Perfect profile

Ivor Novello: portrait of a star

Paul Webb <em>Haus Publishing, 208pp, £16</em>

ISBN 1860570194

Ivor Novello could do it all: compose bestselling tunes, write and star in hit West End plays and smoulder in internationally popular films. He also had the looks of Rupert Everett. During his lifetime his fame eclipsed that of all other living greats of British theatre: for a period of almost 37 years his versatile talent and astonishing glamour kept him in the public eye. When he died, enormous crowds turned out to glimpse his coffin; the rest of the nation listened to his funeral service on the radio. Yet, little more than half a century later, Novello's work has largely been forgotten, and his reputation obscured by that of his younger (and longer-lived) friend and rival Noel Coward. Paul Webb's biography attempts to revive the Novello legend and to give some sense of the man's importance in shaping the British theatrical landscape of today.

The man American newspapers dubbed "the handsomest man in England" was born David Ivor Davies in Cardiff on 15 January 1893. His father, also called David, was a rates collector; his mother, Clara, was an internationally successful singing teacher. As a baby, Ivor, as he was known, showed no signs of beauty, and was remarkable only for a swarthy complexion and an oversized nose. However, as a boy he grew into his looks and was soon attracting attention for the fine, aquiline profile of which Noel Coward would one day quip: "There are two perfect things in this world - my mind and Ivor's profile!"

From the beginning, the overwhelming influence in Novello's life was his formidable mother. Clara - named after Clara Novello, an Italian singer - came from a fiercely musical Welsh family. This was a talent that she was convinced her baby had inherited, pointing, if proof were demanded, to the "not at all inharmonious" manner in which he cried "in perfect thirds". Her maternal instincts were correct: in 1903, at the age of ten, Ivor won a choral scholarship to Magdalen College Choir School.

After six years as Magdalen's most feted boy soprano, Novello's voice broke and he went to live in London, where he immediately began to make a living teaching the piano and writing popular songs. In 1914, aged just 21, Novello wrote "Keep the Home Fires Burning", which was an instant hit with the British wartime public; overnight, he became a celebrity. When, in 1917, America entered the war, it was sung with gusto there, too, and his international reputation was made - as was his fortune.

Not content with fame as a composer, Novello harboured acting ambitions. In 1919, his Mediterranean looks won him the attention of the film director Louis Mercanton, who cast him as a Sicilian cad in The Call of the Blood. Novello's performance received glowing reviews (Sarah Bernhardt thought him thrilling) and thus was launched a film career that would last until 1934. Novello used his celluloid cachet to create an opening on stage. He made his theatrical debut aged 28 in 1921. Early reviewers picked up on his tendency to lose "the heroic in the effeminate", but even though it was no secret that the exquisite Mr Novello was gay, nothing could dim his popular-ity with his growing legion of fans. In 1929, one critic noted wryly that as he left the building, "the audience was still playing the game of pretending that it was a hungry hyena and Mr Ivor Novello was the bone".

Novello's popularity stemmed in no small part from his writing most of the plays and films he starred in himself from 1924 onwards. All the while he was still penning hit songs. But it was when he combined these talents that he had his greatest impact. Between 1935 and 1951, he produced seven musicals. The enormous success of such productions as Careless Rapture and The Dancing Years (or, as Novello preferred to call them, Careless Rupture and The Prancing Queers) kept the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane from closure during the impecunious times of the Second World War.

It was during the 1951 run of his musical King's Rhapsody that Novello, aged only 58, collapsed and died of a heart attack. The nation was stunned. Noel Coward wrote in his diary: "Shall miss him very much because, in spite of his plays and his acting, I was very fond of him." Other actors to whom he had been friend and mentor were less catty: all remarked on his enormous kindness.

Paul Webb's account of Novello's charmed existence has a virtue known to few celebrity biographies - brevity. Webb is an impassioned believer in the need to resurrect Novello's work and reputation and he castigates the British theatrical industry (and in particular the National Theatre) for its failure in this regard. Although Webb is clearly a diehard Novello enthusiast, it is impossible to read this biography without concluding that he has a point.

This article first appeared in the 09 January 2006 issue of the New Statesman, The death of freedom