Beyond the silk pyjamas: the style of Noël Coward

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Debonair … Noël Coward. Photograph: Everett / Rex / Shutterstock

A new exhibition is devoted to the visual flair of a debonair playwright whose tastes are almost impossible to define – Noël Coward: Art & Style is scheduled to open on 14 January at Guildhall Art Gallery, London. The world première of this new exhibition marks the 100th anniversary of Noël Coward’s West End debut as a 19-year-old playwright.

Noël Coward was the epitome of style. Fittingly that is the subject of a major exhibition opening at London’s Guildhall Art Gallery, containing costumes, set designs, paintings and production photos. Brad Rosenstein, its curator, says Coward is “especially celebrated for his verbal wit” but that the exhibition “will remind us that his original productions were also visual feasts for their audiences”.

That sounds tempting – but it raises several questions. What, actually, do we mean by style? And how has it changed over the years? In Coward’s case, style consisted of the effortless projection of a unique personality. You see that clearly on an album cover of a 1955 LP, Noël Coward at Las Vegas, where he stands in the Nevada desert immaculately clad in dark suit and suede shoes while clutching a cup of tea.

Michael Billington writes in The Guardian: “I only saw Coward once in the flesh and that was at the first night of a compilation show, Cowardy Custard, at the Mermaid Theatre in London in 1972. Although visibly aged, he seemed immensely debonair. But my chief memory is of how John Moffatt dried in the middle of a Coward song. With superb insouciance, Moffatt simply asked the conductor to go back to the beginning of the number. That’s what I call style.”

But while some aspects of style are permanent, its visual manifestation alters with time. You can see that by tracking the radical changes that have overtaken one particular play, Present Laughter. First seen in 1943, it is one of the five canonical comedies – the others are Hay Fever, Private LivesDesign for Living and Blithe Spirit – that constitute Coward’s main claim on posterity. Patently autobiographical, it is about a star performer, Garry Essendine, who uses his instinctive charm to protect himself against the clamorous demands of lovers, friends and the world at large.

Andrew Scott as Garry Essendine, Indira Varma as Liz Essendine in Present Laughter, 2019. Photograph: Alastair Muir / Rex / Shutterstock

Coward wrote Garry as “a bravura part” for himself and there’s a photo of a 1947 revival that shows exactly how he must have played it. While being harangued by an angry young playwright from Uckfield (Robert Eddison), Coward – in polka-dotted bow-tie and striped dressing-gown – leans back in his armchair, looking on with amused indifference. That set the pattern for future revivals until Albert Finney played Garry at Manchester’s Royal Exchange in 1977. There’s a wonderful photo of Finney, sporting a tweed suit and brown trilby, confronting the camera with jutting-jawed resolution. Finney banished the idea that Coward must be played with lacquered suavity and gave us a robustly butch Garry who used funny faces and joke voices to ward off ghastly intruders. As Irving Wardle wrote in the Times: “it is as though Lucky Jim had wound up in No 1 dressing-room.”

Sometimes the attempt to escape the Coward imprint can lead to grotesque exaggeration: that was the fault of a Sean Foley Chichester revival in 2018. But Andrew Scott in last year’s Old Vic production brilliantly showed that elegance can be combined with innovation. Where Coward’s Garry is first seen in his pyjamas, Scott entered sporting a piratical eyepatch and a brocaded waistcoat as if he had come from JM Barrie’s Neverland. That exactly made the point that Garry, like his author, is a lost boy. As Kenneth Tynan wrote in 1953: “Forty years ago Coward was Slightly in Peter Pan and you might say that he has been wholly in Peter Pan ever since.” But Scott, along with the rest of a talented cast including Indira Varma and Sophie Thompson, proved that style is both innate and a quality that needs to be redefined with each decade.

But what of the idea that Coward’s plays offer a series of visual feasts? It is true but there are far more varied courses to the banquet than custom allows. The stock Coward image is of himself in a dressing-gown and Gertrude Lawrence in a satin Molyneux dress rapturously entwined in Private Lives. But the settings for his work include a railway station buffet (Still Life, which became the movie Brief Encounter), a London pub (Peace in Our Time), an imaginary Pacific island (South Sea Bubble) and aboard a cruise ship (Sail Away). While Gladys Calthrop’s sets gave Coward’s plays an exotic glamour in the 1920s and 30s, today designers feel free to reinterpret them.

Gertrude Lawrence and Noël Coward in Rain Before Seven, in the Charlot revue London Calling! (1923). Costumes by Edward Molyneux. Photograph: James Abbe / Courtesy of The James Abbe Archive

The outstanding example is the director-designer Philip Prowse, who has shaken up our visual perception of Coward. At the Glasgow Citizens in 1999 he took Cavalcade, conventionally seen as a patriotic pageant about the first 30 years of the 20th century, and stripped it of false sentiment. One particular scene, in which the recruiting songs of 1914 were accompanied by strange images of death, seemed like a forerunner of Oh! What a Lovely War. And, as Michelle Gomez sang the climactic Twentieth Century Blues with Brechtian ferocity, electronic signs whisked us through the horrors of the years to come. Prowse’s production of Coward’s Semi-Monde, first seen in Glasgow in 1977, also highlighted the decadence of the social butterflies fluttering through the lounge and bar of the Paris Ritz.

Coward was always a mass of contradictions: a proselytiser for bohemianism who worked a 12-hour day, a champion of sexual freedom and a finger-wagging moralist, a cosmopolitan sophisticate who liked to retire to bed early with “something eggy on a tray”. There were many facets to Coward but he indisputably had style; and the art to reviving his work lies in finding modern equivalents without simply mimicking the silken elegance of the past.

Is Being an Older LGBTQ+ Person as Terrifying as It Sounds?

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Photo by RF._.studio from Pexels

(This article by John Casey was originally published in The Advocate on 17 December 2020.)

Someone asked me the other day what my favourite movie was, and I immediately said Arthur, like I always do. Then they said, “Never heard of it? When did it come out?” I didn’t answer 1981, nearly 40 years ago. At that moment I felt old, out of date, and superficially shallow.

I’m in the early stages of a book project writing about noteworthy LGBTQ+ people who are 50 and above, and I am hearing about how many of them came of age during the AIDS crisis, how coming out was so much more of an ordeal, on average, than it is today. And sadly, how they lacked role models from our community when growing up that might have helped them come out sooner or provided lessons on how to be older and LGBTQ+.

Above all else, surprisingly, most say they are at their happiest now. Grateful to have come out of the AIDS crisis alive, living more freely as an LGBTQ+ person in this time and era, and realising late in life that they, truly, fought the good fight to be who they are today.

But that can’t be said for everyone. After I wrote a column with New York Times columnist Frank Bruni about gay men and ageing last year, I heard from many older gay men who felt the same insecurities as I did, that being an older gay male makes us obsolete in a community dominated by youth and beauty. Some told me that they felt happy to be out as men of a certain age. While others said that they experienced some form of depression about getting older.

I could relate. I’ve touched on the fact that I went through a severe, debilitating depression after I turned 50, and part of the reason was the difficulty I had confronting my sexuality for so many years. It wasn’t easy for me, or for a lot of us to come to terms with who we are, and then perhaps not fully deal with it until later in life, which can be a harrowing experience. I know that I’m not alone having gone through a torturous time coming to terms with who I am now.

Thus, I was not surprised by a new report from The Fenway Institute that found older LGBTQ+ adults in the state of Massachusetts have been diagnosed with depression at twice the rate of their straight, cis gender peers. It could be Massachusetts or any other state, or any other country because depression among older LGBTQ+ people is real, and no doubt much more widespread than we ever realise. I always tell people that if it could happen to me, the proverbial life of the party, it can happen to anyone. Having dealt with severe depression, and then having sought out many older LGBTQ+ people who also experienced similar circumstances, I found it remarkable that we all suffered from some sort of PTSD from our youths.

This biting, insistent, almost pathological feeling of self-doubt about being an older LGBTQ+ person can not only lead to depression, but also to many other issues. I spoke with a gentleman who nearly drank his life away in Palm Springs because, as a retired, HIV-positive man over 60, he felt like damaged goods. He was alone, habitually on sex apps, and destroying himself physically because he felt like he had nothing to live for. This led to a major accident where he fell off his porch, fracturing his femur bone, leaving him now frailer, but ironically grateful to be alive.

Again, not surprised that the report also found that LGBTQ+ individuals were twice as likely to fall and be injured in a fall over the past year, and I wouldn’t be shocked to hear if some of that was related to dangerous behaviour about feeling alone and useless. Another woman, a lesbian, told me that she had a life-threatening operation, and has not been the same since and feels there’s nothing to live for, except her cat, who is 10. Otherwise, she is alone, without her partner who died, and without a family to take care of her. The family has made her feel shame for who she is, and she worries about being alone for the remainder of her life. Some days, she doesn’t feel like getting out of bed, and subsists on her Social Security checks, desperately afraid that she’ll end up in a nursing home left to die. We didn’t discuss it, but I’m sure she feels equal trepidation about not being able to pay the costs of round-the-clock care.

While the report also finds that older LGBTQ adults are more likely to hold a college degree, they are more likely to report having had difficulty paying for housing or food over the past year. I thought about this woman, and many others like her. Could it be that they have so much struggle because their families have made them feel similar shame, and thus isolated them? Or perhaps the reverse? They never had the opportunity to come out to their families, too frightened to do so, and they end up alone, self-isolating themselves, and putting their lives at risk while they age alone?

Many of our older LGBTQ+ brothers and sisters, despite it being 2020, still live in secret with their partners. When those partners die, or become infirmed, then the other one is left to either pick up the pieces, or soldier on alone, without the benefit of talking to anyone, or having anyone know about the devastating loss they experienced.

This is all connected. The research also found that LGBTQ+ older adults living in rural areas of Massachusetts expressed concern about the lack of options for LGBTQ-affirming health care, as well as their on-going experiences with strong anti-LGBTQ+ prejudice and harassment in public settings and senior housing. The shame they feel, or think they feel, doesn’t just come from their families. It comes from their peers, and that’s a terribly sad statement. But it is real. Living in an urban area where men hold hands on the street is not the same as living in a rural environment where everyone knows your name, and whispers about your business, and in the process makes you feel paranoid and defensive. We can take so much for granted – those of us who are out and open – but so many suffer in silence, alone, and in self-defeating disgrace.

Most of us who are reading this, and who are older, might easily assume that the majority of LGBTQ+ people over 50 have already come out, but that would be a mistake. Many in our community are still hiding, still afraid to be themselves, still paranoid about what their friends, neighbours, or co-workers might think of them if they were to come out.

“These findings are deeply troubling and point to the need for vigorous enforcement of existing state and federal law prohibiting anti-LGBTQ+ discrimination, as well as targeted interventions to reduce social isolation among LGBTQ older adults and meet their unique health care needs,” said Sean Cahill, PhD, Director of Health Policy Research at The Fenway Institute and author of the report.

In speaking to some of the famous and noteworthy LGBTQ+ people over 50, one thing that comes across is their resilience, and that goes for so many who lived through the worst of the AIDS crisis, and fought to come out and be accepted or risked their lives and livelihoods to be who they are. The report also found this bright spot. We are tougher because of what we’ve been through.

“Although a lot of the information in this report focuses on health risks and disparities, we also found that LGBTQ older adults are resilient, in part, because they’ve had dramatically different life experiences than their straight and cis gender peers,” Cahill added. “They came of age when same-sex behaviour or crossing gender boundaries was subject to imprisonment or institutionalisation. Homosexuality was against the law in all 50 states into the early 1960s, and classified as a mental illness until 1973. Many LGBTQ people were shunned by their families. Many LGBTQ elders lost their life partners and social networks to HIV/AIDS. This is a population that has experienced a lot of trauma and its affects are on-going. But they are survivors.”

In all, this report, though it’s confined to Massachusetts, should be a wakeup call for all of us. We need to do a better job of making sure our older LGBTQ+ brothers and sisters have the support and protections they need to survive, to be happy and to be healthy. If you’re not aware, SAGE (Services & Advocacy for LGBT Elders) is America’s oldest and largest non-profit organisation dedicated to improving the lives of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender older adults. The organisation started a project called The National Resource Center on LGBT Ageing that provides resources across a variety of regions and topics.

Most of us who are older have fought for so much that has benefitted the generations that have followed. Maybe it’s time for the all of us, including the younger generations, to take notice, and take care of the ones who came before them, and who are still fighting to survive.

Window Open … 10 Points to Ponder … Happy New Year!

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Photograph by Scott Hamilton

Window Open – A Play by Andrew Seedall

“There is an unmistakable look that two people have when they are in love. You can’t manufacture it. And if you’re experiencing it, you can’t hide it.” –Hugh Nini and Neal Treadwell.

Window Open – A Play by Andrew Seedall

Bran and Tom’s world is changing after the death of Tom’s mother. Some of the changes they can control, most, they can’t. All they can do is make it up as they go along, blurring the lines between what they keep private and what others make public.

Window Open is a period piece, exploring the complicated lives of a gay couple in England during the late 1960s navigating the confusing worlds of private love and public fear.

A fictional story based on factual lives, exploring the hidden history of a life long same sex couple.

Developed as part of Studio Salford’s Write for the Stage programme, the play has had its public Script in Hand debut as part of ‘Development Week’ at the Kings Arms Theatre, Salford. Development Week is an opportunity for emerging writers to showcase new pieces of work performed with professional actors in front of a real audience.

Window Open [is] a fascinating exploration of a gay relationship back when being openly gay would get you in prison. He’s crafted the world beautifully and worked through a scenario that’s completely engaging. Mike Heath – Studio Salford.

Andrew is a new writer exploring stories which have resonated for him in his life. Originally from Burnley, Andrew lives in Greater Manchester with his life-long partner and Fiancé Rob of 14 years

Visual Ideas for portraiture to accompany Window Open

My name is Chris Currie, I am a photographer based in Manchester and I am excited to be a part of Andrew’s play, Window Open.

We are looking for lifelong same sex couples who have been together for 10 years or more and/or LGBTQ+ widows / widowers from lifelong relationships to volunteer for photography portraits. The portraits will accompany the main narrative arc in Andrews play and will also celebrate love within the LGBTQ+ community.

All the photographs you see in this proposal will give you an idea of what we are trying to achieve, from composition through to lighting. Ideally I would like to photograph each couple in their home environment but due to the current circumstances this may not be possible, however we could also use outside locations.

The process is a collaboration so from start to finish we can discuss ideas as we go. My main aim is to ensure each person involved feels comfortable with the process and is happy with the results. If anybody is interested then please contact Andrew at andrewseedall@googlemail.com

We look forward to hearing from you.

Image by Tom Hunter (l)
Image by Kovi Konowiecki (r)

 

10 Points to Ponder as 2020 draws to a close …

  1. The dumbest thing I ever bought was a 2020 planner.
  2. 2019: Stay away from negative people. 2020: Stay away from positive people.
  3. The world has turned upside down. Old folks are sneaking out of the house and their kids are yelling at them to stay indoors!
  4. This morning I saw a neighbour talking to her cat. It was obvious she thought her cat understood her. I came to my house and told my dog … we had a good laugh.
  5. Every few days try your jeans on just to make sure they fit. Pyjamas will have you believe all is well in the kingdom.
  6. Does anyone know if we can take showers yet or should we just keep washing our hands?
  7. I never thought the comment, “I wouldn’t touch him / her with a 6-foot pole” would become a national policy, but here we are!
  8. I need to practice social-distancing … from the refrigerator.
  9. I hope the weather is good tomorrow for my trip out to the bins!

10. Never in a million years could I have imagined I would go into a bank with a mask on and ask for money.

Happy New Year!

Sonder Radio … New Year’s Resolutions

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Sonder Radio

Tune into a really festive Christmas day with Rachel Oliver from Sonder Radio. She is proudly Australian and a trans activist.

Rachel will be wrapped up warm in front of her fire telling you how an Australian Christmas is celebrated and giving you her tips on having a stress free great holiday with friends and family if you’re LGBT.

Plus of course some fabulous Christmas music from her personal playlist. Listen to Sonder Radio at 2.00pm or 8.00pm on https://www.sonderradio.com/

New Year’s Resolutions:

New King Lear Prizes Spring 2021 Competition Announced

We are delighted to tell you that the King Lear Prizes are back, with a new round of the competition. What better way to make a fresh start in 2021, than to get stuck into a new creative project?

Start planning your new masterpieces and register here.

What’s new?

The King Lear Prizes are even better than last time, thanks to your excellent ideas, tips and feedback!

  • Two new prize categories – write a short story from your life for the Real Story category, or record yourself playing or singing a piece of music for the Musical Performance category.
  • Two categories from last time – write a work of poetry, or create a work of art using any media (painting, drawing, photography, textiles, knitting, ceramics, crafts etc.)
  • You must enter at least one newly created work – they will accept other works, which you have done previously, so long as you enter at least one piece of new work done specifically for the competition.
  • Compete against people at the same level as you – this round of the competition has a single age category (over 65s only), but separate categories for beginners and for more experienced amateurs.
  • More prizes and opportunities to be recognised for your work – over £2,000 in prizes. Certificates and feedback if you are shortlisted, with hundreds of special commendations for high-quality work.
  • A small fee of £5 per entry to cover their costs – the King Lear Prizes is a not-for-profit organisation, and they spent thousands of pounds of their own money putting on the competition last time. They would like to make it a regular competition which covers its own costs.
  • If your personal financial circumstances mean you are unable to contribute in this way, please email andrew@kinglearprizes.org directly, and he will find a way to make sure you can take part.
  • Deadline for entries will be 19 March 2021 – you have 11 weeks to complete your new work in the New Year! Entry form opens on 4 January 2021.

How to get involved

Register your details on the King Lear Prizes website to receive the full information about the competition.
Start thinking of ideas for what you might create for this new round of the competition
Follow them on social media (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram).

Get in touch

As always, please let them know what you think! If anything is not clear, or you think it could be improved, or indeed if you’d simply like to wish the team a Merry Christmas, please email andrew@kinglearprizes.org directly.

Manchester International Festival

Have you got a love story you’d like to share? Do you want to express your love for the important people, places, objects and experiences in your life?

We might be able to help, through a new project we’re creating for next summer’s Manchester International Festival.

If you’re interested, they would love to hear from you. Please drop a line via email to yatie.aziz@mif.co.uk or WhatsApp 07566 778445 and she will tell you more.

Gaydio’s Work Club (over 50s)

Want to learn new skills, meet new people and improve your job prospects in 2021? Then sign up to Gaydio’s Work Club!

Over six weeks you’ll not only refine your skill set but build on your CV by learning all about how to make great radio. You’ll learn from an experienced broadcast journalist and presenter from the world’s biggest LGBT Radio station! You’ll also learn about interview techniques and get support on CV writing and job applications.

This is a great opportunity to show potential employers you are willing to invest time into your future and get plenty of help along the way. No experience necessary.

Due to Covid restrictions, workshops will be on Zoom – but we hope to bring you in to Gaydio to the studios as soon as restrictions allow.

Please email emma@gaydio.co.uk for a registration form.

Manchester video … Perfect Christmas Song?

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This is Manchester!

 

The perfect song for Christmas 2020? It’s 76 years old

There’s no question: “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” is the perfect song for this bizarre holiday season.

“But wait,” I can hear you say. “What does that syrupy tune about shining stars above the highest bough have to do with Coronavirus Christmas?”

The answer is: nothing. Because if the song you’re hearing has that line, it’s not the version I’m talking about. To hear the original (and in my opinion, better) version, one has to jump back in time to the November 1944 release of the smash musical film “Meet Me In St. Louis” starring Judy Garland.

“Merry Little Christmas,” which was composed by the songwriting duo Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane, appears near the end. With a melody Martin called “madrigal-like,” Garland’s teenage character tries to comfort her little sister at Christmastime, while also bracing to leave behind the boy she loves. She’s consoling herself as much as anyone else: “Someday soon we all will be together, if the Fates allow,” she sings in the final verse. “Until then, we’ll have to muddle through somehow.”

If it worked perfectly within the film’s context, it was even better on its own. “Meet Me In St. Louis” opened just before the three-year anniversary of the US entry into World War II, and troops and their families were steeling themselves for yet another holiday apart. “Merry Little Christmas’’ struck a chord with the public, capturing the melancholy and uncertainty of a wartime Yuletide while steadfastly hoping for happy times ahead.

Even without the wartime aspect, Garland’s version hits on a persistent truth – that being sad around the holidays can be profoundly difficult, especially if one is bombarded with quasi enforced cheer. Unlike many popular Christmas songs, it speaks directly to the lonely and downcast. It encourages listeners to make the best of a bad situation, to have themselves a merry little Christmas anyway.

So consider Garland’s version: There’s not a single word that couldn’t be about this Christmas. Next year all our troubles won’t be entirely out of sight, but with the rapid development of COVID-19 vaccines, it’s increasingly likely these particular troubles will be. We’ll be with our loved ones and friends “once again, as in olden days” — as in, the days before March 2020. With any luck, it’ll be soon. But in the meantime, we’ll all have to muddle through. Somehow.

“Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” original lyrics:

Have yourself a merry little Christmas.

It may be your last.

Next year we may all be living in the past.

Have yourself a merry little Christmas.

Pop that champagne cork.

Next year we may all be living in New York.

No good times like the olden days.

Happy golden days of yore.

Faithful friends who were dear to us.

Will be near to us no more.

But at least we all will be together.

If the Lord allows.

From now on, we’ll have to muddle through somehow.

So have yourself a merry little Christmas now.