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© The Noël Coward Society 2005

Future Definite - A Celebration of Noël Coward

When Noël Coward was famously asked by Dick Cavett, “You’re - you... what is the word when one has such terrific, prolific qualities?” Noël replied “Talent.”

Yes talent - the defining quality for those who are remembered, studied, seized as mentors and loved for the richness of their legacy. All of these qualities were explored in the Society’s first successful conference ‘Future Definite - A Celebration of Noël Coward’ at St. Catherine’s College, Oxford on the first weekend of September. In opening the conference Chairman Barbara Longford said, “Ladies and Gentlemen, A warm welcome to the first residential conference of The Noël Coward Society.
I would particularly like to thank all those members who have supported the conference from the outset, when it was first publicised in Home Chat last October. If you hadn’t all diligently filled out the expression of interest forms showing your positive support, we should never have been able to get the conference off the ground. This conference has been arranged by members for members to give us all pleasure, information and inspiration and an opportunity to get to know one another. It has been funded by us all.” Barbara’s intention of providing a celebration rather than a colloquium, created involvement at all levels. As she said later in her introduction, “Finally, as many of you will know, Noël Coward was concerned that he might not be remembered. You may not be aware of it, but I must inform you that every single one of the speakers and entertainers who are participating in this conference has agreed to waive their fee. They are all participating out of love for Noël and his work. What better tribute to the Master could we possibly wish for. ”

What followed over three days revealed just how significant Noël Coward is in the lives of so many people and his importance to the worlds of writing, composing and theatre.

For the 13 students attending the conference it was a voyage of discovery that surprised and amazed them as Marcy Kahan and James Copp explored the theatrical work of Coward with a reading of Star Chamber and James Copp led a master-class on Private Lives. John Knowles began the conference with an introduction to Noël Coward using edited highlights from Noël and Jeffrey Amherst’s home movie footage that illustrated four aspects of Noël’s life in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Their first successful far eastern trip together in 1929; life at Goldenhurst, Noël’s country home in Kent, with his friends; life aboard the HMS Suffolk when Noël and Jeffrey travelled from Shanghai as part of their voyage and lastly footage shot of the Coward revue Words and Music with a ‘special effects’ introduction shot by Coward but never before edited together. Dominic Vlasto followed with a masterly dissertation illustrated with extracts from Coward’s musical work entitled, Taking Light Music Seriously. The text and references to the musical extracts used will be published at a later date as part of a Conference Companion volume.

The last session of the first day followed dinner and revealed what a talented group of young actors were present at the conference. Their reading of Star Chamber the lost and forgotten gem of Tonight at 8.30, that only made its appearance once in Coward’s successful theatrical compendium, was masterly!

Saturday began with a moving account of Coward and his particular influence in the life and development of the dramatist Marcy Kahan. For many this was one of the most interesting contributions to the conference. It gave a personal view of how Coward had provided a paradigm for life and achievement as Marcy from the age of ten began to decide how she wanted to spend her lifetime.

Geoffrey Johnson, Noël’s representative in North America from the 1960s until his death gave us a warm recollection of Noël with many personal memories and stories that were new to delegates. He spent some time recalling the person, who in the light of events has perhaps yet to be fully recognised in the Coward family, Cole Lesley. As he said, “Cole knew more about Noël than Noël!” It was Cole’s knowledge of Noël’s business affairs and his devoted loyalty to him and his reputation that made Cole a unique and vital figure in Noël’s life.

After coffee on Saturday morning some delegates went on a literary walking tour of Oxford celebrating figures who had attended the university and, as importantly, those like Noël who did not attend any university at all! The remaining delegates watched two fascinating interviews that Coward gave to David Frost in America in 1968 and 1970. David Frost asked “How would you define success?” Noël replied, “Box Office”

These interviews had been obtained by Ken Starrett and were shown together with the film of Fumed Oak (starring Stanley Holloway) part of Meet Me Tonight a filmed version of three of the plays from Tonight At 8.30.

In the afternoon Sean Malone gave a very interesting account of the relationship between Noël and The Lunts - Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, who were the most famous theatre couple of the last century and whose legacy is revealed at their home Ten Chimneys now preserved for posterity by the Ten Chimneys Foundation. Sean is the Foundation’s President. He included two videos. One of a tour of Ten Chimneys showing its restoration and the house as it is today and another of an interview by Dick Cavett of Noël and The Lunts after they had received Tony awards. The Lunts starred with Noël in 1933 in Design For Living a play he had written for them.

Stephen Fry had taken a break from filming in Swaffham, Norfolk for his new television series and driven through a horrendous traffic queue (due to roadworks in Oxford) to join us for a wonderful reading of extracts from Noël’s short story Me And The Girls. (This story was adapted as a play in the 1980s and produced by the BBC starring Tom Courtenay). Stephen responded to questions before being photographed with the young actors and talking informally to delegates. Then back to Swaffham for a midnight shoot!

The final seminar of the day was a masterclass conducted by James Copp with the ‘young actors’ on Private Lives revealing yet again the emerging talent that lies in those who were involved. It is interesting to speculate whether all or any of them will ‘make it’ in one way or another in the theatre, film or television. After a break, delegates put on their black ties and dresses according to their taste and assembled on the lawn for a champagne cocktail party. Then in to dinner where at suitably titled tables the company enjoyed a splendid formal meal together. Then on to the evening cabaret featuring Michael Law and Sheridan Morley in extracts from their successful West End show followed by Steve Ross with guests Rebecca Hamway and Dominic Vlasto - a delightful end to the main day of the conference.

On Sunday morning Dr. Sos Eltis gave us a vibrant talk on Notes on Camp, Flippancy and Frivolity that included extracts from The Italian Job showing Coward’s notable appearances.

Alan Farley chaired an interesting discussion entitled Speaking of Noël...” where Hélène Catsiapis, Patrick Newley, Ken Starrett and Sheridan Morley recounted personal reminiscences of Coward and reflections on how they had become interested in Noël and his work. Ken Starrett recalled the audition he gave for The Master.

The final session was an entertainment based on the forthcoming book The Noël Coward Letters by Barry Day. With Barrie Ingham as Noël, Anne Rogers, Susan Tracy and William Oxborrow - narrated by Barry, with musical interludes by Steve Ross at the piano. This curtain-raiser to the book of Noël’s letters to be published in September 2007 gave a wonderful insight into Coward’s life and work and his relationship with friends and contemporaries.

Committee member and representative of the Noël Coward Foundation Robert Gardiner, who did so much behind the scenes to secure the work of the conference, provided closing comments and thanks to all those who took part, the organising committee and the leadership and inspiration provided by Barbara Longford who initiated and organised the event.

Quotes from those who attended can be seen in Home Chat. They make clear how successful and enjoyable the weekend was. We look forward to the next notable Society event. Thanks go to Barbara and all those who organised and attended such a splendid event. Special thanks to Jan and Geoff King and June Weeks for organising and manning the Conference Bookshop and to Andrew Weeks and Ken Starrett for their photography. Thanks to Timothy Morgan-Owen and his wonderful Gertrude Lawrence collection. Thanks also to Tom and Simon Brocklehurst for all their technical support. Not least our thanks to St. Catherine’s College whose staff were unfailingly helpful - whatever the hour!