The way he worked a lyric, his mastery of pace, diction and the elegance of his phrasing. It was unlike anything I’d ever heard before, it was like Wilde set to music. I then scrambled around to read, watch and hear everything he’d ever done. I’ve been a devoted disciple ever since.
To give a quick potted history of the man himself – Coward practically invented the concept of Englishness for the 20th century. An extraordinary polymath, actor, playwright, director, writer, composer, lyricist and painter, he was defined by his Englishness as much as he defined it. In many ways, he was the first ambassador of Cool Britannia, shocking the theatrical world in 1924 with his play ‘The Vortex’ (which he also starred in), the plot, tinged with drugs and sex, thrust onto its unsuspecting audience and causing quite the scandal. The play became Coward’s first great commercial triumph and cemented him in the firmament of bright young things.
He would go on to write over 50 plays (including ‘Private Lives’, ‘Design for Living’ and ‘Hay Fever’), compose more than 300 songs (including ‘Mad Dogs’ and ‘Englishmen’, ‘London Pride’ and ‘Mad About the Boy’) and star in numerous movies (including ‘In Which We Serve’ and ‘The Italian Job’). He certainly kept himself busy.
Upon my very first visit to the Coward Room – after my fanboy excitement had simmered down to an acceptable level – I was left in awe of the fact that I was handling actual documents that were penned by (or had at least graced the fingertips of) the Master himself. There were personal photograph albums offering a rare glimpse into a rich showbiz life well-lived. Snaps of Coward relaxing in his Switzerland and London homes. Wonderful shots of him with Sean Connery in Jamaica, after the then-007 had popped over to say “hello” when he was filming Dr. No a little further down the beach.
I disappeared down a much-welcomed wormhole where I could shake off the hustle and bustle, and enjoy a charmingly playful photograph of Coward and the Queen Mother larking about at the Royal Lodge in Windsor. Or pick up two large portfolios literally bursting with original letters from the likes of Charlie Chaplin, David Niven, Daphne du Maurier, JM Barrie (who in 1928 urges him to “be gay while you can”), Julie Andrews, Fred Astaire and Winston Churchill. Some typed and some handwritten, all there to be read, re-read, cherished and enjoyed by a new generation of fans.
In a space with over 500 pieces, I’m set to lose numerous afternoons excavating the rare material held in store. An amazing exhibition of posters, sheet music, production photographs, theatrical programmes and original artwork. The very desk he worked at, the chair he sat on, the typewriter he used, the spectacles he wore. The zing of my excitement particularly agitated when I came across Coward’s original typed lyrics for his own inimitable version of the Cole Porter number ‘Let’s Do It (Let’s Fall in Love)’, which sends up the famous faces of the day:
“The House of Lords, to a man, do it If you know what I mean,
Jayne Mansfield can do it
On a very wide screen.
Every sardine you consume does it,
Even Liberace we assume does it.
Let’s do it, let’s fall in love.”
The Noël Coward Room and collection will ensure that Coward’s immortal flame will continue to burn, but more importantly, it will long be my port in a storm too. My sanctuary, my secret garden. Perfect for a Wintery afternoon in the Big Smoke. Just, please, keep it under your hat.
The Noël Coward Room, which is part of London’s Culture Mile, is available by private appointment only. To make an appointment please email [email protected] or visit noelcoward.com for further details.
GREAT COWARD QUOTES:
“Wit is like caviar — it should be served in small portions and not spread about like marmalade.”
“Having to read a footnote resembles having to go downstairs to answer the door while in the midst of making love.”
“i like long walks, especially when they are taken by people who annoy me.”