Ivor Novello biography

Ivor Novello

Last updated: 18 May 2010

A giant of the early 20th century stage and screen: songwriter, playwright, composer, actor and star.

Although to many people Ivor Novello is synonymous with the music awards that bear his name, the "Last Great Romantic" has a legacy in song and in the theatre that lives on many years after his death. The Welsh actor, playwright, composer and songwriter has since been somewhat overshadowed by his contemporary Noël Coward, but his legacy of work stands up to this day.

Novello was born David Ivor Davies on 15 January 1893 in Canton, Cardiff. His mother was the singer Dame Clara Novello Davies, and his father David Davies was a tax collector.

At an early age his soprano voice was noted, and he won a scholarship to study at Magdalen Choir School in Oxford. It was there that he began to write songs as Ivor Novello, a number of which were published. Indeed, at Magdalen he was known as the Welsh Prodigy.

After leaving school, Novello moved with his parents to London. They lived at 55 New Bond Street between 1910 and 1913, where he took singing lessons and continued to write and perform. Then in 1913 he moved to a flat above the Strand theatre in Aldwych, which would later play host to his plays. The flat would later play host to such stars of song, stage and screen as Noël Coward, Somerset Maugham, Paul Robeson and Siegfried Sassoon.

The following year he wrote the hugely popular song Keep The Home Fires Burning, which became almost a theme song for the British. It brought Novello fame, earned him £15,000, and led to him being asked to write the scores for several West End productions.

In 1916 he met the then 21-year-old actor Bobby Andrews. The pair became friends, then lovers, and stayed together for 35 years. They performed together many times in Novello's musicals and plays.

Yet more fame came after the war, when he was offered the lead in the 1919 silent film The Call Of The Blood. The film was a box office success and earned Novello the sobriquet the New Valentino. He was to star in many more silent films, but was to find greater success in talkies.

In 1924 Novello wrote his first play, a collaboration with actor Constance Collier titled The Rat. He starred in it, and also in the film adaptation that followed.

His diversity as an actor could be seen in the roles he adeptly filled: in The White Rose (1923) he was a refined, Valentino-style lover, after which the American press called him "the most handsome man in England". Just three years later he would convincingly portray the brooding, sinister suspected serial killer in Alfred Hitchcock's The Lodger.

In 1935 he wrote and starred in the musical Glamorous Night, the first of several Novello-penned plays which were staged at the Drury Lane theatre.

The diverse success continued for some years, until Novello's life took a quite different turn in 1944. He was sent to Wormwood Scrubs prison for eight weeks (he served four) for misuse of petrol coupons - a serious offence in wartime Britain. The fact that he tried to bribe an arresting officer didn't help either. The incident, coupled with his homosexuality, most likely cost Novello his chances of a knighthood.

Following his release, Ivor Novello entertained the troops for a time in France and Belgium. His song We'll Gather Lilacs became popular, and was later used in a musical.

In the era of silent films, Ivor Novello was hugely popular as a matinee idol, and one of the most handsome men in British theatre. His dark, handsome looks belied a charming modesty, and his belief in romance, glamour and sentimentalism in the arts brought to mind another cinematic giant, Rudolph Valentino. The fact that he remained good-natured, generous and warm-hearted throughout his life, even at the height of his fame, made him even more loved.

On 6 March 1951 Novello died of coronary thrombosis in his Aldwych flat, just hours after performing the lead in his own production, King's Rhapsody. 7,000 people attended his funeral (women outnumbered men 50 to one).

His country home, Redroofs in Maidenhead, Berkshire, later became Redroofs Theatre School, and in the 1950s the Ivor Novello Awards, presented by the British Academy of Composers and Songwriters, began rewarding the talents of the best British songwriters and composers.


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