IN PRAISE OF… Noel Coward

Before there was Bowie, Pulp, Ferry and
Morrissey there was Coward and his lyrical panache and wise decorum. He also
influenced Joe Strummer, Paul Weller and more.

 

BY A.D. AMOROSI

 

It might seem an uneasy fit,
cramming the class conscious cocktails-at-noon corrosive cool of Noel Coward
into a publication such as BLURT. The British playwright, composer, actor and
cabaret singer was renowned for his wit and poise, his quiet flamboyance (in
language and not dress, as a handsome tuxedo was his second skin) and frank
tart sarcasm throughout songs that spoke smugly of the eternal ball (“I Went to
a Marvelous Party”), plays that dashed madly through the moneyed byways of
Europe (Private Lives) without
breaking a sweat or losing the ash of their cigarette and all matters of
England’s manners. Something so piquant could seem out of place.

 

 

 

 

 

Know this: without Coward, much of
pop’s arch smart set would be found wanting. They would not be found at all.
Before there was David Bowie, Pulp, Bryan Ferry with or without Roxy Music and
Morrissey with or without the Smiths, there was Coward and his lyrical panache
and wise decorum, the stiff upper lip with a twist at the end like one you’d
squeeze into a martini. Sartorially too, Ferry’s suit-and-tux schtick was a
throwback to Coward’s fashionable éclat. 
Coward was the ultimate machete-sharp wordsmith, lonely in full glare of
company, bitchy in the throes of the longest embrace, caustic without losing
purpose. That sort of thing would come to influence Americans such as Ryan
Adams, Cass McCombs as well as Loudon and Rufus Wainwright. Stephin Merritt is
but a stockier baritone version of Coward with snarky new Magnetic Fields songs
such as “The Horrible Party” and “My Husband’s Pied-A-Terre” directly
influenced by the master Brit.

 

 

 

 

 

Coward didn’t just give class and
style and sarcasm and theatricality and grace to Britain’s upper classes. He did the
same to the middle and the lower echelon with his working class ethos best seen
in films such as Why We Serve and
emotional songs such as “London Pride” that easily inspired the likes of Joe
Strummer, Paul Weller, John Cooper Clarke and Billy Bragg. That earlier
Morrissey comparison – Moz’ mix of personally patrolled social justice, wonky
angst and bittersweet humor – holds the most water in terms of finding an
equitable present tense artist whose best is comparable to Coward’s
commonplace.

 

One recent BluRay package and one
re-released box set shows off the range of Coward’s demeanors, the raconteur
and the public servant – David Lean
Directs Noel Coward
(4 BluRay discs; Criterion Collection) and The Noel Coward Collection (7DVDs; BBC
America).

 

The latter, first packaged in 2007
features nineteen hors of footage from the BBC’s film and television archives
as well as over twelve hours of audio from musical performances to speeches to
interviews to radio plays. While the BBC box features an old school A-list of
Hollywood and Britain’s finest essaying Coward’s theatrical catalog including
Joan Collins performing in Tonight at
8:30
(1991), a series of eight one-act plays, light and dark; Judi Dench
and Ian Holm performing as the wartime couple Mr. and Mrs. Edgehill (1985); and Paul Scofield and Deborah Kerr in
A Song at Twilight (1982) about the
mournful secret shared between successful artists. Still, the box’s best
moments are those featuring the pithy prince himself – discussing acting or
being feted during his 70th birthday television celebration. Just
the sound of his voice is a thrill.

 

The Lean/Coward box is just as
entrancing and twice as rare. Before Lean took to the epic likes of Lawrence of Arabia, the widescreen
director made a series of intimate films with Coward, most of which captured the playwright’s hearty arbitrariness with Blithe Spirit starring Rex Harrison and
Margaret Rutherford as a novelist and medium conjuring up ghosts with
discomfort as their goal and Brief
Encounter
about a passionate affair most inconvenient. Yet along with a
lengthy list of worthy BluRay extras featuring Coward talking with the likes of
Richard Attenborough, it is the working class/warring class films such as This
Happy Breed
and, most importantly, In Which We Serve, that
sparkle. The latter features Coward’s only co-directing credit, co-starring
himself as a Royal Navy sailor and jutting back-and-forth between their time at
battle and their moments at home with the loved one. It showed an emotional
core to Coward’s often icy flagrant displays of tart whimsy and one that made
him a hero to all levels of taste.

 

 

 

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