When Noel Died the Coffin Had to Be Sent Back for a Second Doctor to Pronounce Him Dead. How Very Typical of Him to Want to Make Two Grand Exits; A FASCINATING INSIGHT INTO THE LIFE OF NOEL COWARD THROUGH THE EYES OF HIS DEAREST COMPANION

Article excerpt

Byline: LYNDA LEE-POTTER

NEXT year will be the centenary of Sir Noel Coward's birth, and the huge celebrations have already begun.

On Easter Saturday, Twentieth Century Blues, The Songs Of Noel Coward, is on BBC2 and Arena's Noel Coward trilogy will be shown on three days over the Easter weekend.

The three films celebrate his extraordinary life and brilliant talent.

They contain interviews with many of Noel's famous friends, including Sir John Gielgud, Sir Richard Attenborough and Elaine Stritch, but above all his much-loved, dearest companion Graham Payn.

This year Graham will, unbelievably, be 80, but the man Noel called 'Little Lad' remains spry and full of mischief and fun.

'Once,' says Graham, 'I was rather cheeky and answered Noel back. Dear Lornie, Noel's secretary, sang: "Oh little lad, do be careful, he'll be after you and give you hell, so watch it," and Little Lad stuck.' Graham and Noel met in 1932, when Graham was 14. His forceful mother Sybil, who was a professional singer, urged her son to show off all his talents.

'It was at an audition for Noel's musical Words And Music. I sang Nearer My God To Thee and tap-danced at the same time. Noel nearly passed out laughing. I remember seeing him standing up in the stalls saying "We've got to have that kid in the show", so I was booked.

'I wore a white suit with a white top hat and introduced Mad About The Boy. In another scene I was a beggar boy singing my heart out and overacting like mad. I was doing the whole bloody lot. Noel came to rehearsal and he said: "Graham, we know what a good artist you are but this little boy wouldn't know what you know, so he'd stand quite still and just sing".' It was another decade before they became lovers. Until then, Graham had affairs with chorus girls and even got engaged to a ballet dancer from Wimbledon. He was devastatingly handsome and this, combined with his joie de vivre, made him irresistible.

HOWEVER, in 1945 Noel asked him to be in his musical Sigh No More. He wrote his famous song Matelot especially for Graham and fell in love with him with the overwhelming, obsessive passion he brought to all his affairs.

Graham broke off his engagement and moved into Noel's London apartment in Gerald Road. They were together until Noel died, in 1973.

Graham says: 'He was such a mar-vellous man to live with. I hadn't got his sharp brain, but he took a shine to me so I was very lucky. He looked after me.

'He was very quick, and could tell by some instinct what people were like, but he had a kind and generous heart.

He worked like anything for all the charities. He had a marvellous character as well as talent.' Noel Coward was emotionally, but not physically, faithful. Often he had an anguished love life because he was tortured by jealousy. He always said that when his career was going well, his private life was in tatters. However, when his love life was ecstatic, his career was in the doldrums.

Frequently he became obsessed with beautiful young men. Graham remained the one constant love of his life and provided happiness and loyalty.

'We stuck together so well,' Graham says, 'because it's not in my nature to be jealous or to want to make anyone else jealous. Other people went all out to upset him. That's the last thing in the world I wanted, but we had rows all right. We'd argue and carry on.

'I was always pleased if I could make a good crack back at him because he was much sharper than I was. But he didn't frighten me. The fact that he was the famous Noel Coward didn't come into it. I loved him as a person.

He was so kind to me.

'I was no star, for God's sake. He could get jealous over personal relationships but never about work. He'd be the first to congratulate someone if they'd been a success. He adored John Osborne; thought he was terrific.

The only thing that got him down was lack of talent. …