Noel coward

John Deakin: the perfect anti-hero of the tawdry Soho scene

During the various lockdowns I found myself wondering how Iain Sinclair was coping with the restrictions. It seemed unthinkable that this unflinching punisher of pavements could be stuck with 30 minutes round the park. But, as it turns out, sequestering, in a fashion that only the Scots word ‘thrawn’ can do justice to, has resulted in the most archetypal Sinclair book yet. John Deakin is the pariah genius of the title. During the ‘brain-dead hibernation’ of the pandemic, Sinclair got a short-term loan of ‘17 albums of John Deakin’s photographs, fresh prints made from recovered contact sheets; a substantial history of his labours, a flickbook parade of the stunned and

In praise of Londoners

Southampton, Long Island ‘Why, oh why, do the wrong people travel?’ sang Noël Coward back in the early 1960s. Lucky Sir Noël, he never met the present bunch. Just as the Bolsheviks deemed the aristocracy and the intelligentsia to be enemies of the people back in 1917, good manners and conservative dress are viewed today – at least in the Bagel – as false and affected. But I’m getting away from the subject at hand. I just bought Masquerade, a doorstopper biography of Sir Noël, but I remember the song from way back, before the one time I met him. It was 21 June 1969, in Vevey, Switzerland, and Charlie

The art of the witty riposte

One hundred or so years ago, a down-in-the-dumps Joseph Roth wrote to Stefan Zweig: ‘The barbarians have taken over.’ Later on, Zweig committed suicide and Roth drank himself to death. They were both talented writers depressed about the state of the world. Reading their correspondence last week I had to laugh. Neither Roth nor Zweig had experienced Hollywood, and obviously would have died much earlier if they had done so. Which brings me to what everyone is still talking about, how a trained seal smacked another seal half its size during the Academy Awards. It was done in order to protect his wife from the barbs of the smaller one,

The acting is very Scooby-Doo: Blithe Spirit reviewed

The comedy Blithe Spirit was written by Noël Coward in 1941. It is, essentially, about a séance going wrong and a deceased first wife coming back to haunt her husband and his second wife, causing mayhem. Better if she’d been left to rest in peace, and, after seeing this film adaption, you may well wish the play had been left to rest in peace too. Don’t dig it up! Leave well alone! I would even add that if Dame Judi Dench can’t save an adaptation — and I was previously of the mind that Judi Dench could save anything — then you know you are in real, real trouble. The

The power of cheap music: pop podcast round-up

Noël Coward was so right that his words have become a cliché: it is indeed extraordinary how potent cheap music can be. Its potency, however, is not innate. Amanda Prynne, from Coward’s Private Lives, would not have been especially struck by ‘Some day I’ll Find You’ had it been playing on a wireless in a shop; its impact came from hearing it as she again encountered her ex-husband. For cheap music to be potent, context is everything. Without a wider meaning, a cheap little pop song is just notes and chords. With meaning, the most throwaway frippery can become an object of fascination. That’s often true of the best known

War and plague have menaced theatres before, but rarely on this scale

It seems a long time ago now. I was meeting the artistic director of a pub theatre near Westminster on the afternoon of 16 March. Already it was clear that this was one of the worst days of his professional life. That evening’s performance of a John Osborne play had been cancelled because a cast member had caught a severe cold over the weekend. During the morning, four more shows had withdrawn their productions, and the theatre had nothing to present for the next eight weeks. As we spoke, his phone pinged. Another cancellation. The door swung open and the production manager came in with a look of doom on

Mixed messages | 4 July 2019

Present Laughter introduces us to a chic, louche and highly successful theatrical globetrotter, Garry Essendine, whose riotous social life is centred on his swish London apartment. This is Noël Coward’s version of Noël Coward. In the script, from 1942, Coward alleges that his alter ego is being chased by three women. The in crowd would have laughed at the reference to Coward’s secret orientation but this version rather earnestly converts one of the females into a rugged Spanish male. What for? Few scripts from the wartime era remain in the theatrical canon and one of the pleasures of seeing a vintage play is to examine the habits and conventions of

A gaping hole in the week

This is a gem of a book for Radio 4 lovers, particularly those of us who work out which day of the week it is by who’s speaking on the station at 9.02 a.m. Published the week that Midweek was abolished for ever, it is Libby Purves’s story of the programme she presented for 33 years. In this brief memoir she has not only immortalised the distinctive flavour of the ‘And now for some lively conversation’ Wednesday-morning 45 minutes. She has also reminded us that Radio 4 is ‘basically, a marvel’: for many people, it is ‘their university and their friend’. All presenters, Purves writes, are aware that they are

Divinely decadent

‘Oh the Mediterranean addiction, how we fall for it!’ So sighed Sybille Bedford, who spent the 1920s and 1930s in Sanary-sur-Mer. Aldous Huxley settled in the same fishing village in 1930, writing to his sister-in-law: ‘Here all is exquisitely lovely. Sun, roses, fruit, warmth. We bathe and bask.’ James Lees-Milne perched further along the coast at Roquebrune from 1950–61. In a reverie, he later recalled the smells of brioche, coffee, pine needles, ‘the senses heightened, expectant of lovely future days without end’.This illusion of limitless freedom had given to Bedford, too, a large sense of living rationally, sensuously, well, of pleasure on many levels: now and before us and for

Cooking the books | 15 September 2016

Cooking really shouldn’t make good radio. On television, it’s already frustrating that you can’t taste what you’re seeing, but on radio you can’t even see it. ‘I’m just cracking an egg,’ they tell you. ‘And now I’ll crack another egg.’ The sounds — violent thuds, hissing gas, moist chewing — are more ominous than appetising and the commentary (‘I’m just mixing those eggs together now’) can’t help but be comically sedate (‘OK — they’re mixed’). So it’s a miracle that The Food Programme (Radio 4), after three decades of this sort of experiment, is as good as it often is, and Cooking for Poldark, this week’s ingenious episode, was really

Champagne all the way

A more appropriate subtitle to this homage to the queen bees of the interwar years might have been ‘How to Suck Up in Society’, for the servility of these six stately galleons simply beggars belief. Each was a mistress of her art, but the oiliest of the lot has to be Mrs Ronnie Greville, the illegitimate spawn of a Scottish distiller who was described by Harold Nicolson as ‘a great fat slug filled with venom’. By offering to bequeath her house, Polesdon Lacey, to the stammering Prince Albert, Mrs Greville kept the monarchy buzzing around her hive for years to come. Queen Bees is a sticky blend of anecdote and

Northern exposure | 11 August 2016

As the festival grows, the good acts are harder to find and the prices keep rising to meet the throngs of showbiz refugees who surge north in the belief that the glory, this year, will be theirs. Arriving at my one-star hovel (no breakfast, no towels, shared bathroom), I was given a security key and a disc of see-through soap that I could have hidden beneath a tea-bag. The bill, payable in advance, was a third higher than last year. Glory in this city belongs to the landlord. Marcel Lucont’s Whine List is performed by a suave, self-adoring Frenchman who starts by asking if anyone in the crowd is new

The child is father of the man

Are writers born or made? The answer, by the end of Love from Boy — a selection of Roald Dahl’s letters to his mother drawn from the 40 years of correspondence they kept up, lovingly edited and deftly commented upon by his biographer Donald Sturrock — is surely that they are both. Even as a 12-year-old, regaling her with tales of derring-do at Repton, the economy and vivid turn of phrase are evident that would characterise both his grand guignol short stories for adults and the children’s books for which he eventually became both loved and lauded. Out ice-skating, ‘I had eight chaps pulling me with a long rope at

The wicked old Paris of the Orient

Here’s the Mandarin for ooh-la-la! As Taras Grescoe, a respected Canadian writer of nonfiction, shows in this marvellous, microscopically descriptive history of what is now one of the most populous and smoggiest megalopolises on earth, Shanghai in the 1930s was internationally notorious as ‘the wicked old Paris of the Orient’, with ‘as vivid a cast of chancers, schemers, exhibitionists, double-dealers and self-made villains as had ever been assembled in one place’. Grescoe lavishly keeps the promise of his book’s subtitle. In its heyday, the city was both glamorous and squalid, extremely rich and poor, unscrupulous and tough: to shanghai in the lower case means to force people to do what

Letters | 19 May 2016

Republican party schisms Sir: Jacob Heilbrunn astutely analyses the predicament Donald Trump creates for America’s neoconservatives (‘Lumped with Trump’, 14 May). But the ideological schisms within the Republican party are even more profound than he indicates. In fact, Trump not only divides the populist right from movement conservatives — and neoconservatives — based in Washington, DC, he also divides neoconservatives against themselves. William Kristol, the neoconservative kingpin in Washington, has lately found himself under intense attack by David Horowitz, a California-based ex-radical-turned-rightist in the classic neoconservative mould. Horowitz has excoriated Kristol for dividing Republicans and effectively helping Hillary Clinton. Trump, Horowitz argues, is not only obviously better than Clinton on

Diary – 5 May 2016

I am no admirer of Donald Trump — not because he is a doomsayer and professional patriot but because he is a fake and, worse, he owes me money. A few years back I was telephoned by a friend. ‘I have to give a dinner for Donald Trump,’ he said, dolorously. ‘He entertained me in Palm Beach and now he’s over here.’ The dinner was in a bijou Mayfair restaurant and we were a party of about eight. Let me say one thing for Trump: he isn’t stupid. We had never met, but he spotted me for an Englishwoman right away. The other guests were various members of the London ton,

Funny boys

Sir Ken’s excellent West End residency continues with a sugar-rich confection. Sean Foley has adapted and updated an elderly French farce about an assassin who befriends a needy depressive. Hitman Ralph rents a hotel suite overlooking a courtroom where his target is due to make an appearance. The neighbouring room is occupied by a mopey Welshman, Brian, who wants to hang himself from the light socket. Ralph discovers Brian’s plan and realises that Brian’s death will fill the hotel with cops and ruin his assassination attempt. So Ralph must save Brian from suicide. It’s a pretty clunky scenario and the logistics are frankly incredible because the design postulates two adjacent single

Homage to awesome Welles on his centenary

One day in May 1948 in the Frascati hills southeast of Rome, Orson Welles took his new secretary, Rita Ribolla, to lunch. After eating enough food for ‘a dozen hungry people’ and sinking ‘one glass of wine after another’, all the while enchanting his guest with gossip and conjuring tricks, Welles downed his coffee and said it was time to go. Ribolla smiled and waited for him to get the bill. And waited. Eventually she asked for it herself. When it arrived Welles passed it over, saying, ‘Leave a large tip for these nice waiters.’ ‘But Mr Welles, I can’t afford meals like this.’ Welles turned sulphurous: ‘How dare you

Without a word of advice, Paul Methuen set me free

At the time he will barely have noticed me. In his mid-forties and (to me at 18) middle-aged, he was our host at a dinner in his beautiful old house in Kingston, Jamaica: a wooden mansion that in its time had seen the town spread up from the harbour and push back the sugar plantations. But as you’d expect from a man for whom garden design was a passion, Paul’s house had kept its generous grounds from the age of sugar. Everything about Paul Methuen was generous: from his hospitality, to the sheer variety of his guests, to his warm and wicked sense of mischief and the measures of the

The big chill

Michael Grandage’s latest show is about an old snap. Geneticists regard the X-ray of the hydrated ‘B’ form of DNA as one of the loveliest images ever captured. To laymen it looks like some woodlice drowning in yesterday’s porridge. The pic was taken in 1951 by the British biochemist Dr Rosalind Franklin but she failed to realise its significance. When James Watson passed through her lab he took one glimpse and instantly twigged that it revealed the helical structure of DNA. With his pal Francis Crick he built the famous double-helix model which bagged them the Nobel Prize. Dr Franklin (played by Nicole Kidman) won nothing. We know all this