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Thursday, January 15, 1998 Published at 18:56 GMT


As clever as a bag of ferrets - the life of Noel Coward

No single word can do justice to Sir Noel Coward's role in twentieth century culture: actor, playwright, composer, lyrist, author, producer.

But the popular image of the man, in a smoking jacket, has become a byword for suave sophistication and erudition.

Noel Peirce Coward was born in 1899. As a child actor, he appeared in early productions of Peter Pan.

Bitter sweet

Moving into high society as a young man, he started writing songs and wrote three plays by the time he was 18. He made a name for himself with his plays offering bitter sweet portrayals of the pre-war years.

However it is probably as a cabaret performer, playwright and composer of witty ditties that he remains best known.

Virginia Woolf once described Coward as "clever as a bag of ferrets and trivial as a perch of canaries". His best known songs include Mad Dogs and Englishmen, Mad About the Boy, Some Day I'll Find You and I'll See You Again.

Dr Freud

Coward never publicised his homosexuality, but Mad About the Boy is widely believed to be about homosexual love - possibly for James Cagney.

One version of the song includes the verse: "And even Doctor Freud cannot explain/Those vexing dreams/I've had about the boy."

However, Coward's companion Graham Payn, who still has to give permission for any of his works to be used, will only allow a woman to sing the song.

One Coward song Don't Be Beastly to the Germans was banned by the BBC during the Second World War despite being one of Churchill's favourites - it was feared some listeners would not get the joke.

In his last years, Coward lived with Payn in Jamaica, where he built a small retreat called Firefly Hill. The house is today a museum to Coward, and one of Jamaica's top tourist attractions.


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