QUOTES FROM Ivor Novello, Man of the Theatre by PETER NOBLE

The Falcon Press, London 1951 (Foreword by Noel Coward)

He had seen The Merry Widow, with the enchanting Lily Elsie as Sonia, no less than twenty-seven times when he was a schoolboy on holiday from Oxford...  He worshipped Lily Elsie and Gertie Millar; to him they were simply the most glamorous creatures in the world.

‘There was, I believe, a gentleman who saw The Merry Widow every night during its fantastic run, except on those nights when Lily Elsie was not playing.’ [Novello quote] (pp43/44)

Lily Elsie!  What a wonderful creature she was - and still is.  What memories of an era she conjures up.  Ivor had been her adoring fan ever since he first saw her, and at last he succeeded in meeting her.  And where? Of all places, it was at Number 10, Downing Street!  The war was still on, and Ivor was still a lieutenant in the Royal Naval Air Force when suddenly he had what he thought was a brainwave.  Why not persuade Lily Elsie - who had retired in 1911 at the age of twenty-four - to return to the stage and appear in something he had written, the proceeds to go to various war charities?  Accordingly he approached Mr Asquith’s daughter, Elizabeth, who was extremely kind and promised that she would write to Miss Elsie, at that time married and living in her castle in Scotland.  Novello had completed the libretto and most of the music of a operetta which he decided to call The Argentine Widow, and this was the production in which he hoped that Lily Elsie would make her long-awaited return to the stage.  For several days Ivor waited anxiously for a call from Miss Asquith, and finally she rang and told him that Lily Elsie had replied to her saying she would be quite prepared to make appearances for charity if the proposed vehicle suited her.  Elizabeth Asquith had then suggested that Miss Elsie should meet Mr Novello for tea at 10, Downing Street, so that he could play her the music and tell her something about the story.  Ivor was jubilant and thanked Miss Asquith profusely.  It is difficult to convey what this projected meeting meant to him.  He hardly knew how he got through the days that intervened.  It was to be something more than just meeting a woman of talent, charm, grace and beauty - it was a chance to recapture, as he hoped, those thrilling pre-war days when he made his acquaintance with the London theatre …….

At last the great day came. Ivor arrived early, and had the joy of meeting Mrs Asquith for the first time ……..  If Ivor had not been expecting his idol he would have regarded meeting that phenomenally attractive woman as an event of the greatest importance, but his mind was mainly on Lily Elsie.  He could hardly believe that he, who had waited hours and hours outside stage doors for a mere glimpse of this lovely creature, he who had collected dozens of postcards depicting her in all her stage rolls, and had, in fact, pasted an entire wall of his bedroom with photographs of her, was actually going to meet Lily Elsie in the flesh - and in the house of the Prime Minister.  When the footman announced ‘Mrs Ian Bullough’ Ivor’s heart started pounding madly.  When they were introduced he stammered out a conventional greeting, but soon she had put him at his ease.  As Ivor remembers, the thing that made Lily Elsie the adored figure she was was her extreme femininity.  To him she seemed to arouse all the very spirit of man’s chivalry.  She made him want to ride in the lists for her, to throw his cloak down for her to walk over, to sacrifice himself for just a smile.  He was hot and excited - and not a little confused.  In addition he suddenly had an attack of the hiccups, but everyone pretended not to notice.  As Miss Elsie sat there in the Prime Minister’s drawing-room, sipping her tea and looking like a perfect dream, in a lovely sable coat, the hiccupping young man did not even dare to broach the subject in hand for fear he would have to take his eyes off her.  However, it was broached eventually, and the great lady promised that she would indeed read Novello’s play.  At the same time she suggested that he should play some of the music to her.  And that was where the trouble started.

The moment Novello - still hiccupping violently - had diffidently touched the piano keyboard a regimental band struck up in the Horse Guards’ Parade.  It was apparently marching round the Parade, and when it receded round from the back of 10, Downing Street, a faint tinkle of music could be heard from the piano, but when it approached the house again not a note could be distinguished.  And then Mrs Asquith took a hand.  At the sound of the waltz tune Ivor was playing she flew into the room and danced gracefully and persistently round the piano, round the chairs, round the tables.  But over and above everything else came the solid brassy uproar of the regimental band.  It became pandemonium. Ivor stopped playing.  Everything had gone wrong.  It had turned into a sort of Mad Hatter’s tea party.

‘This is awful.  Here goes my chance.  Lily Elsie is not even listening’, he thought to himself.  He looked over to where she was sitting and saw that she was convulsed with silent but unmistakable giggles.  At once the young man felt relieved.  ’Thank heavens’, he thought, ’she is a human being with a sense of humour, and this fantastic meeting is not to be the end of everything.  I know I shall see her again, and then I shall play my music to her without interruption.  (As it happened, she played opposite Ivor a dozen years later in The Truth Game, one of his most successful plays.)

Lily Elsie rose to go, and she flashed Ivor a look that said quite clearly, ’You poor boy!  Never mind, I’ll listen to it all again some day, but not now.’ with good-byes all round she was suddenly gone - and the dream went with her.  That look of hers did mean something, however, for a few months later she suddenly wrote to Ivor inviting him to come and see her.  To his further delight she asked to play for her at a series of charity concerts, and their appearances together at such concerts, in aid of every kind of worthy object, became quite a feature of the war-time years.  To sing duets with the famous Sonia of The Merry Widow, London’s pre-war darling!  When that happened Ivor Novello felt he had really achieved something.  To him that was far more important than all the songs he had ever written.  He will never forget those wonderful, exciting days, nor the incomparable ’Elsie’, as she always preferred to be called by her friends. (pp67-70)

It was Viola [Tree] who introduced Ivor to Sir Edward Marsh.  In late 1915 she had invited the young man to her box to see Lily Elsie, then making her return to the stage in Mavourneen at His Majesty’s Theatre.  Ivor had already seen the play on the first night from the heights of the upper circle, but he welcomed the idea of seeing his beautiful Elsie from the stage box.  ‘I hope you don’t mind, but I’ve got an awfully nice man, Eddie Marsh, coming.’  ‘But no, Viola, please’, Ivor pleaded.  ’He might not like Elsie, and if he doesn’t I should insult him. Please put him somewhere else.’  Viola was slightly nonplussed, but she understood completely, knowing Ivor’s obsession with Lily Elsie, and found Sir Edward Marsh a seat in the stalls.  At the end of the first act, when Ivor was sitting enraptured, a man found his way from the stalls to the front of the box.  ‘Ivor, this is Eddie Marsh; Eddie, this is Ivor Novello, who wrote Keep the Home Fires Burning’, introduced Viola.  A look of absolute blankness came over Mr Marsh’s face.  ’I’m sorry’, he stammered, ’Keep the what?’.  ’What! You’ve never heard of it!’, Viola cried.  (At that time Home Fires was being hummed, whistled and barrel-organed all over London.  Every military band played it in the park, every concert featured it, every soldier and most civilians knew it by heart.  In fact, as Ivor confesses, ’You simply could not get away from it if you tried.)  ‘No, I am afraid I just don’t know it’, replied Eddy, reluctantly, embarrassedly, but firmly.  ‘Oh, Eddie, da-da-da- da-da-da’, she hummed the tune a trifle anxiously.  Eddie’s face lit up.  ’Oh, yes, of course - but I didn’t know it was called that!’  The tension evaporated slightly, and when Marsh went on to say ’Isn’t Lily Elsie superb?’ Ivor practically lifted him into the box.  (pp73/74)

Ivor wrote The Truth Game with Constance Collier in mind as Mrs Brandon, Viola Tree as the gawky Lady Joan, and Lily Elsie, if he could get her, as the heroine, and with himself as Max, the persistent hero ……….  The next person he approached was Lily Elsie, but she was very shy and quite unable to make up her own mind about returning to the stage in his play ………  Viola Tree had told du Maurier all about the play, and Ivor read him one scene, which pleased him sufficiently to make him write to Lily Elsie saying that he thought it would be a good idea if she returned to the London stage in this new Novello comedy, which he would be delighted to produce.  That was a lucky stroke for Ivor. Excitedly he read the play to Lily Elsie, and, to his delight and surprise, she immediately said ‘Yes’.  He could hardly believe his good fortune. Not only was he going to act with the great Lily Elsie, but she was going to be under his own management.  She was perfect for the part.  Time had definitely stood still for this wonderful woman, and Ivor considered that she looked as young, if not younger, than in the days of The Merry Widow, when she was twenty.

This text kindly transcribed by C Frost

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