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Thursday, 16 December, 1999, 10:29 GMT
Noel Coward: 20th century icon
Coward: The centenary of his birth is celebrated on 16 December 1999
By Coward biographer and journalist Chris Salewicz

With his urbanity, elegance and dancing wit, Noel Pierce Coward - who was born on 16 December, 1899 - was like an archetype for the 20th century artist... the is the reason for his enduring appeal.

Actress Sophia Loren was just one of Coward's many friends
Coward's first full-length comedy, I'll Leave It To You, was staged shortly before his 21st birthday during the summer of 1920 - a decade with which he was to become almost synonymous.

Its story was simple - an uncle promises to leave everything he has to the nephew or niece who makes the most money. The play was a modest success.

His next play, however, was a spectacular hit. The Vortex was an acerbic, hard-hitting work, with themes of drugs and sex. It opened at Hampstead's Everyman Theatre in 1924 on Noel's 25th birthday.

"It established me as a playwright and an actor," he said.

Over the following 12 months Noel had two comedies, Hay Fever and Fallen Angels, running in London at the same time.

The young Coward found fame with The Vortex
He was so successful he bought his first Rolls Royce. But after the triumphant American run of The Vortex, he suffered a breakdown.

He recovered gradually from nervous exhaustion in Hawaii, coming up with the song A Room With A View.

By 1930, Coward was the highest paid author in the world. His next three works, Bitter Sweet, Private Lives and Cavalcade, put the seal on this. He followed these hits with 1932's Design For Living.

Like Private Lives, it is a play about unsatisfactory emotional existences. In the mid-1930s came Tonight at Eight-Thirty, a sequence of plays which included Still Life. It became the script for the classic David Lean film, Brief Encounter, made in 1945.

Coward entertaining stars Audrey Hepburn and Mel Ferrer in Jamaica
Coward had worked with Lean in 1942 on the wartime naval drama In Which We Serve, which Noel also wrote and starred in. It became the most successful British film in the US for many years.

At the end of 1943, he travelled to New York for some radio broadcasts. Rundown from influenza, he was sent to Jamaica to recuperate - and fell in love with the island.

Coward was unable to return until 1948 when he bought land to build a property. Taken with the island's sense of infinite peace, he spent much of the rest of his life in Jamaica.

When his career lagged in the early 1950s, it was there that he developed the cabaret act that revived his fortunes.

Coward loved to paint scenes from his Caribbean retreat
Yet he seemed clearly unable to comprehend the youth revolution of the post-World War II years. He described The Beatles as "talentless" after they were awarded MBEs.

He went on to cement several years of critical disfavour against himself in 1961 with a series of dismissive articles in the Sunday Times about the "kitchen-sink" school of realism of John Osborne, Arnold Wesker et al.

The recent revival of his plays, inspired by the 100th anniversary of his birth, casts his work into a greater perspective.

Long celebrated for his smart one-liners and light touch with language, he is shown to be a far more profound writer than this would suggest:

Coward with actor Laurence Harvey in Jamaica
His perception about humanity and its motivations is extraordinary.

His works are shown to be masterly in their construction.

Pictures courtesy of Chris Salewicz's Coward centenary work, Firefly (Island Life) - a book that tells the story of the years the playwright spent in Jamaica.

See also:

15 Dec 99 | Entertainment
Celebrating Coward's centenary
06 Oct 98 | Entertainment
Saved: Coward's room with a view
08 Dec 98 | Entertainment
Coward statue unveiled
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