Ivor Novello, the Welsh nightingale

Most people have, at some stage in their lives, listened to the song Keep The Home Fires Burning. It was one of the most popular tunes in the trenches during World War One and still has the ability to bring a pang to the throat or a tear to the eye.

Ivor Novello

Yet how many people realise that this sentimental ditty was just one of dozens produced by a remarkable young Welshman who, at the time, was serving in the Royal Naval Air Service?

Ivor Novello was born in Cowbridge Road East in Cardiff on 15 January 1893. The house, just to the west of the River Taf, was called Llwyn Yr Eos (Grove of the Nightingales) and can be identified by a plaque on the front wall.

Ivor Novello's real name was David Ivor Davies; he was the son of Clara Novello Davies, a noted and renowned singer and teacher who had also founded the Welsh Ladies Choir. His father, David Davies, was by comparison a fairly staid and ordinary man - he was a tax collector.

Under his mother's influence the young Ivor Novello was performing at Eisteddfodiau across the country from an early age and, in due course, went on to Magdalene College, Oxford, to study for a degree.

However, the outbreak of war brought a sudden and dramatic change to his lifestyle. In 1916 Ivor joined the RNAS and began training as a pilot. It has to be admitted that he was not a very good airman. He completed his training on dual control aircraft but proceeded to crash during his very first solo flight. Given a second chance he did exactly the same again and, as a result, the RNAS grounded him for the duration of the war.

Ivor Novello's real contribution to the war effort, however, was not as a pilot but as a song writer. He was composing songs such as Keep The Home Fires Burning and We'll Gather Lilacs on a regular basis and, in 1917, while still serving with the RNAS, his show Theodore And Co was produced on the West End. It was the hit of the year. He went on to write, produce and act in many more stage shows over the coming decades.

Ivor Novello wrote all of the music for his shows and, as an accomplished dramatist in his own right, the librettos as well. By and large, however, the lyrics for his touching and catchy songs were written by his collaborator Christopher Hassall - a man who later went on to write the standard biography of the poet Rupert Brooke.

When the war ended in 1918 Novello was discharged and immediately took up a career on the stage and in the emerging film industry. This was the age of the silent movie and for a while he specialised in films with an underworld theme. The first of them was called The Rat and was a huge success. He also made two silent films for Alfred Hitchcock, the most famous being The Lodger. It was a film that Novello was to remake, this time as a talkie, in 1933.

Interestingly, Ivor Novello also wrote the dialogue and screen play for the first Tarzan Of The Apes talkie - although quite how much talking was involved is not really clear!

Despite his film work, despite several stints in Hollywood, Ivor continued to write and produce stage hits in Britain. The most notable of these is probably The Dancing Years, which was produced in the West End in 1939.

Despite his well known homosexuality - something to which the police seemed to have turned a blind eye - Novello was one of the early stage and screen idols. He was loved and idolised by people from all over the world and the depiction of him, and the way people felt about him, in the 2001 film Gosford Park seems to be a fairly accurate and realistic portrayal.

One of his gay relationships was with the war poet Siegfried Sassoon. It was not an easy or comfortable liaison and did not bring happiness to either man. Another of his relationships was with the actor Bobbie Andrews.

Novello may not have suffered from the repressive and draconian homosexuality laws of the time but he did serve an eight week prison term during the World War Two - for misuse of petrol coupons.

In 1951 Ivor Novello died suddenly, from a heart attack, at the relatively early age of just 58. He had continued to write songs and musicals almost to the moment of his death.

Cremated at Golders Green Crematorium, his ashes were, appropriately enough, scattered under a lilac bush.

Nowadays he is commemorated in the annual Ivor Novello Awards when the British Academy honours outstanding contributions to the performing arts. There is also a recently unveiled statue to him outside the Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff, a fitting tribute from his home town to a man of great skill and talent.


More Posts