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Masquerade: The Lives Of Noël Coward Oliver Soden

Weidenfeld & Nicolson £30 ★★★★★

One night during the Blitz, Noël Coward’s Belgravia home was bombed. As he stood in the silence between explosions, his home in ruins, he overheard two young women chattering in the street. ‘The trouble with all this,’ one of them said, ‘is you could rick your ankle.’ As water from the London Fire Brigade rained down, Coward chuckled.

And there you have him. Whatever else he was – and as Oliver Soden’s diligent and detailed new biography makes plain, Coward was many things – he was an engine of comedy. Whatever he was looking at, he saw its funny side. Drug abuse, debauchery, divorce, death – such are the subjects of Coward’s best plays. Yet in every case, those touchy topics are made fodder for fun. As Elyot, the leading man of Private Lives, counsels his beloved ex-wife Amanda: ‘Be flippant. Laugh at everything.’

Such relaxed devilry is usually the result of a privileged background. But despite his silk and satin, cigarette-holder image, Coward wasn’t high-born. His father was a (bad) piano salesman, his mother a boardinghouse landlady. In The Italian Job, Coward’s Mr Bridger lords it over Michael Caine’s Charlie Croker. In the real world, the two men were born not a million miles from each other in down-at-heel South London.

And just like Caine, Coward never stopped working. He knew what it meant to have the wolf at the door. When he wasn’t acting, he was composing. When he wasn’t composing, he was painting. And when he wasn’t painting, he was writing, writing, and writing some more. In the summer of 1935, Coward penned – count them – nine plays.

A few years later he knocked out two of his greatest hits, the stiff-upper-lipped, between-the-wars saga This Happy Breed and the meringue-light comedy Present Laughter, simultaneously. As for the perennially popular Blithe Spirit, he polished it off in eight days flat – and had the show up and running the next month.

As with work, so with life. Coward, who once got a laugh by describing Shanghai as ‘a cross between Brussels and Huddersfield’, was always on the move. Soden does his best to keep us up to speed, but when, in the space of a few pages, he follows Coward from London to New York and back to London and on to Davos, his narrative descends into a breezy travelogue: if it’s Tuesday it must be Brief Encounter. It was this wanderlust, one





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