- Given the breadth of Noel Coward's
talent and his dedication to work, it may be surprising that
such an inventive and melodically-gifted composer either failed,
or failed-to-be-bothered, to learn how to write and arrange his
music. This in an age when the public perception of the composer
was of a tense figure with furrowed brow at the piano with hands
moving between keyboard and pencilled score. For his entire composing
career Coward was assisted by a string of musicians who worked
on his compositions, arranged, orchestrated, accompanied and
conducted them. One of these was Norman Hackforth remembered
by one generation as the velvet 'Mystery Voice' of 'Twenty Questions'
and known by the preceding one, as one of Coward's more significant
accompanists and partners in attaining musical excellence.
Norman Hackforth was born in
India in 1908 and developed his musical skills in cabaret. He
was featured in an early experimental television programme and
appeared in two short films 'Musical Moments' and 'A Song or
Two'. He also acted in 'Eight Cylinder Love' (1934) before being
part of the 'Twenty Questions' phenomena that ran on BBC radio
from 1947 to 1976 - Hackforth, with his famed voice, appeared
in 28 years of the run largely as 'The Mystery Voice' but later
as a panelist. In 1959 he became the first musical director of
the then fledgling East Anglian independent television station,
Anglia Television, in Norwich, a job that lasted just a year
before reorganisation moved him out of Norfolk and back to London
and 'Twenty Questions.'
His career with Coward began
in 1941. The Coward Diaries record how on Sunday 13 July that
year they drove to Hammersmith Palais de Dance to rehearse 'London
Pride' and 'Won't You Please Oblige Us With A Bren Gun' songs
that Hackforth had helped Coward to write and arrange. Coward
records; "I performed shaking with nerves but was pretty
good. Songs went well ..."
In 1943 Coward was on a war zone
tour to the Middle East. He met Norman Hackforth again working
as an accompanist and on September 13th records: "In the
evening I went with Dick and Maie (Mr. & Mrs. Richard Casey)
and Jeff (Jeffrey Holmesdale - Earl Amherst of Hackney) to Between
Ourselves, which was an ENSA show with my old friends Hugh
French and Norman Hackforth in it. It was exceedingly good, fast
moving and infinitely superior to most of its kind. This particular
company had been on the job for two years now, and the strains
and stresses of desert travelling seem in no way to have diminished
the freshness and vitality of the whole performance. We all went
round afterwards and had a drink with them, and were photographed
Two days later at the Continental
Hotel Coward asked him if he would act as his pianist for the
following tour of South Africa. It was a memorable trip for both
parties. Philip Hoare records that Hackforth remembered the nerve-wracked
first night of the tour in Cape Town, when Coward engaged the
Cape Town Municipal Orchestra to open with a selection from Wagner
and Rossini. The effect was calculated to "bore the bejesus
out of the audience", said Hackforth; after that "they'll
be only too delighted to see us." In fact after the first
half Bert Lister (Coward's dresser and stage manager) ruthlessly
slapped Coward across the face swore at him and condemned his
performance. In the second half Coward "Went back and did
his two best comedy songs and was a riot."
They went on to perform throughout
Southern Africa, from hospital canteens, in what is now Soweto,
to the Pretoria Country Club. Earl Mountbatten asked them to
extend their tour to take in the Far East and they arrived in
India in the monsoon season. They spent ten 'hellish days' in
the jungle, made worse by less than appreciative audiences. Hackforth
hammered away at the 'Little Treasure' (the upright piano that
accompanied their travels) in his open-necked, sweat-stained
khaki shirt as "Coward sang to 2,000 booing black GIs who
had never heard of this effete limey."
Coward wrote about him in 1954
"His face is always wan and set in deceptively morose lines,
and no burning sun, no stinging wind has ever succeeded in tinting
lightly its waxen pallor." Hackforth always declared that
he and Coward worked together "very amiably, indeed, always"
but later in his memoirs and in interviews he is concerned about
Coward's comments about him in his Diaries - "ghastly diaries
which really show him up in such a vile light I don't know why
anyone published them." The entry for Friday 3rd January
1947 records a visit Coward made with Joyce Carey to see Norman
Hackforth's revue ' Between Ourselves' at the Playhouse. "Awful,
with a couple of good ideas bungled and a cast of repellent unattractiveness."
Hackforth's obituary claims that
Coward underplayed his part in his emergence as a cabaret performer.
In 1951 Hackforth was accompanying and promoting Bea Lillie at
the Café de Paris. Coward came to the opening night and
asked Hackforth whether he thought he would "be any good
at this cabaret". Hackforth said "Of course you would.
I've been trying to get you to do it for years! Why don't you
get yourself a good agent and see what happens?" Coward
said "I don't want an agent - you can be my agent."
He was and got him his first engagement " It wasn't very
difficult, I may say, but I actually negotiated it." They
started on October 29th and performed a four-week run. At a later
date he accompanied Coward and Mary Martin with orchestra, at
the Café de Paris.
Hackforth worked on 'After The
Ball' with Coward in Jamaica. Coward saw it at Bristol in the
following year, "The orchestra was appalling, the orchestrations
beneath contempt, and poor Norman conducted like a stick of wet
asparagus ... the whole score will have to be re-orchestrated
from overture to finale and Norman will have to be fired."
"Typical Noel Coward exaggeration," responded Hackforth.
Norman Hackforth wrote two books:
his autobiography; And The Next Object... ; advertised
as 'radio's famous Mystery Voice remembers' and Solo For Horne
; the Biography of the comedian Kenneth Horne.
Peter Matz took over the baton
of musical partner when Hackforth failed to get an American work
permit for Coward's lucrative Las Vegas cabaret stint. As The
Independent put it "Peter Matz, became another in
the long line of unsung heroes who underscored the career of
a musically illiterate but supremely gifted genius."