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Home Chat - February 2000
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This page contains an article from February's issue of HOME CHAT the newsletter of The Noel Coward Society. Gill Joye wrote about her Coward Centenary Year, a year that had some memorable highlights including a visit to Firefly. Gill has provided some photographs she took of her visit - to accompany the article. Our thanks to her for sharing them with us.
My Coward Year - by Gill Joye
My birthday is in January and, just for once, I was determined to celebrate it somewhere warm so I started the Noël Coward Centenary year in style by achieving my ambition to visit Firefly. A week spent at the elegant style Jamaica Inn, gave us a taste for the free planter's punch served daily on the beach at 11am and for the not so free choice of cocktails available before dinner in the evenings. It would have been easy to have spent the entire week lazing on the beach but we did manage to stir ourselves to visit a few sites, the main one for us being Firefly. Roads in Jamaica are not good so, rather than hire a car, we organised a taxi for the Sunday morning (my birthday) and were duly driven to Noël's home.
Before going to Jamaica I had tried to find out about visiting Firefly without a lot of success. There was limited information on the Island Outpost Website and the leaflets promoting Firefly at the hotel hardly mentioned the Coward connection, but did offer guided tours, stated lunch and tea could be obtained, and that it was a good place for parties and similar events. So we set off not knowing what to expect and armed with only the knowledge I had gleaned from my Noël Coward book collection. With hindsight I suppose I was expecting something along the organised lines of visiting National Trust and similar houses in England, a totally misguided idea as I soon found out.
The drive there seemed quite a long one, although that may have been because the state of the roads meant that Leonard, our taxi driver, had to keep slowing down to avoid big potholes. However, it was a pleasant drive which gave us time to admire the countryside and, as we neared Firefly, our decision to hire a taxi proved wise as the road up to the house became evermore narrow and tortuous. We were fortunate to arrive just as a guided tour was about to start and duly joined the group of American tourists as they set off up the path to the house. However, it only took me a few minutes to realise that I didn't really need a guide to tell me about Noël's life and works so at that point we hung back and followed slowly after them. This ploy enabled us to take our time looking around the house, and to take photographs once the party had all moved on to the next bit. In fact, only once did I have to ask a rather stout American if he would mind moving slightly so that I could get an uninterrupted photograph of one of the rooms.
By the time we had been round the house and reached the cliff-top garden the tour party had long gone, rushed on no doubt by their courier, while we stayed on, taking our time. This is a beautiful tranquil place and has to be seen to be fully appreciated and I was especially reluctant to leave. One last place to visit was the promised gift shop. After the beauty of the surroundings, this was a disappointment with little stock and it did not appear to me making much of an effort to promote itself or Firefly. But perhaps I was expecting too much: this was Jamaica after all, and apart from that we were told that an American tourist had been in a few days earlier and purchased a lot of stock. Despite this I did not leave entirely empty handed, and although two of them are too big I came away with three different tee-shirts, not to mention eight copies of the only available postcard (North Cost scene - St Mary, painted by Noël) handed to us in lieu of small change. Purchases complete, it was time to linger again, with one last look around the house - it was my birthday after all - and to sit in the sun in the garden and try to imagine how it had been when Noël lived there.
Eventually reality in the form of Leonard came to find out if we had got lost and we made our way back to Jamaica Inn. A truly memorable birthday, which the following week turned into an even more unusual holiday when we went to Antigua where I had the misfortune to break my ankle. What a good job we had chosen to go to Jamaica for the first week, otherwise I may never have made it to Firefly.
Back in England it was a few months before I was fully mobile again and my next celebratory event had to wait until May 22nd when I went to the Noël Coward Study day organised by the Theatre Museum in London as part of the Covent Garden Festival. Entitled "Where are the songs we sung?" this was a day of two distinct halves. The morning consisted of early film and television footage of Noël performing medleys of his songs and extracts from some of his filmed works, including Operette, Cavalcade and recently discovered footage of an early film of Bittersweet. The afternoon session had been billed as a musical workshop, and with no clear idea of what a musical workshop was I took my seat in the small theatre in the museum. It was a fascinating afternoon in which David Kernan held a musical masterclass with four aspiring young singers. The two men and two women had each chosen two of Noël's songs and were coached by David with their performances. Not being in the least musical myself, to be there and see and hear how their renditions of songs such as Chase Me Charlie, Twentieth Century Blues, Sail Away and Nina improved during the afternoon almost made me wish I could join in, although it is to be hoped that the young man who chose Nina did not know that the audience had already seen a film of Noël singing that song during the morning session.
Earlier in the year I had decided that I would particularly try to attend performances of Noël's works which I have never seen, so I made a point of obtaining tickets for the "concert performance" of After the Ball, which was presented as part of the Covent Garden Festival later in May. Unfortunately, seven months on, my lasting impression of that evening is only that the theatre was packed and it was very very hot. While musically satisfying, a concert performance largely shuns the acting and lacks any kind of spectacle. However, a few weeks ago the performance was broadcast on BBC radio and that I did enjoy, perhaps because my imagination could visualise the action missing from the live performance. On the following Saturday the Theatre Museum organised a "Noël Coward Trail", consisting of performances of some of his songs in the museum itself, followed by a guided walk around the areas of Covent Garden most associated with Noël and ending with an informal discussion between Sheridan Morley and John Lahr about Noël and his works.
A scorching weekend in London in July took in two very different performances: Sail Away at the Tower Theatre, Islington, was my next stop, followed by a matinee of Hay Fever in the West End the following day. Not having seen Sail Away before of having heard of the Tower Theatre either, I had no expectations and can say that on the whole I enjoyed the enthusiastic performance by a cast reminiscent of a good local drama society coping on a tiny, but packed, auditorium. Hay Fever was another matter. The lure of seeing Geraldine McEwan had been the reason we decided to get tickets for Hay Fever, but I realised all was not well when the melodramatic opening depicting "Love's Whirlwind" made my husband ask if we were in the right theatre. My overall impression is of a very hot afternoon, spent in a half empty theatre, watching a Noël play wrecked by its director, and only sticking it out because the theatre's air-conditioning made it pleasanter than going outside.
It was not until November that I set out on my next Noël venture, the Noël Coward Centenary Conference at the University of Birmingham. I knew when I booked my place that I was venturing into largely unknown territory, so it was with nervous anticipation that I boarded a train for Birmingham on Sunday 31st October. A report on the Conference has already appeared in Home Chat, so suffice to say that it was a thoroughly enjoyable experience, I learned a lot, and met and made friends with several like-minded fans.
Attendance at the Conference also made me decides to go and see Corin and Vanessa Redgrave in A Song at Twilight. Again a matinee, in Row B of the stalls in a theatre which was packed with a highly appreciative audience. This was by far the best Coward production I saw during 1999 and even my husband, who is not a great Coward fan, was spellbound by Corin Redgrave's superb performance as Hugo Latimer. The year was flying by and with December approaching there were some tough decisions to make about what I could still get to see and what had to be left out. So out went Not Yet the Dodo at the British Library and in came the Centenary Gala, which the website had listed as taking place at the Theatre Royal in October, but which was now to be on 12th December at the Savoy Theatre. Fliers advertising this had been given out at the Birmingham Conference and I wasted no time in booking two tickets. This was definitely not something I was going to miss! Since it was a Sunday performance and catching a late train home did not appeal, I also had no difficulty persuading my husband that we really should make a weekend of it.
The Gala was introduced by Richard Attenborough and from then on proceeded to be a fast evening's entertainment of readings, extracts from The Vortex, Private Lives, Design for Living, Still Life, The Astonished Heart, and with enough celebrities taking part to satisfy the most blasé. A few I had never heard of, but most were household names - Joanna Lumley, Simon Callow, Edward Fox, Stephen Fry, Donald Sinden, Helena Bonham Carter, Greta Scacchi, Alan Bates, and lots more., including Noël's last accompanist, Peter Greenwell, and Sir John Mills, who were the hits of the evening. All that and still another evening of Noël to follow at the National Film Theatre on the Monday, a feast to be savoured. Entitled "Remembering Noël", the evening began with a small drinks reception for invited guests and was followed by a discussion on stage, where Barry Day, Constance Cummings and Richard Attenborough spoke about their memories of Noël. The event was chaired by Sheridan Morley and was illustrated with clips from many of Noël's films including his first appearance as a boy pushing a wheelbarrow in Hearts of the World and later successes in films such as The Italian Job and Boom.

And thus ended my year of Noël celebrations. Celebrating my birthday this year at home in Kent on a damp evening in January was a far cry from sitting in the sun at Firefly and drinking cocktails at Jamaica Inn.
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