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Coward, Noël (1899-1973)

Playwright, Actor, Director, Composer

Main image of Coward, Noël (1899-1973)

Noël Coward was born in Teddington, Middlesex, on 16 December 1899, and by the mid-1920s he had become one of Britain's leading playwrights, songwriters and stage actors. Several of his comedies and musicals were adapted by others for the screen in the 1920s and 1930s, but Coward himself scorned the majority of these productions. Until the Second World War, he had little interest in filmmaking and only the most limited regard for cinema generally.

In 1941, however, he was looking for a means of contributing to the war effort, and he found it one night over dinner with his friend Lord Mountbatten, who related the story of the sinking of HMS Kelly in the Battle of Crete. It was this story that evolved into In Which We Serve (1942), a classic wartime film and also the film that inaugurated the production team of Coward and David Lean as co-directors, Ronald Neame as cinematographer and Anthony Havelock-Allan as producer. Lean, Neame and Havelock-Allan would go on to make three fine films based on Coward's plays (This Happy Breed in 1944 and Blithe Spirit and Brief Encounter in 1945), with David Lean taking over as the sole director.

In some ways In Which We Serve was a most unlikely film. Coward had previously written sentimental and patriotic plays (most notably Cavalcade in 1931), but for the most part he was known for drawing room comedies that were distinguished by their flippant dialogue and irreverent wit. Moreover, his public image was balanced somewhere between the effete decadence of a dandy and the stilted manners of an upper-class gentleman.

He was thus an unlikely figure to write, direct and star in a film that paid tribute to the Royal Navy in wartime. He also had little knowledge of filmmaking, and his initial treatment was said to be lengthy enough for a film of eight or nine hours. The key point of inspiration that helped to overcome these problems was Orson Welles' Citizen Kane (1941). The flashback structure and 'lightning mixes' of Citizen Kane offered a model for condensing such a wide-ranging story and moving swiftly through its different characters and locales, enabling Coward to dramatise the stories of officers on the upper decks as well as the sailors on the lower decks. Crucially, this allows In Which We Serve to interweave the story lines of characters from a variety of class backgrounds, and to give the impression that the nation itself is unified by its class structure. This was a significant achievement in wartime. It was also a stunning cinematic debut and, as Coward himself admitted, one assisted in large part by David Lean, and also by the impressive performances of then up-and-coming actors such as Richard Attenborough, John Mills and Celia Johnson.

Aldgate, Anthony and Jeffrey Richards, Britain Can Take It (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1986)
Coward, Noël, Autobiography (London: Methuen, 1986)

Mark Glancy, Reference Guide to British and Irish Film Directors

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From the BFI's filmographic database

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Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Blithe Spirit (1945)Blithe Spirit (1945)

Noël Coward comedy about a ghost who won't stay still

Thumbnail image of Brief Encounter (1945)Brief Encounter (1945)

Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson start a great British romance

Thumbnail image of Easy Virtue (1927)Easy Virtue (1927)

Hitchcock melodrama about a divorced woman rejected by society

Thumbnail image of In Which We Serve (1942)In Which We Serve (1942)

David Lean/Noël Coward classic about a bombed WWII destroyer

Thumbnail image of Our Man in Havana (1959)Our Man in Havana (1959)

Alec Guinness is out of his depth in pre-revolution Cuba

Thumbnail image of This Happy Breed (1944)This Happy Breed (1944)

David Lean/Noël Coward film about a London family between the wars

Thumbnail image of Vortex, The (1927)Vortex, The (1927)

Controversial melodrama from Noel Coward's first play

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Thumbnail image of Lean, David (1908-1991)Lean, David (1908-1991)

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