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The Importance of Happiness: Noel Coward and the Actors’ Orphanage by Elliot James – an interview

The Actors’ Orphanage was a home for the abandoned children of struggling or incapacitated actors. In 1934 it was a harsh and brutal institution. Meanwhile however, the playwright and cultural phenomenon, Noel Coward, was looking for more meaning in his life. After success after success, he would always ask… ‘What now?’ In The Importance of Happiness: Noel Coward and the Actors’ Orphanage by Elliot James, this little known and inspiring true story shows how the legendary Noel Coward and his committee of famous actors transformed the austere Actors’ Orphanage into a place of love and laughter. The lives of many children were greatly improved, against many odds.

Using documents from the archives, many of these events have never been written of before. Elliot James explores how Noel fixed serious, multifarious problems and ended a reign of terror within the orphanage. How he created a rural idyll and led the glamorous fundraisers, such as the Theatrical Garden Parties, midnight matinees at the London Palladium, cabaret at the Cafe de Paris and charity galas at West End theatres. Until, that is, World War II arrives and the Blitz. Now the entire orphanage is evacuated across the dangerous Atlantic Ocean to the United States. The New York years see a new level of happiness for the children, as they put on a Broadway show and meet stars such as Charlie Chaplin and Gertrude Lawrence. However as some grow up they are inevitably called back to Europe and the War. The difficult post-war years see Noel struggle to make the orphanage solvent and successful once again. There will be more problem children, monstrous staff and glamorous fundraisers before Noel can finally hand over the reins to his young protege, Richard Attenborough.

I had a quick chat with him.
Why did you decide to write the book?
I have been a Coward fan since I was young… I was living in Canada and got terribly homesick and in a cliched way, only wanted to watch very English films or or read very english books… to quell the homesickness… and who is more ‘classically English’ than Noël Coward. So I discovered his work and was hooked… it started with his ‘Live at Las Vegas’ album and then I discovered his plays, books and everything. Well, a few years ago I was living in LA and got homesick all over ago (age 36!) and RE-discovered Coward all over again. He’s a wonderful role model and example, in terms of spirit, attitude to life, humour, discipline, work ethic and… kindness. When I returned to England I pursued my passion and started writing articles on various aspects of his life and work… and quickly found that there was a part of his life little known of… his presidency for 22 years of the Actors’ Orphanage. I’d found the subject for my next article! I started interviewing surviving orphans and uncovering files from various archives…. there was enough material for a book! So I wrote it.
Can you tell us more about the history of the orphanage and Noel?
The Actors’ Orphanage took in the children of struggling or deceased actors… for example, an actor might have fallen on hard times in the theatre and been unable to work, due to illness or war injuries. Some fathers had been killed. Sometimes children were the product of an affair.. and the stigma of the time meant that they must be sent away somewhere… out of sight. And a single mother working in the theatre, touring the country would have been a hard life. Remember welfare did not exist then. The Orphanage provided a home and basic education… but it was quite austere.
Noël Coward meanwhile had been a star for many years. In 1934 he was the reigning ‘King of the Theatre’ but… he was beginning to question what else was there to life? He’d achieved so much so young… As the most famous man in the theatre he was asked to be the president of the charity… and the role seemed to give him an answer to what else there was to life. Now he could help others in a very deep and meaningful way. It enriched his life, gave him self worth and was a kind of personal salvation. And my goodness, the orphanage needed a saviour in 1934.
Did you learn something about it?
I discovered so much fascinating history. For example, they evacuated all the children to New York for the duration of World War II. Many did NOT want to return to post war, bomb damaged England. Later, one of the boys was terribly naughty and Coward tried to help him. He became his godfather and got him into show business. That boy was Peter Collinson who later directed The Italian Job, which was Noël’s final film appearance. A sweet swansong for Noël and a sign that Peter appreciated Noël’s help at the orphanage when he was growing up. I also learnt about the fabulous, star studded fundraisers, the marvellous forgotten stars of the era, the many problems they had to contend with… staff issues, bullying, financial trouble, and… so many little acts of kindness by those blessed by success in the acting profession. Coward encouraged many of his show business friends to help with the orphanage.
Whose story is this? Of the children or Noel Coward?
It is a kind of double biography. It’s the complete history of the orphanage, yes, but with a focus on the 22 years that Noël was president… and an analysis of what was going on in his life while he was president… with flashbacks to his own, very different, childhood. His life became entwined with the orphanage in all kinds of ways… for example his knighthood was blocked because he was in the US trying to negotiate the evacuation and upset the wrong people… it’s a complicated story but it’s all in the book. His fabulous cabaret career was born out of the charity fundraisers for the orphanage! From a damp tent in Regents Park to raise funds to the Desert Inn, Las Vegas!
How does theatre help people?
Theatre never dies. The Ancient Greeks had it… Ancient tribes telling stories around a campfire was a kind of theatre. So it must be something we need. The greatest genius of the theatre was William Shakespeare and what did his plays do? What do they still do? They make us think and feel what it is to be Human. They connect us. Coward said that Theatre must be entertaining above all else… but his best plays… Private Lives, for example, are full of subtext and emotion…. it’s a very moving play along with all the tremendous humour and fun. So yes, theatre makes us laugh, makes us feel things, connects us…. and it’s a communal activity and we ARE a social animal, we need communal activities. Seeing Blithe Spirit boarded up on St Martins Lane in the West-End is very sad.  Coward’s comedy had originally run in London through the entire War… but now we are living through a very different problem… but theatre never dies. It will be back and we will appreciate the magic of theatre even more.

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