On November 20, 1940, Noel Coward, English playwright, actor and performer arrived in Brisbane as part of his 7 week tour of Australia to raise money for the Red Cross. A mob of eager fans were there to greet him. Within minutes of stepping off the plane at Archerfield airport an excited 16 year old girl pushed her way through the official reception committee to get an autograph.
Noel Coward was due to spend 5 days in Queensland, starting in Brisbane and then going on to Townsville and Cairns. His first day in Brisbane was extremely busy with a radio broadcast, a sherry party and a military concert. Everywhere he went he was reportedly “mobbed by admiring women and autograph hunters”.
At the military concert he entertained over 1,500 troops at the Grovely camp on Brisbane’s northside. The Brisbane Telegraph newspaper stated the soldiers “stood on the seats, climbed on one another’s shoulders, and even swarmed on the rafters” to see Coward perform. So hot were the conditions that at one point the always smartly dressed Coward took off his coat during the performance. This led to cheers and shouts of “good on yer Noel” from the Diggers.
The following day (21 November 1940) was also extremely busy for Coward . He was due to visit a Brisbane abattoir in the morning, however he decided to cancel this in favour of rehearsing for his afternoon concert. Coward politely told The Telegraph newspaper that “It was not because he particularly disliked abattoirs. He had seen lots of them in his time”.
In the afternoon he attended a luncheon and gave a speech for the Queensland Press Institute at the National Hotel. At 2pm he then performed at a Red Cross matinee at His Majesty’s Theatre. The performance was attended by the Governor of Queensland, Sir Leslie Wilson and his wife. Coward’s strong appeal to women was evident at this concert as The Courier-Mail stated that about 75 percent of the audience were female. Noel Coward performed a number of well-known songs, including Mad Dogs and Englishmen, The Stately Homes of England, Mrs Worthington, A Room With A View, Bitter Sweet and Twentieth Century Blues. By the close of the concert there were calls for an encore but Coward said wearily “I can’t sing anymore. You can see my voice is going and I am very tired”. The matinee was a success, raising £456 for the Red Cross, which is equivalent to approximately $34,500 today.
Exhausted from his hectic schedule, Coward cancelled his tour of Townsville and Cairns, which was a bitter disappointment to locals (and the mayors of the two towns). Coward was disappointed too saying, “I am very upset. I would have liked to see the Far North, but I am absolutely jaded and tired out. All I want to do is to sit in the sun and be alone for a little while”. Arrangements were made for him to have a break with a weekend at Mooloolaba on the Sunshine Coast, which was chosen for its quietness. There, Coward stayed at the Mooloolaba Hotel and spent a great deal of time at the Mooloolaba Surf Club and in the surf itself. He also briefly visited Coolum and Caloundra. He later admitted to reporters, “Mooloolaba saved my life. It’s a nice spot and the people were good to me. I could never have gone on without that break”.
Before leaving Brisbane for Sydney he visited the Montrose Home for Crippled Children in Corinda. There he spent an hour and a half singing, playing and talking to the children.
During a press conference he was questioned about his use of the “great Australian adjective” during a concert in Sydney. “I have used it many times, much to the dismay of the censor. You Australians should never disown it”.
A small booklet was later published by the Australian Red Cross Society called Noel Coward: his talks in Australia (digital copy available online via SLV), which contains transcripts of Coward’s regular radio broadcasts during his visit.
Myles Sinnamon – Project Coordinator, State Library of Queensland