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There Will Always Be Enough In The World For Me... by Dominic Vlasto

It was a chance meeting in Cairo in September 1943 that led to a remarkable performance partnership whose culmination, a few years later, was Noël Coward’s post-war American “re-launch” at Las Vegas, with what are now widely recognized to be the most successful and celebrated cabaret performances of the twentieth century.   Norman Hackforth was coming towards the end of a contract with E.N.S.A. in a North African troop-show, Between Ourselves, while Noël Coward was on his way home at the end of a tour playing to troops in North Africa, Palestine and Iraq.  They caught up with each others’ news, and Norman found himself delightedly accepting Coward’s proposal that he should accompany him on a South African concert tour to raise money for war charities, that had only been proposed to Coward himself a day or two earlier.  Coward rejoiced at this stroke of luck:  “This will be fine”, he remarked in his Middle East Diary, “as apart from being a first-rate musician, [Norman] has accompanied me so much in the past and knows all my tricks.”
Norman Hackforth
In rather poor health, Noël flew back to England for six weeks before heading for America in December where he had arranged to do some further concerts and broadcasts.  While there Bill Stephenson tackled him about his still-exhausted and almost voiceless state, and quietly but firmly packed him off for a complete two-week rest -  to a house in Jamaica, a place that was subsequently to become so vital a part of Coward’s  post-war creative life.   Jamaica worked its recuperative magic on Coward’s health for the first time, and he used some of his enforced idleness to write a song called ‘Uncle Harry’, hammering it out interminably on the piano until it was so firmly stamped on his memory that he knew he wouldn’t forget it.  Today we revel in the lyric wit of ‘Uncle Harry’ while often forgetting the song’s strong autobiographical resonances:  “This visionary ... found a South Sea isle on which to stay”. 

Noël caught up with Norman, who had already made his own way to South Africa, and after several days of planning, the tour there began, properly. They received an amazing reception: met by the Mayor of  Cape Town at the station, they were ushered into an open car and driven though the streets cheered by a crowd of thirty thousand lining the pavements.  Noël was asked by the Mayor to stand up in the car as they drove along and Noël complied, “steadying myself with my left hand on the windscreen, waving graciously with my right hand and feeling fairly silly.”

Adderley St., Cape Town motorcade

They spent nineteen days in Cape Town, during which they gave three consecutive performances at the Alhambra and about thirty-five camp and hospital shows within a radius of fifty miles.  They went on to do similar rounds of performances and visits in Durban, Pietermaritzburg, Bloemfontein, Kimberley and Pretoria, and it was on the night train journey from Bloemfontein to Pretoria that Noël was suddenly aware of “a rather tiresome South American rhythm” thumping in his head. This went on intermittently all night and emerged next morning as ‘Nina’.  The first performance of this complex comedy piece the following day, was very nearly a disaster when Noël dried cold and Norman prompted him with the wrong bit of lyric. Noël was furious with himself for “casual non-professionalism, and before I attempted ‘Nina’ again it had been rehearsed two hours a day for a week”.
It was while they were in South Africa - or possibly during the tour’s Rhodesian and Kenyan coda - that Noël played and sang to Norman a song which he said he’d recently written, and which he thought he would probably use in the next musical he did after the war.  Norman loved the song and remembered it with affection for many years afterwards, though it was never used in any subsequent show.  Only after Noël’s death did Norman discover that there was no record of the song in the Coward files, and he immediately wrote it down, because, as he said, “It has always seemed to me to be a true statement of his own philosophy and deep appreciation of the simple, unchanging and most rewarding qualities in life.”  The song was ‘There Will Always Be’:

“...I’ll always know, deep down inside me,
Love will be there to guide me.
There will always be this personal thing
To set my spirit free,
This there will always be ...”

By this stage, too, the original itinerary had suddenly expanded:  a cable had arrived from Louis Mounbatten (the Supreme Commander South East Asia), asking them to come to entertain the “forgotten” 14th Army in Burma and Assam, and although they recognized that this would be a tough assignment they also knew that “there was no question of refusing”.    While Norman returned to Cairo by air and awaited further instructions, Noël sailed from Mombassa on the destroyer Rapid  and used time on the voyage to write the poignant short story, ‘Mr and Mrs Edgehill’, about the stoicism of a British couple quietly doing their duty upholding the principals and tradition of British rule in the most remote and unvisited Pacific island location.
They re-met in Calcutta in early June, in the days immediately preceding the breaking of the monsoon (“an authentic foretaste of hell and damnation”, wrote Coward),  for three days of planning, and were fortunate to find the “little treasure” - a small Broadwood upright piano, specially manufactured for tropical countries, with a tone which in proportion to its size Norman described as “truly amazing”.  It was borrowed from a generous lady who never knew the indignities to which it was then submitted.  Once it made an eighty-mile journey strapped down onto the back of a jeep.  They did two set-piece shows at Chittagong, then squelched off through the monsoon mud via unmade jungle roads to tour the troop camps of the Arakan peninsula for ten days. The Little Treasure, along with the tents and mosquito nets, followed their jeep in a lorry, along with two dour, monosyllabic batmen who had been assigned to them who were irreverently known by Noël and Norman as “The Ball of Fire” and “The Spirit of Jazz”.

Mountbatten had appointed one of his ADC’s to fulfill the role of Noël Coward’s tour organiser.  Norman characterized Major Mike Umfreville as “a jolly pukkah Sahib”, and he was undoubtedly the inspiration behind the Indian Army types who gossip to one another in the song ‘I Wonder What Happened To Him?’  It was a song whose ridicule is tempered with a strong affection, and the troops absolutely loved it. New comedy songs were sometimes written during air hops, first writing the lyric with the help of a rhyming dictionary, then setting a melody, and only later, when circumstances allowed, working out an appropriate harmonic accompaniment.  ‘I Wonder What Happened To Him?’ may well have come to life on their flight into the valley of Imphal, which was completely surrounded by mountains occupied by the Japanese, had been cut off for three months and could at that point only be supplied by air later. Noël and Norman learned that the plane immediately preceding theirs had been shot down.

Both Coward and Hackforth wrote tellingly understated reminiscences of this, the toughest part of their travels together.  They appeared on shaky wooden platforms, tank transports and sometimes on the bare ground.  If they were lucky a tarpaulin was rigged over them, if not they shared the rain with their audience.  One show, a thousand yards from the front line Noël remembered as “uneven”, because the intermittent gunfire “made timing very complicated”.  Just as they were leaving the valley, the siege was broken and the road reopened.  Norman noticed that the first to arrive of the relief convoy of trucks contained a large consignment of beer:  “For once someone down the line had got his priorities right!” 

After Imphal, their progress was less uncomfortable, firstly to engagements in  Digboi in Assam, and then by gradual stages back to Calcutta, where they did their first public concert at the New Empire Theatre.  Then on to Bombay (where Noël had his car crash), Madras and finally Kandy and Colombo in Ceylon, Mountbatten’s base.

In Calcutta on July 10, Noël and Norman had spent most of the day at HMV’s studios there, where they recorded the then-new Coward songs ‘Nina’, ‘Uncle Harry’, ‘I Wonder What Happened To Him?’ and ‘There Have Been Songs In England’, the last of which featured Norman’s arrangement of English folksongs sandwiched in between Noël’s refrains. Also recorded were two of Norman’s own numbers,  ‘Music Hath Charms’ and ‘Loch Lomond’. All of these recordings of Coward lyrics have slight variants from the versions which became known from later performances and printing:  The island girls in ‘Uncle Harry’ “tossed their curls and gave the Nazi salute”, Nina “said with most refreshing candour that she thought Carmen Miranda was subversive propaganda and should rapidly be shot”, while the Indian Army Officers reminisced disapprovingly about “that chap Delavigne - there was some beastly story about a golf caddie in tears on the seventeenth green”.  This recording of ‘Nina’ also preserves Norman’s brilliant and much more apropos piano accompaniment, which had most of its particular merits emasculated in the printed version.
Three of these tracks have previously been released on a CD (‘Noël Coward sings Sail Away and other rarities’) issued at the time of the Coward Centenary, but strangely this didn’t include ‘Nina’.  All six Calcutta tracks are now commercially available on the new Naxos CD issue of Coward’s complete recordings, ‘I Wonder What Happened To Him’ [NAXOS Nostalgia Noël Coward Vol.4 8.120721].

Noël not only went on to use ‘Music Hath Charms’ and ‘Loch Lomond’ in Sigh No More, which Norman rightly considered a tremendous compliment, but  ‘Loch Lomond’ also featured in his London and Las Vegas cabarets and was recorded at Las Vegas.  There has to date been only one commercial recording of ‘There Will Always Be’  (by Barbara Lea in 1999 on Challenge CD CHR 70073); but both this song and ‘Loch Lomond’ and Hackforth’s witty contemporaneous rewording of Cole Porter’s South American dream, ‘End The Beguine’, surely performed by the two of them on these tours, can now be heard by NCS members on the CD of the recent Steve Ross evening at Pizza-on-the-Park, which will shortly be sent out with membership renewals.

Tucked away in one of the sections of Future Indefinite where Coward writes of the South African tour, there is an interesting passage in which he explains why he declined to go along with well-meaning plans to lodge him with “prominent hostesses” along the way. He knew this would mean no real rest or chance to conserve his energies and hone his performances between appearances:
NoëlCoward with Norman Hackforth at the Café de Paris

“It is always difficult to convince people outside the world of the theatre that performing in public is a dedicated and arduous busines ... to sing a few songs, bow to applause, make gracious little speeches of thanks, all this looks, or should look, so effortless, so easy, but actually it isn’t.  The process is very, very rarely as gay and enjoyable as it appears to be ... I can only remember a half dozen out of the hundreds of troop concerts I gave during the war that were, to me, entirely satisfactory ...”  and later:  “Sometimes in these later years, when I am singing in the luxurious intimacy of the Café de Paris, I glance at [Norman] sitting impeccably at the grand piano, and my mind flashes back to those rickety wooden stages ... and I see him with sudden vivid clarity ... wearing an open-neck, sweat-stained khaki shirt, with a damp lock of hair hanging over one eye, and hammering away at the Little Treasure as though he were at his last gasp.”
           
And Hackie remembered, “The most impressive thing about Noël was his absolute efficiency.  Wherever we were, he insisted that the show should be a tip-top first-class production.  He has great powers of concentration, and can keep going until he drops - quite literally.”        
I am grateful to Barry Day for communicating to me the recent discovery of a verse sent by Norman to Noël shortly after their tours ended:  it provides confirmation, if it were needed, of the fact that Noël’s carefully-crafted facade hid a delicate tenderness with “little people” and an acute feeling for the unhappiness of others:

Thank you so much, dear Noël, for a lot
Of happy treasured memories I’ve got
To take away with me, of these last few
Months I’ve been privileged to spend with you.

You don’t like demonstrations, nor do I,
And yet, I couldn’t simply say good-bye
Without attempting, in this little verse,
(Which could be better turned, though might be worse!)
To tell you something of the very real
Respect and admiration that I feel.

Your genius, your talent, your immense
Ability to sway an audience,
And, from nostalgic sentiment to smiles,
To get them roaring, rolling in the aisles.
All right, you’re good!  We know that well enough.
That’s just professional old-showman stuff,
Which you’ve acquired as the result of years
Of sheer hard work, by blood and sweat and tears.

The other side of you not many know,
Because it’s never featured in a show,
And, fighting shy of all publicity,
Appears but for your friends; among them me.
I know the other side, I know it well,
And unreservedly I’ll say it’s swell!
You understand the humble folk, the salt
Of all the earth.  You’re generous to a fault.
You speak their language too, and understand
Just how and when to lend a helping hand,
To give the little guy an even break.
You are of those that give, and seldom take.

I’ve been with you in hospitals, where men
Were racked in mind and body, or just bored.
I’ve watched their faces change, the moment when
You entered and passed smiling through the ward,
Cheering the wretched, comforting the weak,
With just a gently reassuring word.
This was no slick professional technique,
This was the real you I saw and heard.

I could continue writing all this stuff
All through the day and far into the night;
But maybe I’ve embarassed you enough;
At least I know you’d not be too polite
To tell me so!  You’re mercilessly frank,
And quite sincere in everything you say.
Another of the things I have to thank
You for, sincerely, till my dying day.

So, Master dear, this little doggerel ends.
God bless you, most admired and loved of friends.


N.H. 1944                                          

“I Wonder What Happened To Him”
Noël Coward The Complete Recordings Vol. 4
1944-1951 - NAXOS 8.120721
Track details and listing are as follows:
*With Norman Hackforth, piano Rec.10 July 1944, Calcutta.
** With Mantovani conducting the Piccadilly Theatre Orchestra. Rec.14 Sept. 1945. *** With Robb Stewart, piano. Rec.14 Sept. 1945.  **** With orchestra. Recorded 9 Jan. 1947. ∫ With Mantovani conducting the Cambridge Theatre Orchestra. Rec. 3 Jul. 1950, London ∫∫ With Norman Hackforth, piano Rec. 12 Jul 1951, London. ∫∫∫ With the Cafe de Paris Orchestra and Norman Hackforth, piano. Rec. 12 Jul 1951, London
1. Nina *
2. Loch Lomond *
3. There Have Been Songs In England*
4. Uncle Harry *
5. Music Hath Charms *
6. I Wonder What Happened To Him *
7. Sigh No More  **
8. I Wonder What Happened To Him ***
9. Matelot **
10. Nina **
11. Never Again **
12. Wait A Bit Joe ***
13. Uncle Harry ****
14. This Is A Changing World ****
15. Bright Was The Day ****
16. His Excellency Regrets ****
17. Josephine ∫
18. Don’t Make Fun Of The Fair ∫∫
19. Sail Away ∫∫∫