Blackpool, 'Enchanting place!You’ve read about it but never quite believe it' says Noel Coward

Programme advert for Play Parade taken from the Cyril Critchlow Collection

Noel Coward, aged 16, first visited Blackpool on 8 May 1916 when he appeared in the evergreen favourite Charley’s Aunt at the Opera House. Coward was in the role of Charley, and, according to three local newspaper critics, the cast “sustained their roles in admirable manner” (Gazette), “Reginald Fry is well supported by Messrs Arnold Reynes and Noel Coward, who pleasingly interpret the roles of Jack Chesney and Charles Wykeham” (Times) and “Mr Arnold Reynes and Mr Noel Coward play undergraduate parts most effectively” (Herald).

Although productions of Coward's Hay Fever later featured at the Grand Theatre in December 1929 and Blithe Spirit came to town twice, in February 1942 and again in March 1942, Noel himself did not appear in Blackpool again until September 1942. That was when the Grand Theatre staged his Play Parade, which was a suite of three plays, Present Laughter, This Happy Breed and Blithe Spirit, the first two mentioned being “presented for the first time on any stage”.

Noel arrived in Blackpool early for his week's run and Mr Clement Butson, the entertainments manager for the Tower and Winter Gardens Company, showed him round the town on the Saturday prior to the run commencing and he visited the Pleasure Beach and saw Edith Evans in John Van Druten’s Old Acquaintance on the Saturday evening.

The pre-publicity by Curtain in the Gazette and Herald declared, “Something new even for Blackpool, is offered at the Grand Theatre next week – two world premieres of Noel Coward plays with the author as producer and star.” Present Laughter was described as “an amusing comedy depicting a day in the life of a popular actor”, This Happy Breed as “a more serious play concerning the adventures of a middle-class family during the score of years between the two world wars” while Blithe Spirit was “the clever comedy, which Blackpool has already seen and which is still running in London and New York”.

After the first night of Present Laughter the Gazette reported, “As author, producer and star Noel Coward achieved a triple triumph at the Grand Theatre last night when he presented for the first time on any stage his new comedy Present Laughter ... The full house gave play and players their full appreciation and Noel Coward returned thanks for their ‘tremendous encouragement on the start of a 28-week tour’.” This Happy Breed premiered on Tuesday 22 September and "the second new play" was considered “Worthy to rank with his famous Cavalcade" and, “Acknowledging the audience’s enthusiasm, Mr Coward mentioned that the play was written in May 1939, and was in rehearsals when war broke out. When it was decided to stage it now it was suggested that it should be brought up-to-date but he preferred to leave it as it was. The audience applauded that decision.”

GHOSTLY BUT FUNNY was the headline following the staging of Blithe Spirit on Wednesday 23 September and the review stated, “Noel Coward’s Play Parade may be likened to a three-course meal in conformity with wartime requirements, but with generous, even lavish, helpings. If Present Laughter was the clever and tasty soup, This Happy Breed was the main dish, good honest British roast beef with full trimmings, and Blithe Spirit the attractive sweet – with a somewhat ghostly flavour. Blackpool saw Blithe Spirit in February, and liked it. It liked it even more last night with the opportunity of the author in the role of the novelist.”

As the run was coming to an end, Seasider in his Gazette Diary on Friday 25 September wrote, “There’s nothing casual about the Noel Coward craft. It is the result of sheer hard work. Ask any member of his cast! I saw Mr Coward just before he went on stage at the Grand Theatre. Swift, brisk, clipped of speech, dispensing utterly with superfluous word and gesture, he outlined briefly the difficulties of being producer, author and actor in his three plays in one week.”

Noel commented, “Before we got down to work we had a real tour of Blackpool", adding, "Enchanting place! You’ve read about it but never quite believe it. Then you come and find it really true. On Sunday we got down to rehearsals, Blackpool expected something good. We have tried - I hope with success – to give it to them.”

One could be forgiven perhaps for thinking that Noel was visiting Blackpool for the first time following such a comment but he either forgot his earlier visit or perhaps chose not to remember it for good effect. Seasider ended with “The preoccupied smile, the firm handshake and he was gone.”

Noel was later reported as saying, “How I wish London had such places as your Tower and Winter Gardens ballrooms. To see the opportunities you provide for men and women in the Services, and for war workers, to have the fun which is necessary for their well-being, was a revelation.” And in a letter to his friend Lynn Fontaine on 1 February 1943 he commented, “I am enjoying my tour enormously. It’s so very rewarding playing in unget-at-able places to packed jammed audiences who look upon it as a terrific event. I am giving good conscientious performances and if ever I do any naughtiness, however infinitesimal, on the stage I fly to my dressing room look balefully at our triple photographs and say ‘Lynnie, we are not amused."

However, Noel never mentioned Blackpool in his published correspondence but his visits to the Fylde Coast over, he continued to entertain almost until his death in 1973 and The Master, as he was universally known, undoubtedly had, in his own words, “A Talent to Amuse”.

Gerry Wolstenholme

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