What's inspiring the Noël Coward renaissance?

After falling out of fashion, Noël Coward's work is reaching a whole new set of admirers. By Ciar Byrne

His famous silk, polka-dot dressing gown and elegant cigarette holder both seem to belong to another era. But 2008 is proving to be the year that Britain falls in love with Noël Coward all over again.

The playwright, actor, director, songwriter and all round polymath is enjoying a spectacular renaissance, led by the current National Theatre production of Present Laughter, the play Coward wrote in 1939 about a self-obsessed actor and the circle of women who wish to seduce him - a work often seen as a heterosexualised self-portrait.

Next month, a live stage version of Coward's film Brief Encounter opens at the converted Cineworld cinema on London's Haymarket, and Felicity Kendal is appearing in a new production of The Vortex at the Apollo Theatre under the direction of Sir Peter Hall.

Coward's collected letters were published last autumn. Today, the BBC is bringing out a new box set DVD of his plays, including a 1969 interview on acting, and six radio plays retrieved from BBC archives.

And the Coward revivalism is capped by an unprecedented exhibition opening at the National Theatre tonight, celebrating the diversity of Coward's talent through photographs, letters, costumes, painting, theatre designs and memorabilia, and also revealing his less well-known passion for painting and his tireless support for an orphanage.

The iconic dressing gown is on display in Star Quality: Aspects of Noël Coward alongside a monogrammed handkerchief. The exhibition takes its title from Coward's quip about star quality: "I don't know what it is but I've got it."

To tie in with the current production of Present Laughter, starring Alex Jennings as Garry Essendine, "the world's most famous romantic comedian", a man approaching his 40th birthday and confronting his own mortality with several women in hot pursuit, the exhibition includes a display based on the original performance in 1942 - when Coward played the leading role.

Highlighting Coward's connections with the National, there is also a section dedicated to Hay Fever. The country house farce was the first play by a living playwright to be staged at the National, when it was still based at the Old Vic in 1964, with Laurence Olivier directing. Startling black and white photographs from that production show a young and breathtaking Maggie Smith and her co-stars Robert Stephens, Lynn Redgrave and Edith Evans, as well as a youthful Derek Jacobi.

The sumptuous costume that Evans wore for the part of Judith Bliss is also on display. Although Hay Fever premiered in 1925, it was the later version that sparked a revival in interest in Coward towards the end of his career.

Alongside the photographs, old theatre programmes and costume designs, selected correspondence provides a more intimate portrait of Coward the man. There are letters between Coward and his great friends Olivier and Vivien Leigh. After the couple split, Coward managed the difficult feat of remaining friends with both.

A letter from Leigh expresses her gratitude for Coward's support in the aftermath of the break-up. In a letter to "Larry-boy", Coward advises Olivier not to become Director of the National Theatre, but instead to take Joan Plowright - who he married after divorcing Leigh - and their children and have a complete break in Bora Bora.

Rosy Runciman, the exhibition's curator, said: "I don't quite know how he managed to maintain the close friendship with both of them. It was a lifelong friendship. There were ups and downs, but it was a deep friendship. He was very supportive of Vivien Leigh when she had mental problems."

At one point, when Leigh was in hospital and under heavy sedation, she woke up and the first thing she saw was a bottle of her favourite perfume which Coward had sent her. Olivier - who had not been expecting her to come round so soon - had failed to get a gift on time.

Other letters reveal how Coward's network of friends and acquaintances extended far beyond the theatrical world. There is a letter from TE Lawrence - of Arabia fame - expressing his admiration for Private Lives and a "charming" missive from the then Queen Mother who Coward had given some books by the author E Nesbit.

In Which We Serve, the 1942 war movie that Coward directed and starred in, about the British destroyer HMS Torrin, prompted touching letters from Anthony Eden, Douglas Fairbanks Jr and theatre manager Binkie Beaumont.

Ms Runciman said: "There's a whole range of quite emotional letters showing how much of a chord this movie touched because it was so realistic - Portsmouth lent Coward 300 sailors for the crowd scene."

The exhibition also shows Coward was a keen amateur painter. He started out with watercolours, but was advised by Winston Churchill to move on to oils. Lady In Red, his first oil painting, is on display. The actor visited the Prime Minister at his Chartwell home but there were also tensions between the two. When George VI recommended Coward for a knighthood, Churchill vetoed it. Barry Day, editor of The Letters of Noël Coward, said: "The problem was there were two huge egos. Both wanted centre stage and expected to get it. There may have been a touch of homophobia, but there was definitely professional jealousy."

Another little known side to Coward shown in the exhibition was the charitable work he did for the Actor's Orphanage - a children's home based at Silverlands, a large Georgian mansion in Surrey - of which he was president from 1934 to 1956, taking over from Gerald du Maurier. He once took Marlene Dietrich to meet the orphans and never one to miss a publicity opportunity, she handed out signed photographs of herself.

"He was a very active president and arranged an amazing array of events supporting the orphanage," said Ms Runciman. "In the 1930s, they had these fantastic theatrical garden parties. Coward managed to get together all the great and the good in the acting world to man stalls."

A photograph from one of these fundraising garden parties shows Robert Montgomery, one of the biggest Hollywood stars of the time, standing behind a drum about to beat it. Using his royal connections, Coward would invite friends such as the Duke and Duchess of Kent or Lord and Lady Mountbatten to attend.

After the Second World War, the garden parties were replaced by an event at the London Palladium. A picture from The Night of 1,000 Stars shows Laurence Olivier, Vivien Leigh and John Mills performing.

But why the revival of interest in Coward 35 years after his death? Mr Day insisted: "He's really never been away. For people who are Coward fans, he's always part of our lives. A lot of young people are discovering Coward. He speaks to young people because, underneath the frivolity, his plays are really quite serious and sometimes quite dark.

"Private Lives, for example, is about the impossibility of love. You can see a similar subtext in quite a few of his plays."

In the 1950s when gritty and urban kitchen sink drama became the flavour of the day in the theatre, Coward came to be thought of as "effete and irrelevant". However, Mr Day believes Coward had much in common with the dramatist Harold Pinter, with whom he corresponded: "They both write things that mean one thing on the surface but there's a lot going on behind."

The plays also drip with an irony that is now back in fashion in England - and is even gaining popularity in the US, where irony has long fallen on uncomprehending ears.Alan Brodie, a trustee of the Noël Coward foundation, agreed: "People are realising that he wasn't just a frivolous playwright with champagne and cigarettes. That started when Alan Rickman and Lindsay Duncan did their Private Lives.

"People have also discovered that he was not just a playwright. The songs have come back into vogue, with cover versions and songs such as Mad About The Boy getting a lot of airplay." The opening of the Noël Coward Theatre in 2005 also boosted the writer's reputation, said Mr Brodie.

The angry young men of 1950s theatre may have eclipsed Coward but, in his day, he was every bit as controversial. When it was first staged in 1924, The Vortex - recently revived starring pop singer Will Young - was considered scandalous for its veiled references to drugs and homosexuality. "He came on the scene and blasted the old Edwardian theatre out of the water," said Mr Brodie.

Born on the cusp of a century in December 1899 to Arthur Coward, a clerk and his wife Agnes, the daughter of a Royal Navy sea captain, Coward studied at the Italia Conti School and became a child star. At the age of 14, he was taken up by the 35-year-old painter Philip Streatfield and became part of his circle.

It was Streatfield who introduced him to the bohemian Mrs Astley-Cooper, initiating him into country house living. By 1920, he was a produced playwright with his play I'll Leave It To You performed in Manchester. He went on to become one of the biggest stars of the age, acting and directing plays as well as appearing in films such as Around The World In 80 Days and The Italian Job.

Coward once said: "I'm not particularly interested in being remembered. It would be nice to have a little niche in posterity but it's not one of those dreadful things that haunts me."

But according to Mr Day, Coward worried he would be forgotten after his death - "He knew there was more to what he was doing and people would eventually find it."

"Some day," Coward predicted, "when Jesus has definitely got me for a sunbeam, my works may be adequately assessed." Perhaps that day has finally come.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Israeli-born actress Gal Gadot has been cast to play Wonder Woman
film
News
Top Gear presenter James May appears to be struggling with his new-found free time
people
Arts and Entertainment
Kendrick Lamar at the Made in America Festival in Los Angeles last summer
music
Arts and Entertainment
'Marley & Me' with Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Hamm (right) and John Slattery in the final series of Mad Men
tv
Arts and Entertainment
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
art
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

TV
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    No postcode? No vote

    Floating voters

    How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

    By Reason of Insanity

    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
    Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

    Power dressing is back

    But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
    Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

    Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

    Caves were re-opened to the public
    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

    Vince Cable interview

    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor