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Kate Romano writes about the lush, nostalgic stage music of Ivor Novello


Ivor Novello was the most successful British musical theatre composer of the 20th century. He was a star of stage and screen, a writer, dramatist and ‘the most handsome man in Britain’, and he died unexpectedly at the age of 58 in 1951. Horrified by the appearance of his personal belongings being sold as memorabilia, his close friends rallied round to protect his legacy, buying up and hiding everything they could find. And as a result, one of the great cultural figures of the Edwardian era was plunged into obscurity. 


For decades Novello’s memory was limited to a few sentimental biographies; an unfashionable figure from a halcyon age of garden parties at country houses. He was mostly remembered for his wartime songs, Keep the Home Fires Burning (which became an unofficial First World War anthem) and the 1942 hit, We’ll Gather Lilacs; vintage Novello, with its melodic, unforced lyricism and big heart, beautifully written for the singing voice. 


But in 2000, director Robert Altman introduced Ivor Novello as a major character in the Oscar-winning film Gosford Park and sparked new curiosity in Novello’s life and work. His music was heard in a 2012 play called The Lodger at Jermyn Street Theatre and there was an Ivor Novello BBC Prom the same year. Buxton Opera House presented an adaptation of Novello’s Glamorous Night in 2008 and in December 2016, Novello was featured as BBC Radio 3 Composer of the Week with Novello consultant, author and playwright David Slattery-Christy, reflecting renewed interest in light music that is every bit as serious in its craft as the mainstays of the classical music repertoire. 


Novello honed his craft through an astonishing and varied career as a revue show composer, film star (from the silent 'flicks’ to the ‘talkies’ of the 1930s), a successful playwright and actor. To a point, his persona was the reason for his success rather than his acting talents (he secured his first major motion picture role in 1919 based merely on a photograph which caught the eye of director Louis Mercanton). He seemed to be curiously critic-proof; reviews often centred around genuine bafflement as to why plays with weak plots were so admired by the thousands he drew to cinemas and theatres with ease, whilst Noël Coward marvelled at how Novello could make such a phenomenal box office success out of material that was ‘trite and inferior’. Novello was acutely aware of both his limitations and his strengths and he was clear about his ambitions. He had no delusions that his creations were intellectual or highbrow; he wrote to entertain, he cared only about satisfying his public (‘filling the plush’ as he called it) and could see little point in creating something that did not have popular appeal. 


Despite this versatility and acclaim in so many media, it was Novello's 1935 Drury Lane stage show Glamorous Night and its successors that secured his place in theatrical and musical history. Drury Lane was one of the most impressive and elaborately equipped stages in the world. It was also struggling financially when Novello pitched his idea to manager Harry Tennent. Combining all his talents, Novello created a show that he alone devised, wrote, composed and starred in - the first time in Drury Lane’s 272 year history that this had occurred. Glamorous Night was Novello’s own invention; part operetta, part melodrama, part musical comedy. It was hugely ambitious and it launched a new era in musical productions.  


Novello’s character in Glamorous Night arrives by ship in a Ruritanian country (Ruritania is a mythical land; a place where anything is possible). With sets designed by Oliver Messel, a full scale ocean liner cruised into position, raised and lowered by the massive hydraulic lifts beneath the Drury Lane stage, whilst Novello and Mary Ellis played out a scene on the promenade deck. The gypsy encampment and lavish ballroom scene used the entire depth of the stage and the opera house exterior scene had horse drawn carriages. All of this was undertaken with military precision by a team of 200 people including a cast of 120 plus the full scale Drury Lane orchestra. ‘Superior persons will no doubt scoff at the show and dismiss it as a lot of nonsense…’ wrote the Daily Telegraph. ‘But if it is nonsense, it is glamorous nonsense, and for those who are ready to be entertained, it is the best show of its kind Drury Lane has had for years’. Despite production costs of £27,000 (an extraordinary figure in 1935) the immense popularity of Glamorous Night saved the famous theatre from bankruptcy. 


Novello’s next show, The Dancing Years, developed into a musical theatre form closer to the one we recognise today. Novello relied less on special effects and more on a solid storyline;  his starting point was a reaction to the news that all Jewish composers in Vienna and Germany had been ostracised by the Nazi authorities and their work banned or burnt. Set in pre-Great War Vienna, Novello created a story about a penniless Jewish composer, Rudi Kleber, and his love for two women of different social classes. The show opened in March 1939 and became one of the most popular West End shows during the dark days of the Second World War. The British government censors slashed great chunks of the script, fearing that it would inflame relations with Germany, but the strong message remained intact. ‘Brecht it isn't’ wrote Simon Callow in the Guardian, ‘but its critical picture of the menace across the water packed a considerable punch in the immediately pre-war period in which it appeared; Ivor's heart was in the right place’. The music and songs in The Dancing Years were some of Novello’s finest including My Dearest Dear, Waltz Of My Heart and Wings Of Sleep and the show entertained the public in the West End as war raged in Europe. 


We’ll gather Lilacs found its way into Novello’s 1945 musical, Perchance to Dream. It was immensely successful, running for 1022 performances. The storyline has a spiritual element; the two main protagonists (a couple in love) are reincarnated three times until they find a happy ending in the present day. Novello played the romantic hero; a highwayman called Graham Rodney. The plot is disjointed and confused, and the critics painstakingly tried to make sense of what they had seen. It didn’t seem to matter; the audience loved it and they loved Novello. The show with its London cast went on to tour South Africa.   


Novello’s last show was King's Rhapsody (1949); as usual, it delighted the fans and baffled the critics. It featured a Ruriatian plot (with contemporary resonances) about an ageing heir to the throne who is in love with his mistress of many years but forced by his mother to marry a younger girl, more suitable to be his queen. ‘Contrived’ said the press; ‘dripping with sentiment.. ludicrous.. a romantic confection.. saccharine banality’.  It cost £47,000 to stage, beating the competing shows in the West End (Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! And Lerner & Lowe’s Brigadoon) on box office draw, with people waiting outside for hours in the hope of returns.


Sheridan Morley once said that Novello was old-fashioned even in his time. Then, and now, Novello and his music stir up a soft, affectionate nostalgia. His belief in the transporting power of love (he and his lifelong partner Bobbie Andrews stayed happily, if not monogamously, together until Novello's death) underpins his endearingly romantic plots and a trademark beguiling melancholy in the music. His songs are fleetingly addictive; they catch you unaware, sweep you up, charm you, then leave you, in a way that only the finest composers of light music can master.


Perchance to Dream; the Music of Ivor Novello

Rachel Harland, voice | Sarah Brandwood-Spencer, violin | Ian Buckle, piano

Saturday 1 July, 5pm


Image: Ivor Novello as 'Max Clement', Doris Cooper as 'Harris', & Lily Elsie as 'Rosine Brown' in the play 'The Truth Game'. 
Lebrecht Music & Arts / Alamy Stock Photo