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Frank Hovis

Ephemeral Cultural Icons - Noel Coward

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It struck me upon hearing Les Dawson do an affectionate parody of him on the radio this morning that it was only the second time I'd heard him referenced all year. This was a guy who so dominated British entertainment in the 30s, 40s and 50s that he was dubbed "The Master"; somebody I worked with who was born about 1940 hero worshipped him. Radio shows from the 60s and 70s (as the Les one was) would frequently refer to him.

Now he's probably clinging on to some residual fame by his appearance in The Italian Job.

He was probably too of his time, his plays and songs were needle sharp then but have little relevance now. Mad Dogs and Don't Put Your Daughter both survive more for their comic aspect.

So who that's famous nowadays will still be in fifty years? Sports stars and pop stars won't, nor probably will comedians (IMO only Laurel & Hardy still cut it) or actors. It seems to be writers and classical composers that have the longevity.

So I'd guess Carl Davis for music. Writer is trickier, possibly Terry Pratchett will hold on to the same niche that Tolkien and CS Lewis found, beyond that it's guesswork.

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Coward is still well-remembered as a genuine wit. But his legacy is his writings, which are obviously not in the same league as, say, WS Gilbert or Oscar Wilde, great wits whose works live on as popular core repertoire. Or, one might venture, Groucho with the films as a legacy.

Perhaps a good way to be remembered as a wit is to be remembered for something else? Like Churchill, made famous by war but known incidentally as a wit. Or Dorothy Parker, one of the greatest wits and distinguished also by being a woman.

Today's ephemera: just look to the word "celebrity". Lots and lots of pop stars who are all-but forgotten after a decade. And most of the more substantial ones whose talent is not just self-promotion: Bowie, for instance. The biggest 60s icons of all - Beatles - will perhaps leave a Coward-sized footprint on history.

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My favourite Noel Coward number

Maybe Eric Idle will be famous?

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As a history student I would put this down to the Arrogance of the Present where each generation thinks it is the most important that ever lived and assumes that the sole purpose of history was to produce them

The reality is probably close to this quote from GM Trevelyan

The dead were and are not. Their place knows them no more and is ours today...The poetry of history lies in the quasi-miraculous fact that once, on this earth, once, on this familiar spot of ground, walked other men and women, as actual as we are today, thinking their own thoughts, swayed by their own passions, but now all gone, one generation vanishing into another, gone as utterly as we ourselves shall shortly be gone, like ghosts at cockcrow.

  • "Autobiography of an Historian", An Autobiography and Other Essays (1949)

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As a history student I would put this down to the Arrogance of the Present where each generation thinks it is the most important that ever lived and assumes that the sole purpose of history was to produce them

The reality is probably close to this quote from GM Trevelyan

Very true, as when young we all dismiss our parents' generation's pop music before growing up a bit and appreciating it.

We have however had Shakespeare's anniversary celebrations after 400 years, and I listen to Classic FM which has very little music on there that is less than a century old.

Dickens, though his books do little for me with their wilfully silly names and cloying sentimentality, remains popular.

So some people's works persist.

The Beatles is a good call; in the Lemmy programme I watched recently he unequivocally named them as teh best band ever. George Martin having a lot to do with that and being justifiably known as the fifth Beatle.

I am (mostly) excepting works which are myths / legends and of historical significance which remain well-known and popular because in large part of their great age. Beowulf, Gawain and the Green Knight, the Arthurian legends.

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A certain James Marshall Hendrix still continues to make regular appearances on the covers of guitar magazines.

Total Guitar Jan 2016, for instance.

Total-Guitar-January-2016-233x300.jpg

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A certain James Marshall Hendrix still continues to make regular appearances on the covers of guitar magazines.

Total Guitar Jan 2016, for instance.

Total-Guitar-January-2016-233x300.jpg

Death eluded him! :huh: I think there are some living people still playing.

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A certain James Marshall Hendrix still continues to make regular appearances on the covers of guitar magazines.

Erm, ...

A nerdy niche is not at all the same thing as real life. We've all heard of Hendrix, but how many could tell anything substantial about him? A few old hippies who saw him live, and a few trainspotting types from younger generations.

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Very true, as when young we all dismiss our parents' generation's pop music before growing up a bit and appreciating it.

We have however had Shakespeare's anniversary celebrations after 400 years, and I listen to Classic FM which has very little music on there that is less than a century old.

Dickens, though his books do little for me with their wilfully silly names and cloying sentimentality, remains popular.

So some people's works persist.

The Beatles is a good call; in the Lemmy programme I watched recently he unequivocally named them as teh best band ever. George Martin having a lot to do with that and being justifiably known as the fifth Beatle.

I am (mostly) excepting works which are myths / legends and of historical significance which remain well-known and popular because in large part of their great age. Beowulf, Gawain and the Green Knight, the Arthurian legends.

Yes it's the things we create that outlast us.

Some will last longer than others.

What grants that persistence is not just artistic talent but the utility of what was created.

While it is good to get a name check like Shakespeare even the great unwashed have their legacies. The anonymous navvies who built the railways or the unknown Roman soldiers that built road routes that many modern highways still follow.

The past lives through us in ways we are not aware or even fully understand. I think the search for fame even in the mundane world of celebrity is not just about making a fast buck but a desire by some people to make a footprint in existence that will persist. Usually this is a vain hope but some either through luck or talent do achieve it. The irony is that fame in one's life is no guarantee of fame later. Some of the most famous artists now we're often not bill toppers in their own times while those who gathered the plaudits of contemporaries are ultimately largely forgotten.

Noel Coward was a consummate live performer so dazzled his contemporaries but as this is hard to capture his legacy is largely confined to plays, songs, recordings and films which probably only capture a portion of his overall talent. Interestingly, the Beatles stopped performing early and devoted most of their career to producing the recordings and the occasional film which is their legacy. Having a lot of material in the archive is always a good bet for grabbing the attention of later generations so I would imagine Prince with his 500 odd hours of material on the shelf is probably going to attract the interest of future music historians.

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Noel Coward was the entertainment to a very narrow, bitchy upper class, who are too stupid to try and replicate him.

His wit is kept alive by a bunch of piano playing 50+ homosexuals.

Didnt travel well to the hetero modern masses.

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James Corden, perhaps. Or maybe Fearne Cotton?

Is Fearne Cotton meant to be funny?

I struggle to think of niche other than being friendly with the big boobed babe from morning telly.

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Erm, ...

A nerdy niche is not at all the same thing as real life. We've all heard of Hendrix, but how many could tell anything substantial about him? A few old hippies who saw him live, and a few trainspotting types from younger generations.

Hendrix influence lives on not just in his work but on his influence on later guitarists. People who listen to music are potentially picking up his legacy without even realising it or knowing much about his recording career.

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Coward seems to have suffered from the rise of TV as a mass medium. I don't remember seeing him on the TV at all as a nipper, and his radio work wasn't repeated either. I do enjoy watching Brief Encounter though - but almost no screenwriters are remembered anyhow. I will be surprised if it is as well regarded in 2045 as it is now or was when I was a kid as the cultural references will seem like they've come from another world. They already do in many ways.

A lot of good stuff from the 20s, 30s and 40s seems to have suffered in the 60s/70s/80s when repeats were infrequent, people wanted colour and there wasn't the access there is now to DVDs, online content etc. That means my generation didn't grow up seeing or hearing them either - effectively ending their cultural influence. Perhaps they will be rediscovered but doubtful unless someone thinks they can make a buck out of them.

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You say that, but one of the funniest boks Ive read is Diary of a Nobody. Cracks me up everytime.

Absolutely no point of reference between me, Northern, living in 2016 and Pooter, Southern, living in 1890s or whenever.

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Yes it's the things we create that outlast us.

Some will last longer than others.

What grants that persistence is not just artistic talent but the utility of what was created.

While it is good to get a name check like Shakespeare even the great unwashed have their legacies. The anonymous navvies who built the railways or the unknown Roman soldiers that built road routes that many modern highways still follow.

The past lives through us in ways we are not aware or even fully understand. I think the search for fame even in the mundane world of celebrity is not just about making a fast buck but a desire by some people to make a footprint in existence that will persist. Usually this is a vain hope but some either through luck or talent do achieve it. The irony is that fame in one's life is no guarantee of fame later. Some of the most famous artists now we're often not bill toppers in their own times while those who gathered the plaudits of contemporaries are ultimately largely forgotten.

Noel Coward was a consummate live performer so dazzled his contemporaries but as this is hard to capture his legacy is largely confined to plays, songs, recordings and films which probably only capture a portion of his overall talent. Interestingly, the Beatles stopped performing early and devoted most of their career to producing the recordings and the occasional film which is their legacy. Having a lot of material in the archive is always a good bet for grabbing the attention of later generations so I would imagine Prince with his 500 odd hours of material on the shelf is probably going to attract the interest of future music historians.

Good points, generally speaking. Except for that last sentence: quantity of drivel is of very little interest. Indeed, vast quantity alone attracts limited interest even when second or third rate rather than fifth-rate: how much Vivaldi has anyone ever heard?

Your roads or railways were built by a lot of long-forgotten workers. From relatively recent history we remember Brunel (but could you name people who built lines other than Great Western?) and know - broadly speaking - his role as the public face of a huge team. But take Roman roads and you pretty-much have to be a specialist historian to come any closer to the construction than the names of emperors (like Claudius or Britannicus) who took an interest in this island.

Even Shakespeare didn't work in a vacuum. Perhaps a more interesting top artist would be Bach, whose greatest works were indeed written for his own satisfaction and no doubt his God, without expectation of performance, and only resurrected and performed two centuries later when Mendelssohn&co rediscovered him.

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Good points, generally speaking. Except for that last sentence: quantity of drivel is of very little interest. Indeed, vast quantity alone attracts limited interest even when second or third rate rather than fifth-rate: how much Vivaldi has anyone ever heard?

Your roads or railways were built by a lot of long-forgotten workers. From relatively recent history we remember Brunel (but could you name people who built lines other than Great Western?) and know - broadly speaking - his role as the public face of a huge team. But take Roman roads and you pretty-much have to be a specialist historian to come any closer to the construction than the names of emperors (like Claudius or Britannicus) who took an interest in this island.

Even Shakespeare didn't work in a vacuum. Perhaps a more interesting top artist would be Bach, whose greatest works were indeed written for his own satisfaction and no doubt his God, without expectation of performance, and only resurrected and performed two centuries later when Mendelssohn&co rediscovered him.

Agree completely about mass produced drivel from self declared geniuses having no merit. But if artists do have talent it does help to have a decent archive of material to leave to posterity to guarantee the longevity of fame. It also helps if the artist was used as an inspiration for work by later generations.

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Hendrix influence lives on not just in his work but on his influence on later guitarists. People who listen to music are potentially picking up his legacy without even realising it or knowing much about his recording career.

OK, fair point. Perhaps he is somewhat analogous to Coward after all. With the proviso that performance style is much more ephemeral than actual work. I just mentioned Bach in a previous post: he languished in obscurity for a long time before his genius was rediscovered, but in terms of performance style his well-tempered clavier (pioneering work of equal temperament) was hugely influential in its own time and its legacy has dominated all kinds of music ever since.

[edit to add] Damn, did I just contradict myself? Guess what I meant to say with Bach is he's now known primarily for his music, even if his championing of equal temperament (or arguably even his championing of coffee) has had a more pervasive legacy.

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