Theatre: Darling of Drury Lane

Ivor Novello ruled the West End from the Twenties to the Fifties. It's time to bring him back, says Carl Miller

Fifty years ago, the reigning King and Queen of the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane were both Ivor Novello. As composer, actor, playwright and star, he dominated the West End from the Twenties to the start of the Fifties - at one point three Novello plays ran simultaneously. He created a confection of spectacle and sentiment which revived the fortunes of theatres reeling from competition by the talkies. The successful "Novello show" formula: melodious operetta, preposterous romance and lavish visuals, became a trademark as strong as any in London theatre history. At his early death in 1951, it was claimed: "Ivor Novello, the man who made the people sing, will never be forgotten." Yet his work is now barely known outside a handful of devotees.

"Keep the Home Fires Burning" can still stir emotion as a romantic anthem of the First World War, just as "We'll Gather Lilacs" evokes the Second for many who have forgotten (if they ever knew) the name of the composer. That melodic staying power is one of the arguments used by Novello enthusiasts who would like to see his work revived after years of neglect. A new biography by Paul Webb, Ivor Novello: A Portrait of a Star (Stage Direction, pounds 10) makes the case for a reappraisal of Novello, similar to that enjoyed by Noel Coward or Terence Rattigan.

West End producers should take the Ivorphiles seriously. There's no business like old show business, with mature musicals currently on offer including A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1962), West Side Story (1957), Candide (1956), Bless the Bride (1947) and Of Thee I Sing (1931). Oklahoma! (1943) rides out and The Pajama Game (1954) hops in. Even "new" musicals such as Buddy and Four Steps to Heaven trade shamelessly on musical nostalgia.

Look back at the last few years of the West End and it is as if the entire musical theatre back-catalogue has been resurrected - with one significant gap. Nothing by Novello, whose name was once synonymous with London musical theatre.

Detractors dismiss the shows as frippery. Yet in his The Dancing Years, which packed Drury Lane in 1939, the hero Rudi Kleber (played by Novello) is, extraordinarily, a persecuted Jewish composer. Novello drew attention to the gulf between the Viennese fantasy world which had inspired his operettas, and the city now under Nazi rule: "It occurred to me to wonder what would have happened to me if, as a composer of popular music, I had also been Viennese and of Jewish descent." Twenty years before the von Trapp family climbed every mountain to escape Hitler, Novello's bold condemnation of Nazi anti-Semitism made the theatre management uneasy, and they censored his more overt references.

Yet Drury Lane owed its pre-war survival to Novello. New sound movies offered audiences a total experience - not just dramatic situations but also the emotional enhancement of musical scores and extravagant spectacle. In 1935, with the theatre at risk of going bust and becoming a cinema, Drury Lane managers begged Novello to do something on the same scale as Noel Coward's 1931 epic Cavalcade. He obliged with Glamorous Night, and a new West End era began. Seven spectacular musicals, ending with King's Rhapsody in 1949, established a Novello show as a unique confection of huge casts, big frocks, misty-eyed love songs and preposterous plotting.

Novello's own presence as hero was crucial. This had major implications for the show's construction, not least because his singing voice was, he admitted, "the croak of a tired bullfrog". His capacity to work round his own limitations was, however, inspired. Having been adored since childhood for his beauty, he took care to protect and enhance this crucial asset, playing juvenile leads into his fifties. Movie co-star Gladys Cooper called him "the best make-up man in the world".

Novello shrewdly applied his genius at maquillage for contrasting effect. Thus he played both hero and villain in Crest of the Wave (1937). The more aged he seemed as the latter, the more his loveliness as romantic lead was thrown into relief. It was a trick he used regularly, teasing his fans by first appearing aged or grotesque, later to throw off the mask of unloveliness and appear (no less made-up) as a gorgeous object of desire. His audience was devoted. Critics may rarely have praised his work, but they always grudgingly acknowledged his huge popular success.

Even national disaster did not dim the enthusiasm. On the day France fell to Hitler, Novello mused: "I suppose that means there won't be a soul in the house tonight." His director reassured him: "My dear Ivor, if there was a German machine gun mounted in the foyer and others at every entrance to the theatre, your fans would somehow contrive to find a way in." Thousands of women flocked to his funeral and memorial service, with violent clashes between devotees desperate for a last glimpse of the coffin.

Yet love turned to fury if the beloved stepped out of line. Hatred erupted at the first night of Coward's moderately louche Sirocco, in which Novello played the lead. Derision greeted a silent seduction scene, with sucking noises from the gallery whenever Novello kissed leading lady Francis Doble. Cat-calls punctuated the dialogue, culminating when Novello's character dramatically declared "I go to my mother", and one of the gallery loudly suggested what he could do to her when he got there. After his death, one Sunday paper slyly blamed that evening for the fact that Ivor never married: "If there was any hope that Novello would win through [his] mother complex to normal manhood, that nightmare experience must have killed it."

As the innuendo suggests, Novello's world was a gay one in both senses. As well as delighting thousands of women on stage, he gave pleasure to a number of gentlemen off it. As well as artistic collaborators such as his long-term partner actor Bobbie Andrews and lyricist Christopher Hassall, Novello welcomed literary figures Siegfried Sassoon and JR Ackerley into his backstage accommodation. Somerset Maugham claimed that Winston Churchill had slept with Novello to find out "what it would be like with a man". Legend records Winnie's verdict on the effects of the experiment as "musical".

Novello's verdict on Churchill as a bed partner is lost, but the politician's warnings against the Nazis and opposition to the Munich agreement inspire the politics of The Dancing Years. Indeed, the romance with Central Europe which pervades Novello's work contrasts with Chamberlain's notorious dismissal of "a quarrel in a far away country between people of whom we know nothing".

Although he loved King, Queen and Country, Novello's war record was dismaying. He successfully evaded active service in the First, and ended up in prison during the Second. He accepted a fan's proposal for a scam which allowed him to use his Rolls-Royce despite wartime vehicle restrictions. When discovered and arrested, he attempted to bribe the officer delivering the summons, claimed in court that his theatre appearances were "very important work for morale" and insisted on pleading not guilty when he plainly was. As a result, he was imprisoned in Wormwood Scrubs for eight weeks in 1944.

Some of his friends thought that the experience caused his early death. This seems unlikely, although there have always been conflicting reports of the circumstances in which he collapsed near a smashed champagne bottle early that morning in 1951. The gay artist and writer Philip Core claimed that Novello's fatal heart attack occurred during over-strenuous sex. Tabloid accounts, full of innuendo, lingered over the decadent presence of alcohol and chocolates in his flat above the Strand Theatre.

Novello's presence had been so crucial to the success of his musicals that his death killed them too. Looking back, however, the songs (which he never sang) are a greater legacy. There are justifiable objections to the books of the musicals, most of which were cobbled together in weeks. The same has, however, been true when any shows of his era have come up for revival. The book of the 1937 show Me and My Girl was completely overhauled by Stephen Fry for a revival which stormed the West End and Broadway. Cole Porter's Anything Goes had similar story surgery for its last outing, while the Gershwin musical Crazy For You was a completely new show. As the 50th anniversary of his death approaches, Novello's shows need similar treatment. Ah, but will younger audiences respond to wish-fulfilment romance, male beauty, repressed sexuality and a few melodies? Just ask Boyzone.

Arts and Entertainment
The new Fondation Louis Vuitton in the Jardin d'Acclimatation in Paris
architecture

Arts and Entertainment
Richard E Grant as Simon Bricker and Elizabeth McGovern as Cora, Countess of Grantham
Downton

Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
News
Owen said he finds films boring but Tom Hanks managed to hold his attention in Forrest Gump
arts
Arts and Entertainment
Bono and Apple CEO Tim Cook announced U2's surprise new album at the iPhone 6 launch
Music Album is set to enter UK top 40 at lowest chart position in 30 years
Arts and Entertainment
The Michael McIntyre Chat Show airs its first episode on Monday 10 March 2014
Comedy
Arts and Entertainment

Review

These heroes in a half shell should have been left in hibernation
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North
books'The Narrow Road to the Deep North' sees the writer become the third Australian to win the accolade
Arts and Entertainment
New diva of drama: Kristin Scott Thomas as Electra
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Daenerys Targaryen, played by Emilia Clarke, faces new problems

Sek, k'athjilari! (That’s “yes, definitely” to non-native speakers).

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Polly Morgan

art
Arts and Entertainment
The kid: (from left) Oona, Geraldine, Charlie and Eugene Chaplin

film
Arts and Entertainment
The Banksy image in Folkestone before it was vandalised

art
Arts and Entertainment

Review: Series 5, episode 4 Downton Abbey
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.

    Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

    Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

    Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
    British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

    British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

    Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
    Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

    Salisbury ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities

    The city is home to one of the four surviving copies of the Magna Carta, along with the world’s oldest mechanical clock
    Let's talk about loss

    We need to talk about loss

    Secrecy and silence surround stillbirth
    Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

    Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

    Women may be better suited to space travel than men are
    Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

    'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

    If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
    James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
    Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

    Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

    Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
    Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

    Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

    Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
    How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

    How to dress with authority

    Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
    New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

    New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

    'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
    Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

    Tim Minchin interview

    For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
    Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
    Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

    Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

    Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album