Noel Coward virtually invented the concept of Englishness for the 20th
century. An astounding polymath - dramatist, actor, writer, composer,
lyricist, painter, and wit -- he was defined by his Englishness as much
as he defined it. He was indeed the first Brit pop star, the first
ambassador of "cool Britannia." Even before his 1924 drugs-and-sex
scandal of The Vortex, his fans were hanging out of their scarves over
the theater balcony, imitating their idol's dress and repeating each "Noelism"
Born in suburban Teddington on 16 December 1899, Coward was
on stage by the age of six, and writing his first drama ten years later.
A visit to New York in 1921 infused him with the pace of Broadway shows,
and he injected its speed into staid British drama and music to create a
high-octane rush for the jazz-mad, dance-crazy 1920s.
By the 1960s, his reappraisal was complete -- "Dad's Renaissance",
called it -- and his "Hay Fever" was the first work by a living author
to be produced at the National Theatre. He was knighted -- at last -- in
1970, and died in his beloved Jamaica on 26 March 1973. Since his death,
his reputation has grown. There is never a point at which his plays are
not being performed, or his songs being sung. A playwright, director,
actor, songwriter, filmmaker, novelist, wit . . . was there nothing this
man couldn't do? Born into a musical family he was soon treading the
boards in various music hall shows where he met a young girl called
Gertrude Lawrence, a friendship and working partnership that lasted
until her death. His early writings were mainly short songs and sketches
for the revue shows popular in the 1920s, but even his early works often
contained touches of the genius to come ("Parisian Pierrot" 1923). He
went on to write and star (with Gertie) in his own revues, but the whiff
of scandal was never far away, such as that from the drug addict
portrayed in "The Vortex." Despite his obvious homosexual lifestyle he
was taken to the hearts of the people and soon grew into one of the most
popular writer/performers of his time.