Don't let's be beastly to The Beatles unless your name is Noel Coward
CRAIG BROWN: Don’t let’s be beastly to The Beatles…unless your name is Noel Coward
Sir Noel Coward, master of tremendously witty plays and songs, died 50 years ago this month.
He was born in 1899, the same year as Edward Elgar’s Enigma Variations had its first performance. He died on March 26, 1973, when Donny Osmond’s The Twelfth Of Never was topping the charts, with Slade’s Cum On Feel The Noize at No 2.
Coward was the last of the old school and conscious of it. By the 1950s, he had begun to sense that his type of witty, well-made play, with characters drawn almost entirely from the upper classes, was being replaced by the gruff and brooding working-class dramas of John Osborne and Harold Pinter.
Returning from an evening at Osborne’s Look Back In Anger in February 1957, Coward wrote in his diary: ‘I wonder how long this trend for dreariness for dreariness’s sake will last.’
In fact, it was to last for a very long time. Three years later, he described two Pinter plays as ‘completely incomprehensible and insultingly boring.’ Of Samuel Beckett, he commented: ‘I would rather play bingo every night for a year than pay a return visit to Waiting For Godot.’
Sir Noel Coward, master of tremendously witty plays and songs, died 50 years ago this month
He came to regard The Beatles as his musical nemesis: they were the future, and he was the past. He first met John Lennon and Paul McCartney on Saturday, June 6, 1964, at a party at the Kensington home of the singer Alma Cogan.
In public he called them ‘pleasant young men, quite well behaved and with an amusing way of speaking’. But behind their backs, he was much more catty.
They were, he confided to a friend, ‘totally devoid of talent. There is a great deal of noise. In my day, the young were taught to be seen but not heard’. Unfortunately, that friend was the journalist David Lewin, who repeated Coward’s remark in the Daily Mail.
A year later, Coward found himself in Rome for a high-society wedding. With time on his hands, he went to see The Beatles in concert at the Teatra Adriano. Coward spent most of the evening with his fingers in his ears.
‘The noise was deafening throughout and I couldn’t hear a word they sang or a note they played,’ he wrote in his diary. It was, he concluded, ‘just one long ear-splitting din’. But his distaste did not stop him wanting to congratulate them backstage: the lure of celebrity conquers all.
Coward came to regard The Beatles as his musical nemesis: they were the future, and he was the past. He first met John Lennon and Paul McCartney on Saturday, June 6, 1964, at a party at the Kensington home of the singer Alma Cogan
He was met by The Beatles’ courteous manager Brian Epstein, who told him the band had already gone back to their shared hotel. Would he care to meet them there?
Coward duly drove to the hotel, where he was, once again, met by Epstein. Extremely embarrassed, Epstein told him that, unfortunately, The Beatles had been upset by his remarks in the Daily Mail, and had no wish to see him.
Coward protested that this was ‘graceless in the extreme’ so Epstein agreed to try again, and Paul McCartney, ever diplomatic, agreed to come down and meet him.
Coward offered Paul a word of advice. ‘I explained gently but firmly that one did not pay much attention to the statements of newspaper reporters. The poor boy was quite amiable and I sent messages of congratulation to his colleagues, although the message I would have liked to have sent them was that they were bad-mannered little s***s.’
Coward’s sense of outrage did not end there. Six months later, he heard the news that The Beatles were to be honoured with MBEs. ‘I am infuriated by those bloody little Beatles going to Buckingham Palace,’ he wrote in his diary.
Coward was born in 1899, the same year as Edward Elgar’s Enigma Variations had its first performance. He died on March 26, 1973, when Donny Osmond’s The Twelfth Of Never was topping the charts, with Slade’s Cum On Feel The Noize at No 2. Pictured: Coward looking out to sea
Coward’s diaries were not published until 1982. When Paul read them, he was confronted by the full extent of Coward’s wrath.
‘Mob hysteria . . . always sickens me,’ Coward had written of The Beatles and their fans. ‘To realise that the majority of the modern adolescent world goes ritualistically mad over those four innocuous, rather silly-looking young men is a disturbing thought. Perhaps we are whirling more swiftly into extinction than we know. Personally, I should have liked to take some of those squealing young maniacs and cracked their heads together.’
But there is a happy ending. Two years ago, Paul paid tribute to Coward: his father loved his songs, he said, and ‘they always appealed to my songwriting ear’. In 1998, he even recorded Coward’s A Room With A View — and very sweet it is, too.
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