The Im­por­tance of Hap­pi­ness: Noel Cow­ard and the Ac­tors’ Or­phan­age

This England - - Contents - El­liot James

In April 1934, the most suc­cess­ful liv­ing play­wright, Noël Cow­ard, be­came the Pres­i­dent of The Ac­tors’ Or­phan­age and he re­mained in the po­si­tion for 22 years. The or­phan­age took in the chil­dren of those in the the­atri­cal pro­fes­sion who couldn’t af­ford to care for them, or some­times even want them. It is a lesser-known as­pect of Noël’s life and, after meet­ing and talk­ing to for­mer or­phans, the whole saga is un­veiled.

Un­der Noël the some­what Dick­en­sian or­phan­age, lo­cated in Lan­g­ley, Berk­shire, greatly changed. It be­came fully co­ed­u­ca­tional, cold baths were ended, food was im­proved and rooms were dec­o­rated. On vis­its Noël would of­ten bring fa­mous friends like Mary Pick­ford, Mar­lene Di­et­rich or Ivor Novello; hand out Mars bars and play the pi­ano.

Some deep-rooted prob­lems did ex­ist, how­ever, and took time to re­solve. A re­port was pub­lished in 1936, called “Ir­reg­u­lar­i­ties and Il­le­gal­i­ties”. It revealed that there was a se­vere abuse of cor­po­ral pun­ish­ment. Noël and his com­mit­tee of ac­tors took ac­tion and cer­tain mem­bers of staff were soon “re­tired”.

It tran­spired that Noël, de­spite his name be­ing on the sta­tionery, hadn’t of­fi­cially been made Pres­i­dent. This did not point to bril­liant ad­min­is­tra­tion. Fi­nan­cial records were in­com­plete, no one had at­tended meet­ings and the staff lived in a cul­ture of fear. Noël brought in the lawyers and had the en­tire or­gan­i­sa­tion straight­ened out.

In June 1937 The Stage news­pa­per pub­lished the tran­script of the char­ity’s AGM held on the stage of Wyn­d­ham’s Theatre. It was a quick, for­mal meet­ing, not­ing that “... ev­ery­thing pos­si­ble has been done to make the chil­dren happy and to see to their health”. The in­come and ac­counts were in good or­der and more money was be­ing spent on staff salaries, food and ac­com­mo­da­tion. From the tran­scripts we glean Noël’s author­ity and ef­fect. At one point, in a way that only Noël could get away with, he pro­poses, and, as Pres­i­dent, sec­onds a vote to thank him­self for chair­ing the meet­ing!

In 1938 the or­phan­age moved from Lan­g­ley to a much grander prop­erty at Sil­ver­lands in Chert­sey. Neo-ge­or­gian in de­sign, it was a 27-room mansion. Soon, how­ever, with the start of the war, Noël started mak­ing plans for the chil­dren to be evac­u­ated to Amer­ica. They ended up at the Ed­win Gould Foun­da­tion in the Bronx, New York City. It was, ac­cord­ing to Noël: “Won­der­ful to the chil­dren and I sus­pect has spoiled them for­ever.”

Jimmy Burke, then aged nine, re­called that he found Amer­ica more re­laxed, with less pun­ish­ment and that the classes were okay, you just had to ad­just to his­tory be­ing taught solely from Amer­ica’s per­spec­tive. And how, after Pearl Har­bor, they sud­denly had to prac­tise air raids with their hands over their heads in the cor­ri­dors.

In 1945 they re­turned to Sil­ver­lands and the post-war or­phans I’ve spo­ken with all re­mem­ber it as their home, their fam­ily. (Read Judy Staber’s ex­cel­lent book, Sil­ver­lands). Chil­dren would be dropped at the gates and left; this ex­pe­ri­ence could be dam­ag­ing but it also bonded them. Norma Gum­ley would sit on the front step ev­ery vis­it­ing Sun­day wait­ing for a mother who would never come. As for Noël, they have only fond memories; Judy Staber: “All I knew was that from time to time this nicely dressed, posh-sound­ing man came to see us. He would come upon us out­side, play­ing hide-and-seek in and around the

air-raid shel­ters and would call out, ‘Hello boys and girls. Hav­ing a jolly time are you?’”

Su­san­nah Slater, whom Noël helped to get a start in show busi­ness: “He was won­der­ful, he re­ally did turn that place around and we’re all very grate­ful to him.” She added “...he was like a benev­o­lent an­gel.”

Caro­line Bald­win had stayed at Noël’s house one week­end in or­der to at­tend a pre­miere and hand the Queen flow­ers. She did fall over on the curtsy but all this time later said, “Noël did more for me in that one week­end than my Daddy ever did.”

Life wasn’t per­fect of course, there was an­other vin­dic­tive head­mas­ter for a while, (again fired by Noël), and a de­gree of bul­ly­ing. Noël tried to help the re­ally trou­bled chil­dren, in­clud­ing the bul­lies, such as Peter Collinson, writ­ing in his diary: “He is be­ing torn to pieces by his di­vorced par­ents. He is in an emo­tional tur­moil. I promised that I would look after him and be his friend. I hon­estly don’t think he will trans­gress again. Ac­tu­ally he prac­ti­cally broke my heart. I may be over-sen­ti­men­tal but a sen­si­tive lit­tle boy bereft of all per­sonal af­fec­tion is to me one of the most pa­thetic things in the world.” Fast-for­ward many years and Peter was di­rect­ing Noël in the 1969 com­edy ca­per film The Ital­ian Job.

When Noël left Eng­land in 1956, Richard At­ten­bor­ough, (only 33), was asked to take over and Noël’s sec­re­tary, Lorn Lo­raine, had writ­ten to him: “You’ll say you’re too young to be Pres­i­dent — Noël was only 34 and hadn’t a clue!” Yet Richard didn’t feel pres­ti­gious enough so Sir Lau­rence Olivier be­came the new Pres­i­dent and Richard the Chair­man, but, like Noël, Richard was hands on.

By 1958 with dwin­dling num­bers and roof re­pairs needed, Sil­ver­lands was closed. The Ac­tors’ Char­i­ta­ble Trust was born and do­nated money in­stead. As Richard said: “ is hoped that we may in the fu­ture be able to sub­sidise some needy chil­dren in their own homes and to save fam­i­lies from be­ing split up. This is surely a bet­ter way of spend­ing money than upon roof re­pairs!”

Noël’s mo­tives in the end seem pure and sim­ple; take for ex­am­ple this short ex­change be­tween May and Cora in Noël’s 1960 play, Wait­ing in the Wings, re­gard­ing the com­mit­tee of ac­tors that runs The Wings re­tire­ment home: CORA: I know they get a lot of pub­lic­ity out of it but even so I shouldn’t think from their point of view it was worth all the ef­fort. MAY: It is al­ways pos­si­ble, my dear Cora, that just one or two of them might do it from sheer kind­ness of heart.

In 1955 Noël had writ­ten “The Im­por­tance of Hap­pi­ness” for a fund-raiser pro­gramme, it’s al­most a last word be­fore he had to re­lin­quish his Pres­i­dency. It says of the chil­dren: “None of them has a home in the ac­cepted sense of the word and it is this that we try to give them. Some­where safe and sta­ble where birthdays and Christ­mases can be looked for­ward to with ex­cite­ment and re­mem­bered with joy.”

After list­ing his du­ties as Pres­i­dent he con­tin­ues: “But in my heart what I re­ally mind about, what I have minded about since I be­came Pres­i­dent in 1934, is the hap­pi­ness of the chil­dren who come into the care of this char­ity.”

At a reunion in 2000, or­gan­ised by Su­san­nah Slater, Lord At­ten­bor­ough spoke of what The Ac­tors’ Or­phan­age had meant to him and to Noël. He ex­pressed pas­sion­ately that when he was thanked for what he did for them, the chil­dren, as­sem­bled now in late mid­dle age and older, that it was he who should be thank­ing them: “Love goes both ways and the love that you have shown to us, has brought us joy and re­ward be­yond words.”

The char­ity now ex­ists as the Ac­tors’ Chil­dren’s Trust (­torschil­ and is based in Blooms­bury.

Spe­cial thanks to: Robert Ashby at ACT, Michael At­ten­bor­ough CBE, Su­san­nah Slater, Judy Staber, Liz Eastham, Ann Hol­lis, Caro­line Bald­win, Jimmy Burke, Granville Ban­tock and Canon David Slater. Jes­sica Clark at the Cad­bury Re­search Li­brary — Spe­cial Col­lec­tions, Uni­ver­sity of Birm­ing­ham, L.J. El­liott, Car­rie Kruit­wa­gen and Alan Brodie.

Above: Noël Cow­ard en­ter­tain­ing chil­dren at the Sil­ver­lands or­phan­age in 1953. Left: From the left, young res­i­dents Judy Staber, Su­san­nah Slater, Liz Eastham and Caro­line Bald­win. ACT AC­TORS’ CHIL­DREN’S TRUST

Noël did much to im­prove life for the chil­dren in the char­ity’s care. ACT AC­TORS’ CHIL­DREN’S TRUST Above: Sil­ver­lands, in Sur­rey, was home to the chil­dren from 1938 be­fore they were evac­u­ated to Amer­ica in the war. They re­turned in 1945. Right: Richard At

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