Noël Peirce Coward was born on 16th December 1899 in Teddington, Middlesex, England to Arthur Coward (sometime piano salesman) and Violet (soon to become the archetypal ‘stage mother’).
He made his professional stage debut as Prince Mussel in The Goldfish at the age of 12, which led to many child actor appearances in the next few years, amongst them Slightly in Peter Pan – which later caused critic Kenneth Tynan to remark – “Forty years ago he was Slightly in Peter Pan and you might say that he has been wholly in Peter Pan ever since.”
Several of his own early plays reached the London stage briefly but it was the controversial THE VORTEX (1924) that proved to be the breakthrough. With its overt references to drugs and adultery, it made his name as both actor and playwright in the West End and on Broadway.
Noël seemed to epitomize the spirit of the frenzied 1920s and a string of successful plays ensued – HAY FEVER (1925), FALLEN ANGELS (1925) and EASY VIRTUE (1926), as well as several intimate revues for which he wrote words and music such as LONDON CALLING (1923) and THIS YEAR OF GRACE! (1928). He also wrote his first ‘book’ musical BITTER SWEET (1929) which was a huge hit in the West End and on Broadway
The momentum continued into the 1930s. PRIVATE LIVES (1930) saw him appearing with a childhood friend, Gertrude (‘Gertie’) Lawrence and that partnership continued professionally with TONIGHT AT 8.30 (1936). CAVALCADE, produced at Drury Lane in 1931 was adapted for film and won a Best Picture Oscar in 1932. His revue WORDS AND MUSIC was produced in London in 1932 and introduced a young John Mills to the London stage.
Writer, actor, director, film producer, painter, songwriter, cabaret artist as well as an author of verse, essays and autobiographies, he was called by close friends ‘The Master’, a title of which he was secretly proud.
As World War II broke out he had two plays waiting to be produced – THIS HAPPY BREED and PRESENT LAUGHTER – but they would have to wait until 1943. Meanwhile, there was BLITHE SPIRIT (1941), a subversive comedy that ran longer than the war.
‘Noël’s War’ was an active one… troop concerts at home and overseas… touring in plays… producing classic films such as IN WHICH WE SERVE (which he co-directed with a young David Lean as well as writing the score and playing the lead) and BRIEF ENCOUNTER… and acting as an unofficial spy for the Foreign Office!
The post-war years saw his star in temporary eclipse. Austerity Britain – the London critics determined – was out of tune with the brittle Coward wit. His plays enjoyed only modest success but Noël responded by ‘re-inventing’ himself as a cabaret and TV star, particularly in America. In 1955 he played a sell-out cabaret season at the Desert Inn, Las Vegas which led a live TV spectacular on CBS with Mary Martin – TOGETHER WITH MUSIC. He perfomed many of his hit songs written from the 1920s onwards including MAD ABOUT THE BOY, IF LOVE WERE ALL, MAD DOGS AND ENGLISHMEN and I’LL SEE YOU AGAIN. All in all he wrote over 600 songs.
He left the UK in the mid-1950s and settled in Jamaica and Switzerland.
In the early 1960s critical opinion in Britain turned yet again. He became the first living playwright to be performed by the National Theatre when he directed HAY FEVER there. ‘Dad’s Renaissance’ – as Noël gleefully dubbed it – was underway and has never faltered since. He and his work are today more popular – and on a worldwide scale – than ever before.
Late in his career he was lauded for his roles in a number of films including Our Man In Havana (1959) and The Italian Job (1968)
In 1970 came the long overdue knighthood. In 1973 he died peacefully and was buried in his beloved Jamaica.