Monday, 27 July 2015

‘Why did I have this longing to wear a dressing gown and slick my hair back?’

Award-winning comedian Tom Allen reveals that his life only made sense once he had joined the Noël Coward Society

Written by Tom Allen
NoelCoward-Jul24-TomAllenTom AllenNoël Coward (1899- 1973): playwright, actor, musician, author, painter, war hero and cabaret star who defined an era but who was also a very unusual role model for a teenager at a comprehensive school in Bromley, southeast London, in the late 1990s.

However, when my music teacher, Miss Werry, suggested Coward was someone I might like it was as if a lifeline had been thrown to me in what was, until then, a world that didn’t seem to understand my high-minded ambitions and eccentric ways. Why did I have this longing to wear a dressing gown and slick my hair back? And how could this world understand? I was at an ordinary school, learning ordinary things and trying to keep from being bullied for being gay.

And it was in many ways an odd method of avoiding the bullies – learning to play Mad Dogs And Englishmen on the piano in the school hall at lunchtime – but somehow it seemed to work. It’s an odd paradox that if you are a bit strange people will pick on you but if you are very strange (and do it with a certain elan) people will leave you well alone.

In many ways Coward was the perfect role model for me. Born the son of a piano salesman in suburban Teddington, he was one of the biggest child actors of his generation.

In his 20s he caused a seismic shift in theatre when he both wrote and starred in The Vortex, a play about a young composer and his society mother who insists on having relationships with younger men – a tale of drug addiction, repressed sexuality and cocktails.

It was a rarefied world that Coward had leapt into from his humble beginnings, but it felt like a leap that made sense. By his own admission he was a ‘brazen, odious little prodigy’ but this was exactly the mandate I had been looking for – suddenly my own creative ambitions seemed to be not only valid but encouraged!

There followed for me a study in as many of his works as possible, from the quick-fire badinage of Private Lives… ‘Elyot: You mustn’t be serious, my dear one, it’s just what they want’ to the reflective sadness of his songs, such as the bittersweet Matelot ‘…Something that is dear to me can not let me be’. It all felt as if it was a raft appearing out of nowhere, teeming with advice on how to rise above the petty squabbles and mindless exams that education seems to brim with. Of course, it was a solitary pursuit. Until, that is, I was made aware of the new Noël Coward Society being formed.

In the days before the internet, if you had a passion for something, you often felt like you were the only person in the world. So, frantically, I sent off my £15 to join and loved receiving their photocopied newsletters. I plucked up the courage to attend one of their social gatherings and was excited finally to be reaching out to people just like me – at last, a friendship group who would understand me! On arrival, however, I found that it wasn’t quite the homecoming I’d hoped for. Largely, it was a room full of 75-year-old gay men. And their wives. Nonetheless, they were nothing but welcoming to me and it did start to feel like my interest in Coward or, as he termed himself, ‘The Master’, was becoming much more valid.

Beyond his initial successes, what is perhaps most impressive about Coward is his sheer hard work and tenacity, or, as he put it: ‘Work is much more fun than fun’.

NoelCoward-Jul24-03-590Noël Coward with Lilian Braithwaites, his co-star in The Vortex

As his popularity waned in a rapidly changing post-war world, he resurrected his career by becoming a cabaret star, first at the Café de Paris in London and latterly at the Desert Inn in Las Vegas – the same venue that hosted Liberace and Frank Sinatra. The craftsmanship of his songs stood out alongside the devilish wit that America so embraced – the eyebrow-raising ‘Alice Is At It Again’ and the fiendish reworking of Cole Porter’s ‘Let’s Do It’ to include phrases such as ‘In Texas some of the men do it, others drill a hole and then do it’.

And as I came to collect LPs and more and more books and letters of his, it all felt like escapism from the humdrum into a world of possibilities. A world that allowed sadness and longing, whether in the form of Brief Encounter or Sail Away and also great jollity in the form of Blithe Spirit or Mad Dogs And Englishmen. It was a world so different from the one I was told I was supposed to like – on the television or by my school friends.

It was an obsession that didn’t always serve me well, however, as I unsuccessfully applied to drama school using a speech from Present Laughter and tried, and failed, to emulate the ageing star Garry Essendine even though I was only 19.

As I grew older and met other people my age with an interest in The Master I was horrified! It was my special private haven after all, and not to be shared. I work as a stand-up comedian now and Noël Coward is still someone I look up to. A consummate professional, loyal to his own authentic voice, his need to create and his own flamboyance and outrageousness. If I could speak to my teenage self now I think I’d reassure him that as far as role models go, although unusual, I could do a lot worse.

‘When you feel your song
is orchestrated wrong
Why should you prolong
your stay?
When the wind and the weather
blow your dreams sky high
Sail away – sail away – sail away!’ Ace Of Clubs, 1950

Tom Allen is appearing in his own show, Both Worlds, at this year’s Edinburgh Festival, from 7 to 30 August, at The Stand Comedy Club: 0131-558 7272, www.thestand.co.uk or www.tomindeed.com


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