Happy 117th Birthday, Noël Coward!

Sir Noël Coward was born 117 years ago today in Teddington, a suburb of London. He gained fame as a playwright, director, composer, singer, actor and wit. Here are 10 NC Did-You-Knows:

  • Coward’s father was a piano salesman of limited ambition, so Noël grew up in modest circumstances. He took to performing early, performing on an amateur basis at the age of seven.
  • Coward’s mother chose his first name because he was born so close to Christmas.
  • Coward’s mother sent him to a dance academy in London, and Coward made his professional debut at age 11 in a children’s play called The Goldfish. Within months, he was appearing in Where the Rainbow Ends at the Garrick Theatre in London’s West End.
  • At 14, he became the protege of society painter Philip Streatfeild, and when Streatfield died, his friend, wealthy socialite Mrs. Astley Cooper, took Coward under her wing and helped to promote his career.
  • Coward was drafted to serve in the Army during World War I, but was considered likely to contract tuberculosis and was given a medical discharge after nine months. Thereafter he began writing and selling short stories to help support his family and he made his initial stabs at writing plays—first in conjunction with other playwrights and finally, in 1918, completing his first solo effort, The Rat Trap.
  • In 1920, Coward wrote and starred in the light comedy I’ll Leave It to You. It debuted in Manchester before opening in the West End at the New Theatre (renamed the Noël Coward Theatre in 2006).
  • In 1921, Coward traveled for the first time to the United States, hoping to interest New York producers in his plays. He had little luck initially, but was greatly influenced by the shows he attended on Broadway. He tried to bring some of the youthful verve those shows exhibited to his own plays, and he made a success of it.
  • Coward wrote dozens of works for the theatre, amassed more than 100 writing credits in movies and television, and composed more than 300 songs.
  • Coward, a friend and neighbor of author Ian Fleming, was offered the title role in the James Bond film Dr. No (1962). His response: “No, no, no, a thousand times no!” That same year, he was also offered (but declined) the role of Humbert in Lolita.
  • During World War II, while Coward toured extensively to entertain the troops, he was also secretly working for British intelligence.

Happy birthday, Noël Coward, wherever you may be!

Noël Coward

A meeting of the minds, ca. 1958

One doesn’t—at least, we didn’t—associate Raymond Chandler and his private eye protagonist Philip Marlowe with the espionage adventures of Ian Fleming‘s James Bond. The characters live in two different eras, for one thing, with very little overlap in the 1950s. But the two authors, born twenty years apart—Chandler in 1888, Fleming in 1908—were members of a sort of mutual admiration society, and in 1958, someone at the BBC got the idea of placing them in a radio studio before a pair of microphones and giving them some time to discuss the art of the “thriller,” a term they use to encompass both Chandler’s hard-boiled, Los Angeles-bound detective fiction and Fleming’s globe-trotting spy stories.

The half-hour program is available for streaming via the “I kicked myself over that,” Fleming admits, “because I rather pride myself on trying to get these details right, and that was a very bad break.”

Fleming later asks Chandler how mob killings are arranged, and Chandler is happy to oblige with a lengthy account of how such hits are carried out.

Fleming also notes the difference between the pair’s respective protagonists, noting that Marlowe is “a real hero; he behaves in a heroic fashion.”

Not so Bond, says his creator.

“My leading character, James Bond, I never intended to be a hero,” insists Fleming. “I intended him to be a sort of blunt instrument wielded by a government department, who would get into these bizarre and fantastic situations and more or less shoot his way out of them — get out of them one way or another. Of course, he’s always referred to as a hero, but I don’t see him as a hero myself. I think he’s, on the whole, a rather unattractive man.”

Fleming goes on to admit that, as Chandler suggests, that he did allow Bond some feelings and sentiment in Casino Royale, but the two men agree that while a man in Bond’s line of work might experience emotions, he must, as Chandler puts it, “quell them.”

Fleming states that he is impressed with Marlowe’s (and Chandler’s) attitude toward gun violence, which he communicates by reading a passage from Chandler’s then-brand new novel, Playback (a book that was then and is now widely considered by far Chandler’s weakest—it was the last one he ever completed), in which Marlowe mocks a woman who is holding a gun on him by expressing his weariness with guns. “Guns never settle anything,” Fleming quotes Marlowe as saying. “They’re just a fast curtain to a bad second act.”

“I think that’s well put,” Fleming says with relish. “That is a far more sensible point of view than the one I put forward in my books, where people are shooting each other so much and so often, you often need a program to tell who’s in the act and who’s a spectator.”
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