Noel Coward’s too brief encounter with the silver screen

How did ‘the Master’ manage, at times, to work so brilliantly within the recorded image during his own lifetime, and why has it all gone so badly wrong ever since?

NOEL COWARD UK actor, playwright and composer

It may have been ‘cheap music’ that the playwright, composer and actor Noel Coward mused about the strange potency of in his play Private Lives, but the moving image played an equally significant role within his own life and career, too. He may have reportedly quipped that ‘television is for appearing on, not looking at’, but the small and big screen alike held powerful allure for him, both for artistic and financial reasons.

And yet it seems that, in the half-century since Coward died, filmmakers have struggled to capture any of his work’s wit or sophistication. As a new documentary about Coward, Mad about the Boy, is released in the cinema, how did ‘the Master’ manage, at times, to work so brilliantly within the recorded image during his own lifetime, and why has it all gone so badly wrong ever since?

Although Coward once remarked ‘I’m not very keen on Hollywood. I’d rather have a nice cup of cocoa, really’ – a line that can’t fail to call to mind Boy George’s famous comment about preferring a cup of tea to sex – he was happy to sell the rights to his plays to producers from an early stage in his career. Rightly forgotten early adaptations of Forbidden Love and Easy Virtue – as well as the more significant 1928 film of The Vortex, with the playwright’s friend Ivor Novello as the drug-addicted Nicky Lancaster – established Coward’s fame with an audience far beyond the West End. Big-budget Hollywood versions duly followed, of Private Lives, with Norma Shearer and Robert Montgomery, and the controversial bisexual-themed comedy Design for Living. The latter starred Gary Cooper and was fortunate enough to be released in 1933: the year before the Hays Code was introduced to American audiences and cracked down on any suggestion of such scandalous content.

Coward himself made his cinematic debut proper in the starring role of Anthony Mallare in the 1935 film The Scoundrel, in which he played a cynical, worldly publisher (is there any other kind?) who dies and is forced to seek redemption in order to escape eternal damnation. The picture is now all but unavailable, but Coward would make a more significant foray into the field of film shortly after the outbreak of the Second World War. He played a disguised version of his friend Louis ‘Dickie’ Mountbatten in the patriotic tub-thumper In Which We Serve, in which he performed so many roles – acting, co-directing (with David Lean), scripting, producing and composing the music – that it would have come as no great surprise if he’d acted as tea boy as well.

Although Coward’s arch, dressing gown-sporting persona might have made it difficult for seasoned theatrical audiences to adjust to him as a noble veteran sailor, he gave the role of Captain Kinross his all, most notably in a scene in which, as he and his crew watch the sinking of the destroyer HMS Torrin, Kinross delivers a stirring speech, declaring of their dead shipmates, ‘If they had to die, what a grand way to go. For now they lie all together with the ship we loved, and they’re in very good company. We’ve lost her – but they’re still with her.’ And aficionados of Coward’s more quip-laden work may enjoy the film’s lighter moments, such as when Kinross remarks, after his wife Alix has said that it was early in their marriage that ‘I discovered what a horrible, disagreeable character you have’, ‘it was a good honeymoon, as honeymoons go.’

Still, In Which We Serve has not endured anything like as well as Coward’s next collaboration with Lean, 1945’s Brief Encounter. Regularly and rightly cited as one of the greatest films ever made, Coward’s screenplay, based on his play Still Life, depicts the unconsummated love between a frustrated middle-class housewife and an idealistic doctor and raises it to near-epic heights. It was helped by Lean’s brilliant decision to counterpoint the repressed agonies the two feel with the use of Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No 2, which expresses all the passion and anguish that they cannot. It was later, regrettably, remade in 1974, with, of all people, Richard Burton and Sophia Loren, but they were unable to come close to Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard in the original.

1945 in fact proved something of an annus mirabilis for Coward when it came to the cinema, as that year also saw the Lean-directed release of the adaptation of his play Blithe Spirit, complete with Margaret Rutherford as the fraudulent medium Madame Arcati. Although Lean opened out the play cinematically, much to Coward’s displeasure – his note to the director was ‘just photograph it, dear boy’ – it is now perhaps the definitive filmed account of a Coward play, complete with a debonair Rex Harrison in the lead role of the writer Charles Condomine, beset by wives both living and deceased.

It might have been expected, in the post-war era, that Coward could exploit the lucrative medium of cinema to his heart’s content, writing well-paid screenplays, as his friend and rival Terence Rattigan did. Yet just as Coward’s style of playwrighting fell into abeyance with the rise of a new, more naturalistic kind of theatre in the Fifties, so he largely fell out of sympathy with cinema. His 1950 drama The Astonished Heart, which he wrote and starred in as a psychiatrist obsessed with a younger woman, was rejected by audiences, and although his work continued to be adapted for film and television, he never wrote another original screenplay of his own.

As an actor, he preferred well-paid cameos in such big-budget extravaganzas as Around the World in Eighty Days to more challenging roles, although he was atypically cast as a lecherous landlord in the child abduction drama Bunny Lake is Missing and, of all things, ‘the Witch of Capri’ in the ill-fated Tennessee Williams adaptation Boom!, opposite Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. But by far his most beloved and celebrated screen role was his last in 1969, when he played the crime boss Mr Bridger in The Italian Job, suavely masterminding the titular heist from inside the jail where he is deferred to by staff and inmates alike as ‘the guvnor.’ It’s one of a classic film’s many pleasures – perhaps the greatest of all – and Coward is stately yet uproarious, declaring at one point ‘I noticed that some of that young mob in E Block are not standing for attention while the National Anthem is played at the end of the nightly TV. Tell them to do so, otherwise, they will incur my displeasure.’

After Coward’s death in 1973, there have been occasional attempts to adapt his plays for cinema – most recently 2021’s miserable Blithe Spirit, in which the usually excellent Dan Stevens struggles as Charles and Judi Dench fails to erase memories of Margaret Rutherford – but the flatly prosaic way in which the films are directed tends to stifle the laughs. It can only be speculated what a truly flamboyant director – an Almodóvar or, were he alive, a Buñuel – might have done with a freer adaptation of Coward’s work, although it’s unlikely that the playwright would have warmed to it. And perhaps his work is best left on the stage. As his most recent biographer Oliver Soden, author of the excellent Masquerade, says, ‘Attempting to film Coward is intrinsically difficult because all his work – directly or indirectly – is about the theatre. It’s like trying to film Noises Off. Only In Which We Serve was designed to be a film, and that’s why it stands out.’

Yet Coward’s legacy to cinema is a more substantial one than might be imagined. For Brief Encounter and The Italian Job alone, he deserves to be remembered as more than just a moonlighting playwright. If Mad About The Boy can remind cinematic audiences as well as theatrical ones of his abiding genius, then it will testify to the veracity of one of his most-cited remarks, in his 1956 diary: ‘Someday, I suspect, when Jesus has definitely got me for a sunbeam, my works may be adequately assessed.’


Alexander Larman