Born in Wales in 1893 as David Ivor Davies, Ivor Novello (1893–1951) took his stage name from his mother, singer and voice teacher Clara Novello Davies. He shot to fame overnight with his 1914 song ‘Keep the Home Fires Burning’, one of the most famous songs of World War I. Like his contemporary Noël Coward, Novello was a multi-talented matinee idol on stage and film, a writer and composer. He also wrote plays for himself to star in, including The Rat in 1924, followed by Symphony in Two Flats, The Truth Game and Proscenium.
For 15 years Novello was a major film star, appearing in British, American, French and German films. In the 1920s he was a star of silent cinema in such films as Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lodger and the film of Noël Coward’s The Vortex. Although he had been a boy chorister at Magdalen College, Oxford, Novello’s adult voice was not outstanding. So he created non-singing roles for himself, leaving the vocals to his leading ladies, notably Mary Ellis, who had begun her stage career in opera in New York.
Novello had an unerring nose for what a certain section of the public wanted. In the 1930s this was sentimental, romantic, escapist musicals. Exploiting Drury Lane’s capacity for spectacle and special effects he produced a series of extravaganzas, Glamorous Night, Careless Rapture and The Dancing Years.
Novello’s shows were big budget spectaculars, with multiple scene changes and huge casts of extras and dancers. Glamorous Night in 1935 featured in Act I alone: a London suburban street, a performance of an operetta in Krasnia, a skating scene on board ship, an assassination attempt and a sinking liner à la Titanic. Act II featured a huge gypsy wedding scene and a Royal ballroom. The next year, Careless Rapture recreated a fairground on Hampstead Heath, a Chinese garden, a Chinese street scene, an earthquake and a vast Oriental temple.
In 1939 came The Dancing Years which began in pre-1914 Vienna and ended in the shadow of the Nazis. The wartime closure of London theatres sent it on the road, but in 1942 it returned to the West End for a hugely successful run, becoming the World War II equivalent of Chu Chin Chow.
After the war Novello’s success continued with Perchance to Dream for which he wrote the hit song ‘We’ll gather Lilacs’. In 1949 he wrote and starred in Kings’ Rhapsody, featuring his new discovery, Vanessa Lee. It was to be his last show. A few hours after the performance on 5 March 1951, Novello died of coronary thrombosis.
Although often portrayed in the lightweight and decadent manner of this cartoon, Novello’s work often had a serious edge. In 1939, Novello’s musical The Dancing Years began in pre-1914 Vienna but ended in the shadow of the Nazis, while Careless Rapture made reference to the Chinese civil war. Critics found these shows too superficial, but Novello knew his audience, and they ran for many years, usually at Drury Lane, before touring throughout Britain and overseas. Glamourous Night was even credited with saving the finances of the theatre. Novello’s image suffered some damage in 1944 when he was caught using rationed petrol to drive from the theatre in London to Red Roofs his home in Berkshire. After he tried to bribe a policeman, his defence case was ruined and he was sent to prison for eight weeks.
In Careless Rapture Novello played Michael, the illegitimate brother of dastardly politician, Sir Rodney Alderney. Michael is in love with the famous musical comedy star Penelope, played by Dorothy Dickson, but she is engaged to Sir Rodney. The plot was really an excuse to show off the resources of Drury Lane theatre. One spectacular scene succeeded another, including a fair on Hampstead Heath, a street scene in China culminating in an earthquake and a Chinese temple with nearly a hundred dancers. This photograph shows Novello and Dickson in the Chinese Temple scene where, in their dreams, they reenact the Legend of the Temple about a priestess slain because she loved a prince. As one commentator remarked ‘No one walks through his own tosh with quite the confidence of Ivor Novello’.