Peter Greenwell

'Best Noël Coward since Coward'
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Peter Ashley Greenwell, composer and pianist: born Hampton-in-Arden, Warwickshire 12 August 1929; died Denia, Spain 4 June 2006.

The pianist and performer Peter Greenwell was a deliciously entertaining interpreter of Noël Coward's songs, particularly adept at squeezing every wry innuendo out of the Master's comic work. But then, he had a good tutor: Coward himself. They met in 1962, and worked together on recordings and in concerts until Coward's death in 1973.

Greenwell's pet story was to recount how he had done his homework before meeting the Master, discovering his preferred key was E flat. When Coward suggested they "have a go" at one of his songs, Greenwell rather archly asked, "In E flat?" To which Coward retorted, "I knew we would be lovers."

That was by no means certain, but Greenwell did impress: Alan Jay Lerner called him "the best Noël Coward since Noël Coward".

Born in Hampton-in-Arden in 1929, Greenwell began his theatre career as an actor in the 1940s, touring in Ireland with a company formed by Geoffrey and Laura Kendal - with Greenwell supplying incidental music, too. He continued to work as a performer, but also began writing his own material, culminating in 1959 with a musical, The Crooked Mile, co-written with Peter Wildeblood, whose part in the infamous Montagu Case had resulted in an 18-month prison sentence, and, in 1955, his moving account of the affair, Against the Law.

A little of that reality brushed off on their musical, a gangland story set in Soho (not unlike Coward's earlier Ace of Clubs). The Crooked Mile ran for 164 performances at the Cambridge Theatre, and made a star of Millicent Martin. Greenwell recalled that it received "universally good notices". In 2003, the cast album was revived on CD, with the song "If I Ever Fall in Love" recorded by Sarah Brightman and Elisabeth Welch.

Greenwell enjoyed working with Wildeblood. "Peter and I got on terribly well - I remember it as one of the happiest times of my life," he told me. They worked together again on House of Cards - less favourably received, although Greenwell claimed that it was "one of Andrew Lloyd Webber's favourite musicals". A third effort, The People's Jack, based on the life of John Wilkes, appeared in 1969, and was televised (Wildeblood had recently joined Granada). A series, Rogues' Gallery, appeared in 1968, with Greenwell writing the music; earlier, in 1966, he had written the music for Six Shades of Black, six black comedies.

In 1993 Wildeblood had written suggesting they collaborate on another musical. "I've been waiting years for you to say that," said Greenwell. "I really think his facility for lyric writing was second only to Noël Coward."

But it was his meeting with the Master in 1962 that changed the course of his life. "This was a time when I was often at the piano in the Players' Theatre," he said. "People would come in after a show, and one day Graham Payn [Coward's partner] came up to me and said: " Noël has to do a gala for the Gallery First Nighters. I don't know whether you'd like to help him at all?""

Thereafter, when Coward came to London to perform (he was now a tax exile in Switzerland and Jamaica), Greenwell would be summoned to the Savoy:

He'd have a light meal, little sandwiches, a glass of champagne, then we'd get into the car and go off and do it. If he was pleased with the way they'd received him, he would stay for a little while and chat. Then he'd say, "Coming back for a nightcap?", "and off we'd toddle back to his suite at the Savoy, and we'd have some more champagne or gin and tonic, and have a little talk about the evening."

Greenwell continued to compose, even though he left London to live in Spain. In 1971 he was nominated for an Oscar for his music for Ken Russell's film The Boy Friend. His music for The Mitford Girls (1981) was a success but latterly he had devoted himself to cabaret-style performances. In 1995, he played at Chichester in David Kernan's Noël Coward/ Cole Porter entertainment Let's Do It, and the following year opened his one-man show A Talent to Amuse, a tribute to Coward, at the Vaudeville Theatre.

With his Iberian perma-tan and his twinkling eyes, Greenwell resembled a naughty uncle. In 1999, he played at the inaugural Noël Coward Conference at Birmingham University, singing a hilarious 1930s addition to "Mad About the Boy". He sang such lines as "People I employ / Have the impertinence to call me Myrna Loy", with monstrously wicked timing - inserting a lovely beat between "call me" and "Myrna Loy" - and an equally monstrously wicked wink.

Philip Hoare

Comments