Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Noel Coward the Citizen Diplomat: From Establishment Propagandist to Underworld Promoter 1942-1969

During the Second World War star names were used to promote the armed forces and to help folks at home feel at ease and patriotic about the war. In this respect one of the most famous names involved was Noel Coward, the famous English playwright, composer, director, actor and singer. He was a personal favourite of the last Queen Mother. I am looking in this blog post at the image when Britain was at war and then during peace time some 25 years later. The two Coward films I am drawing on are his collaboration with David Lean's "In which we serve" and his last film as an actor; "The Italian Job". Coward's life partner the actor Graham Payn, features in the 'Italian Job'as Coward's valet whilst in jail, he died in 2005.

Richard Attenborough who was a crew member on Coward's battleship played the gangster  'Pinkie' in the film'Brighton Rock'.

 "I am determined to travel through life first class." Noel Coward

Noel Coward had a very English style and presence that was very much a product of his time and place and he was a sort of parody of the English upper class style. He was a friend of Royalty and his songs, plays and films were largely  popular. So he was a good choice to star in a piece of wartime propaganda co-directed with the talented David Lean ( who made Ghandi, Laurence of Arabia, Passage to India).  It was financed by the Ministry of Information in 1942. It is a tour de force of propaganda. The film succeeds in presenting an image of national unity and social cohesion during wartime. At one point during filming Coward invited the Royal family onto the film set whilst it was in production. This visit was also filmed and used in patriotic news reels of the time. It was nominated for an Oscar for Best Picture but lost out to that other wartime classic Casablanca.

Noel Coward plays the navy captain, in a story based on the life and times of Lord Louis Mountbatten father of Prince Philip, in charge of a British destroyer which is involved in battles and is then sunk. While the crew are in the water clinging to the wreckage they reminisce about their lives at home. This acts as a device to remind the crew who and what they are fighting for. It is a genuinely morale boosting film.

 During the war Coward gave up on  the stage and sought a useful role for the state. He moved to Paris and worked for intelligence and in the British propaganda office, he once said that "if the policy of His Majesty's Government is to bore the Germans to death I don't think we have time". His role was to use his fame to influence American support for Britain during the war. He worked for the Secret Service and travelled widely as a result of which the press pilloried him. George VI, with some prompting from his wife no doubt, wanted to give Coward a knighthood for his war and lifetime achievements in 1942, but Winston Churchill objected at the time despite the release of the wartime film. Coward had been fined for contravening wartime currency regulations the year before. Churchill asked Coward to entertain the troops which he did with verve and success with songs like 'London Pride'. 


In the film 'The Italian Job' Coward plays a gangster in jail but has no hand in the direction. He mayhave had a hand in suggesting the scene above in which he addresses the crime syndicate managed by Michael Caine. The plan is to pull off a gold bullion heist in broad daylight in Turin, Italy under the watch of the Mafia and the Italian security forces. They spirit away the bullion in 3 minis in true Brit colours of red, blue and white. The heist happens after the approval of Bridger, played by Coward, who fronts the money after Charlie, Michael Caine, invades Parkhurst to have an audience with Bridger in the toilets. There's a certain playful irony in this scene and many others. Coward is the upper class gangster working with a crew of different classes and accents and a black coach driver.

The Mini Car Chase from the Original Italian Job 1969

I have chosen these films and Noel Coward to illustrate how propaganda films had changed  from wartime until peacetime Britain in 1969. 'The Italian Job' is a film caper in which the vehicles promoted play a distinct role. It is as much about Italian mafia and English gangsters as it is about Europe's ability to manufacture a car, coach or airplane.  Italy's Fiat Company and the British Motor Corporation which made the Mark I Austin Mini Cooper S; its full title, both have major products placed in the film but the Mini is the star kitemark. The year the film came out is the year that the Mini marque was created. Coward's destroyer battleship is the star in  the 1942 film and at the start it declares that 'This is the story of a ship'. The team building and morale are important in both films. In 'The Italian Job' the team building is important amongst the toff and spiv drivers but not as important as the vehicles: Minis, Fiats and an orange Italian bulldozer that crushes an Aston Martin and a Jaguar and pushes them off the mountain. Later on the film lovingly lingers over shots of the Mini's as they are launched down the pristine Alpine scene. So what do these films say about aspects of cultural and public diplomacy. 

In this respect the messages are mixed ones. The 1942 film is morale boosting and patriotic while the 1969 film is patriotic and about the 'Self Preservation Society' rather than the 'Preservation Society' of war time. There is some comparison and distance between the two films as they portray changing times one during war and the other during peace. During the 50's and 60's there were many films about the 'black market' during the war and sometimes featured hoodlums selling their wares on the street. In war time certain people had access to certain desired items in short supply. This created a pent up demand in the population for fashionable items amongst women, the sort of items seen in films during the war years and then during austerity. Rationing of food and other items lasted  from 1939 to 1954. My own grandfather was seconded to the Ministry for Food from the Danish Bacon Company. The growth of the black market lead to an expansion of the underworld of the 'black market' and gangsterism. 'The Italian Job' is definitely not about delayed gratification and stoicism in war time.

The 1969 film looks at the 'black market' and the emerging of Europe as a market in 1969 which the UK plc is not yet a full member. The Italian Job as a propaganda piece sells London (and Croydon) and the Brits as smart, sexy, fashionable and colourful. It sells our ability, though on the wane, to manufacture sought after cars and vehicles. It also warns Europe that we can still win a football match away from home in far off Turin and attempt to sneak out some gold bullion at the same time. It says that our patriotic gangsters, the sons of wartime veterans, are just as fearsome and daring as your mafia though there may not be so much killing; perhaps a knee-capping or a broken leg instead. Fortunately 'The Italian Job' never mentions the war.

In his famous film guide the editor Leslie  Halliwell bemoans the changes in film making over the years since WW2. Film makers began "to despise their audiences....while putting across some garbled self satisfying message which is usually anti-establishment, anti-law and order and anti-entertainment". One could argue with the last point and say that 'The Italian Job' fits into the trend as anti-establishment and anti-law and order. One character in England football colours who is disabling the traffic cameras asks the way to the piazza in one scene and as he walks away blurts out 'Bloody foreigners!' just to get the message across and add to the 'cocking of the snook' gesture all ready within the film. It is an odd film, it is patriotic and an example of a distorted lens of public diplomacy. Rather like looking at relations between countries as if you were Nelson holding up the telescope to your eye patch. It could be seen as pro-business but anti-european. In favour of bi-lateralism of a sort but with a certain detachment. Halliwell also bemoaned that some saw significance in film that it did not deserve. I think these two films deserve to be looked at in the context of changing times in a fusion of anthropology, history and diplomacy. It is said that 'In which we serve' was an example of Coward underplaying his talents whereas he seems to be playing himself in The Italian Job. I would like to know what diplomats of the time made of his last film. The ending, which I will not give away, at least gave them some room to maneouvre. Or they could just as easily say 'Well it is only a film!'. The Mini is still one of the most influential cars ever made and is a definitively British brand. Let's call the film one long advert for the Mini but can we ultimately ignore the underworld story line. It did not seem to bother Noel Coward who finally got his knighthood in 1969.

(General Footnote: Coward's songs have inspired generations of artists:  Paul McCartney, Sting, Elton John, Robbie Williams, Pet Shop Boys, The Divine Comedy, Vic Reeves, Ian Bostridge, Damon Albarn, Michael Nyman, and Monty Python http://youtu.be/p9PiqCeLEmM  .)


Richards, Dick. (1970) The Wit of Noël Coward, Sphere Books

Halliwells Film Guide (1981) LeslieHalliwell, Granada Publishing, UK

The Underworld (1994) Duncan Campbell, BBC Books, London

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