Barry Day OBE, Literary Advisor to The Noel Coward Society, Author, and Truffle Hound for all things Coward, serendipitously got involved with the estate when he was an advertising executive. Vacationing with his wife on the north coast of Jamaica, he suggested they visit Firefly, Coward’s mountain top retreat. He expected to see a palatial estate. Instead, Day found a dilapidated bungalow, much of it open to the elements.
“It was a shambles, original books damp and rotting, the piano in terrible shape…” The so-called caretaker, Miguel, offered anything for sale. “I was appalled.” Back in London, Day contacted the estate. The legatee was Coward’s former partner, Graham Payn. “I wrote, How the hell can you let this happen?! This is one of the greatest Englishmen in the arts-ever.”
“Graham responded, You have to understand. He left me the house. I haven’t got the heart to go back there, so I gifted the house to the Jamaican government to whom I send money.” Funds were clearly not used the way Payn intended. “What,” asked Day, “can we do?” He suggested aggressively lobbying the Jamaican government into repairing and maintaining the place, met with Payn in Switzerland and got involved. (Later, Day co-wrote Payn’s autobiography.)
Boxes and boxes of materials and first editions were gradually made available. To date, Day has written 12 books on Noel Coward and adapted a good many of his plays. “As the years go by, I’ve been trying to find what we haven’t used.”
Hoi Polloi (hoi pol·loi- the masses, common people)
Until 1945, Noel Coward enjoyed immense popularity. When the war ended, in light of continued austerity and rationing however, people felt they didn’t want to be reminded of the class consciousness of the 1930s. Having reinvented himself as one of the elite, fraternizing with the rich and titled, the part of Coward’s work that came readily to mind were light pieces depicting frivolous, leisure class people.
Curiously, audiences did not take into account such as Cavalcade, which followed the middle class Marryot family from 1900 to 1929 or This Happy Breed, observation of the working class Gibbons family between the end of World War I and the outbreak of World War II.
Hoi Polloi (1949) was the first piece Coward wrote after VE Day and something of an effort to show his sincere sympathy for the lower classes. It centers on a sailor with 24 hour leave who comes to London and meets Pinkie, the daughter of a grocer. They spend the day together and she takes him home to the family. Pinkie’s mother used to be on the music hall stage as Florence Follette, “a knock-out who never got to the West End.” She sings her signature number “Chase Me Charlie” (Over the Garden Wall.) Other undoubtedly familiar songs in the musical include “Sail Away,” “I Like America,” and “London Pride.” (When Coward stopped working on a musical, he often moved its better numbers elsewhere.)
The story of “London Pride” is that meeting someone at a bombed out station after a particularly bad blitz, Coward observed a little flower growing up between cracks in the pavement. Moved, he saw the defiant bloom as a key attribute of the British. “In times of stress, we get on with it,” Day explains. Then Coward recalled the flower’s name, London Pride. The song became a second national anthem during the war.
Outside Buckingham Palace, Pinky and her date find themselves talking to a decorated RAF Commander and his wife who invite them to a posh party that evening. The sailor would rather be alone with his new girl, but agrees to go. They have a good time. His leave is over, but he’ll see her weekends and they’ll get married. Of course.
Day tells me the musical offers perspective on a working class family by someone (a sailor) from outside the city and reflects the British people putting their lives back together. “It’s modest, but it’s classic Coward and fills a gap most people don’t know existed.”
Apparently, Coward felt Hoi Polloi was not sufficiently up-to-date and wrote a second version that made Pinky a singer in a dodgy cabaret called Ace of Clubs run by gangsters. The writer tried to depict a sleazy London he simply didn’t understand. This one was produced and ran-briefly. “Ironically, a year later in New York, he goes to see Guys and Dolls and realizes that’s how it should’ve been done.”
When Barry Day disinterred and adapted Hoi Polloi, he thought of Mel Miller’s venerable theater, Musicals Tonight which had presented two of Coward’s other shows. It will premiere at The Lion Theater November 1-13. A must at least for Coward fans, the piece will take us back to gentler and frankly pluckier times. Sounds like entertaining respite to me.
Photos and Drawing of Noel Coward and Original Show Music Courtesy of The Noel Coward Society