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Stephen Fry's Vice Presidential Acceptance Speech

...they stayed up till 3 or 4 in the morning and he was lying in his bed, Johnny smiling as he heard those fabulous melodies, those wonderful songs and the voice of the Master...

On Sunday May 22, 2005 at the Charlotte Street Hotel, London Stephen Fry joined Moira Lister and Sheridan Morley as a Vice President of the Noël Coward Society. Following the showing of the 1935 film The Scoundrel starring Noël Coward, Michael Imison presented a scroll to Stephen Fry inviting his acceptance as Vice President of the Noël Coward Society.
Stephen Fry replied....

Michael what a remarkable person I am, I would love to meet me.
I don’t know where to begin. I’ll begin oddly enough not far from here with a man called Roger Peters who some of you may remember lived for several years in The Savoy Hotel under the guise of apparently putting together a film version of Hay Fever, the Master’s favourite play. The play that he famously wrote in a very short time and the
one play which for most of his life he refused to let any film-maker get their hands on
Michael Imison, Stephen Fry,
Patricia Horrocks and Crispian Mills
it because he regarded it as “too fucking perfect” someone told me they were his exact words, I wouldn’t swear in front of you otherwise of course.
Anyway I amongst everyone here who I think who ever held a pen, biro or pencil in the Western hemisphere had been invited to Roger Peters suite at The Savoy at some stage and asked if I would consider writing a screenplay of Hay Fever. And I had, kindly I hope, declined, though we had become if not friends, passing acquaintances and we would ‘What Ho!’ each other and also meet in the Groucho Club or flaneuring around town as one did in the late eighties.
On one occasion when I was between houses I bumped into him and he said, “You don’t know anybody who wants to live in The Savoy for six months do you? Well I said, “As a matter of fact I think that’s a marvellous thing to do, I think I’d rather like to do that.” I’d always fancied myself as something of an Elaine Stritch and so he said, “Well, you pay the room service and the rest is free.” Because he had to go back to America for some reason, he had various things to work out and he didn’t want all his things to be taken out of the suite as he’d lived there so long and he wanted someone he vaguely knew and trusted to look after his hash brownies and his collection of pornography and so on. And so I was very happy to do that. It seemed a fun thing and I’d just been asked to do a film called Peter’s Friends with Ken Branagh.
Now this is very relevant!
It was because I was living in The Savoy that I also bumped into a friend of mine, John Sessions who said please come and see me in Tartuffe which he was playing in what is now called the Comedy Theatre or the Pinter Theatre and so I said, “Yes I would happily come and see you in Tartuffe.” It’s one of the nice things about being in the West End you just drift into theatres and out of them again. I’d been planning to catch up on my theatre going. And because I’d gone to Tartuffe I met Dulcie Gray and Michael Denison who were in that production, at least Dulcie Gray was. And because I met them invited me to one of their legendary Sunday lunches at Shardeloes in Old Amersham. And because I went to that lunch I met John Mills.
This was one of the most marvellous events of my life. He was utterly charming and he came to me and he said,” Ooh now you’re a friend of Kenneth Branagh aren’t you,” and I said, “ yes.” He said,” Will you do something for me, would you tell him that I am one of Larry Olivier’s oldest friends and I think I can speak for him from the grave when I tell you that Kenneth Branagh is not to pay any attention to the nonsense from the critics in which they’re excoriating him for daring to make this film of Henry V,” which at the time had just come out. He said, “I saw it, I thought it was wonderful, I thought it was marvellous and what’s more I think Larry would have adored it and would have adored him and I’d like you to tell them from me.” And I said, “No Sir John I won’t do that I’d like you to do that. Can I invite you to dinner with Ken and his then wife Emma Thompson so that you can,” and he said, “That would be charming, thank you.” Of course it’s a glorious thing to have a suite at The Savoy so you can say to Ernesto your floor waiter. You say, “Ernesto, I’m having a dinner party on Thursday with Sir John and Lady Mills, Ken Branagh and Emma Thompson. Make the suite nice.”
“Certainly Mr. Fry, I want you to disappear at 5 o’clock. I don’t want to see you again until you are ready to come and change.” And then you come and open the flowers and they moved it round, and it really is bliss, I can recommend it to anybody. In fact I don’t know why everybody doesn’t do it. I called down a little earlier, it was just that I was slightly nervous, just in case, you know how it is in hotels even as English as The Savoy that maybe there would be a Portuguese front-of-house manager who might not recognise Sir John. So I said,
“By the way I just want to say that I have a guest coming it’s Sir John Mills.”
“Oh we love Sir John Mills always we know Sir John.”
And so I was relieved because I wanted them to be properly welcomed.
Ken and Emma had arrived and there was a ring at the doorbell and in came Johnny Mills with Mary beside him,. And he went, “Oh my God.” And a big tear appeared in his eye. “This is Noël’s suite.” And it was the suite that Noël always took when he had a 1st night and he had a party. And it was the most fabulous evening. Johnny was on spectacularly good form and he regaled me with Noël Coward stories. A thing that I could have done to me until I died of starvation. I can hear stories about Noël for ever. Since I was a child. I’m trying to think of the first moment I became aware of him. And I think I have it. Probably in common with many of my generation. Looking around an attic and finding an old collection of records and one of them of a man in a dinner jacket standing in the desert with a tea cup. You know what I’m talking about, Live at Las Vegas and the Wilbur Clarke’s Desert Inn. An extraordinary thing I wore itÉ Phillips microgroove, it proudly claimed itself to be, 33 and a third rpmÉ I wore it out, absolutely wore it out.
Mike was very kind in comparing me to Noël and of course I come no where close because there is one whole area in which I respect Noël Coward more and more and more every year that passes and that is as a songwriter, as a melodist, as a writer of music, real music, lasting music. An extraordinary composer of rhythms and harmonies, the very stuff of music. He was remarkably gifted and he had a very beautiful singing voice. In his early high-crooning days he was absolutely unrivalled. And I still can’t hear songs like a Room With A View sung by anybody else, because no one else has that absolute purity of vowel, that absolutely beautiful fluting, crooning tone.
So that’s really why I first became aware of him and then I started to see him in the odd film because, of course, and certainly by the time I was 15 he had died and anyway way before then he was no longer available to be seen on stage. I became aware that there was something about him which Michael alluded to which put him in common with my other great literary heroes at the time who were P.G. Wodehouse and Oscar Wilde and it was that they did something with language that very few other writers can do.

They make it dance; they make it sing in your head; they allow you to get joy from words. Not so much off the page sometimes, it’s actually the tongue hitting the front of the mouth, the texture, the rhythm, the sound of words, the speed of words, fluency of them the delight in them. We sometimes excoriate ourselves for having a cinema and a theatre which is almost perhaps too involved in language. Every now and again some Shakespearean troupe will come from Georgia or Slovakia and do a production of Richard III or Henry VI in their own language and we are all supposed to be astonished by how marvellously they use gesture. Well fine! People can throw their arms around and they can jump up and down and they can do clever things with props but no one is going to tell me Shakespeare is much use without the English language. It just obviously isn’t true. And no one can tell me that a huge part of the pleasure and the privilege of being English is that we share the same language as Milton and Shakespeare and the King James bible and Noël Coward and Oscar Wilde and all those others. It gives us something; it gives us a kind of aristocracy amongst the world that can never be taken away from us. It gives us a familiarity with and a reach, it gives us something that makes us very special.
But, and again Michael was spot on the money. The more I read about Coward the more I admired about him was this genius for friendship, was this extraordinary ability to inspire a kind of love in people that was absolute. Oddly enough is almost suggested in the first half of the film we just saw. I am sure you like me much preferred the Mallare of the first half of the film than the second half of the film and it was a marvellous thing for me because the only films I’ve seen with Noël in are the obvious ones like In Which We Serve and the later ones Bunny Lake Is Missing and of course The Italian Job.
“Mr. Bridger on his private toilet”It was wonderful to see Noël absolutely in mid-season form and to realise what devastating charm he had. I mean we all know of course that he used language wonderfully. Every imitation is just that, an imitation, but to see the real thing like that absolutely superb manner in which he uses language and gesture. And also I’m surprised by how good-looking he was in a way, how wonderful his eyes were. I’d always thought that maybe he was rather a stiff and stary and not a very efficient screen actor. Rather over-trying and stagy but actually that was magnificent. If it hadn’t been so lacklustredly in its direction and cinematography it could have been a remarkable performance. It could have been one of the great films that we could have seen. As it is still I would walk ten miles in tight shoes over broken glass to see that again because it was a beautiful insight into his charm and the seduction I mean he could probably get away with bedding any singe person in the world. He could take Mike Tyson if the mood took him. Let’s face it who wouldn’t be utterly seduced and charmed by that. And of course the crueller he is the more charming he is.
No there’s something about Coward that is often forgotten. He is thought of as a brittle hothouse kind of figure and some of his dialogue - you know all of that “deep in the deepest part of you.” It can sometimes be a little false to our ears. But he is of the 20th Century in theatre and in literature and in his short stories and in his autobiography, he is absolutely at all times, and it’s, I suppose, the only word you think of that we use today is, authentic. He is an absolutely authentic. He is not a poseur. Yes he’s stylish but he’s authentic. I think the day will come when we fully appreciate how much he was a poet of his own time, particularly the early 20s.
If you read books like Children Of The Sun and so on which are rather intellectual essays in the bright young things and into that sort of world that exploded, you realise that no one came closer to defining it as well as he did. Not even Michael Arlen who I believe invested when he was a rich young novelist in one of Noël’s early productions. Things like ‘Poor Little Rich Girl,’ ‘Parisien Pierrot,’ he understood exactly some of the extraordinary iconography of the time. Comedie de l’Arte - he alludes to it on several occasions. He had a real insight into ‘what comes after’ his famous phrase, ‘cocktails and laughter’ with which he is associated are perhaps less important to him than ultimately ‘what came after.’ In that sense he had I think a very poetic soul. He obviously was a lord of language but I think his great interest, and it’s one of the words he uses, perhaps more in his lyrics than any other lyricist in the 20th century is ‘heart’. Again an easy one to blush at and simper at but I do think the mysteries of the human heart were his abiding theme.
Now the climax to my acceptance isÉ I will open as I began.
As you know I am sure all of you that Coward was visiting Singapore in 1929 I think and he came across The Quaints and there it was in double performance in Hamlet and Mr. Cinders he first met John Mills. A lifetime friendship, love, for both of them and it is a marvellous thing that I was able to see Johnny in his last weeks and was able to do something because of my rather nerdy technical nature which was to burn some CDs of Noël that were playing as Johnny was slipping away and leaving the party and we have here two very special guests, they are Crispian Mills, who is Johnny’s grandson, and his beloved Patricia Horrocks who looked after Johnny like no one else in his last two years who Johnny adored and who adored Johnny.
It was a wonderful relationship and Patricia tells me that on the night that Johnny did leave the party she played Noël Coward to him and it really was a party they stayed up till 3 or 4 in the morning and he was lying in his bed, Johnny smiling as he heard those fabulous melodies, those wonderful songs and the voice of the Master, a phrase I am sure you know that Johnny gave Noël. “I can’t keep calling you sir, call me the Master instead or rather Noël told him not to call me sir, as he did a schoolmaster - well you’re my master then” So he is indeed the Master and its because of Johnny, so it is wonderful to have these two here, Patricia and Crispian. It’s a great love of my life that, and I am very touched ever to have come so close to the Mills family and by extension close to the wider family that Johnny had which included as its crowning head Noël Coward. So this means an enormous amount to me. I shall do my very best to turn up to as many events as I possibly can and what else can I say except, thank you very much indeed.

Thank you!