‘Mad About The Boy’ proves Nöel Coward was the original multi-hyphenate
A new documentary celebrating and chronologising the work of the prolific British talent is now screening at the Houses
Saturday 10 June 2023 By Hanna Flint
If you had to choose one word to describe Noël Coward, ‘prolific’ might be the most apt. The man was the epitome of a multi-hyphenate talent. Playwright, composer, lyricist, director, actor, singer, TV personality, writer, spy, even, are just a few of the career labels that can be applied to the late virtuoso whose legacy continues to inspire across stage, screen and culture. So, it’s about time there was a documentary that did Coward justice, and Barnaby Thompson’s Mad About The Boy: The Noël Coward Story does a pretty fabulous job of chronologising his rise to global stardom.
The film packs a lot into its 90-minute running time, beginning with Coward’s early years at the turn of the 20th century as an impoverished child who became his family’s breadwinner once he began acting at the age of seven. Narrator Alan Cumming tracks his theatrical rise as both an actor and budding playwright who began starring in his own plays like The Rat Trap and I’ll Leave It To You. But he soon earnt wider critical and financial acclaim in 1924 with The Vortex, a risqué production about the relationship between a nymphomaniac socialite and her drug addict son (which Coward played).
From there his increasing popularity across the West End and Broadway, with such works as Hay Fever, Easy Virtue and Private Lives, cemented his star status, as well as his personal appeal as a stylish, erudite and witty man who made himself more than available to the media for photos, chat show interviews and diary pages that the documentary makes use of with substantial archive footage and home movies. Rupert Everett also lends his voice to reading Coward’s written words to bolster the documentary’s efforts to ensure it never lost sight of what the man felt and thought at key moments in his life.
His carefully curated and charming socialite persona was not just a way of deflecting from his poor origins, but masking a quiet fear of exposure as a queer man living in a time when homosexuality was forbidden. ‘I take ruthless stock of myself in the mirror before going out,’ Everett recites from Coward’s diary. ‘For even a polo jumper or unfortunate tie exposes one to danger.’ Despite the anxiety, he had many great loves and short-lived lovers, and his sexual preference, like many theatre types at the time, was a somewhat open secret.
The documentary suggests he didn’t get a knighthood after starring in, writing and co-directing British wartime film In Which We Serve with David Lean (as well as working on behalf of British intelligence during World War II to influence American support of the Allied cause and performing for troops), because Winston Churchill objected to his sexuality. It added to his sense of feeling like an outsider, a tourist, in a rather elitist society. Still, he was rarely short on work even when his stage efforts weren’t earning as much acclaim.
Coward’s transition to film included further collaborations with Lean on This Happy Breed, Blithe Spirit and Brief Encounter, and showed his adaptability to the technical evolution of art. When it came to storytelling, however, he had almost calcified in his traditional three-act way. I found this conflict that arose between him, the critics and a new wave of kitchen sink playwrights rather resonant.
Once the highest paid and acclaimed writer in the world at 30, after World War II, there was a dip in affection for his plays that were mostly set in the bourgeois world of the middle to upper class drawing rooms. Playwrights like John Osborne were being celebrated for offering more grounded, social realistic narratives that defied the established conventions Coward lived by. He wasn’t exactly one for explicit political messaging in his plays, and didn’t hide his contempt for critics and these new playwrights in various newspaper editorials. This is definitely a documentary designed to celebrate his achievements and philanthropy (he was a president of The Actors’ Orphanage), but these broadsheet attacks, as well as his decision to leave the UK so he didn’t have to pay the highest rate of income tax, show a somewhat less generous side to his spirit.
‘There is room for you and there is room for us,’ Osborne says in one clip about Coward’s early public disapproval. Another from Coward asks, ‘since when has laughter been so insignificant?’ – referring to his light comedies that had lost favour. This sort of tension continues to play out today as we evaluate what art has most value. For Coward, who had little money growing up, one can understand why he said success for him was contingent on box office sales and he’d rather his plays ‘had bad notices and run for a year.’
When it comes to art and entertainment, there is a shaky ecosystem where stage and screen works that appeal to the masses, minorities or both should be able to coexist without pitting creatives against each other. Mad About The Boy highlights a creative friction that, in the case of Coward, somewhat eases out during a 1960s renaissance period after earning acclaim on the Las Vegas stage for his revue show and songs. His earlier works enjoyed revivals on the London and New York stage, and film appearances in Boom! And The Italian Job reminded audiences what a sensational screen presence he could be.
Fifty years after his death, Coward’s influence lives on. The posterity of his legacy has been secured by the countless plays, songs, musicals and films he’s served up to the world that continue to be revived and revisited by new generations. He wanted to be remembered as ‘somebody who contributed to the pleasures of other people’ – Mad About The Boy suggests Coward achieved just that.
Mad About The Boy is now showing at Electric Cinema White City every day from today; visit our screenings page for our full film schedule.