NORMAN HACKFORTH - 1908 - 1996
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 immoderately."

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."

 Copyright - The Noel Coward Society - May 2001