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Real Life: Ivor Novello

It was Robert Altman who thought of incorporating the real-life U.K. matinee idol Ivor Novello into the fictitious Gosford Park setting. He comments, "About twenty years ago, I was involved in a project where I came across Novello. I now have a whole library of his music. I thought it would be good to have the anchor of one real person within the story and he would also furnish us with some music."

Born in Wales in 1893, Ivor Novello was one of the greatest British actors and composers of his day. An immensely popular matinee idol during the silent era, he was also a gifted playwright, screenwriter, and producer of numerous plays and romantic musicals for the stage. Several of those were later made into films.

First and foremost a composer, he received his musical training at the Magdalen College Choir School in Oxford, where he was a superior boy soprano. His first song was published in 1910, and he went on to write many successful numbers for musical comedies and revues in London. In 1914, he composed the most popular song of the First World War, "Keep the Home Fires Burning," which made him famous. After entertaining the troops in war-torn France, in 1916 Novello became a pilot in the Royal Naval Air Service. He survived two crash landings, and continued to compose whenever he had the chance.

After the War, in 1919, Novello embarked on his career as a film actor. He made over a dozen silent films in all and several early talkies, including two directed by Alfred Hitchcock: Downhill (1927), adapted from a play that Novello co-wrote; and the hit The Lodger (1926). The latter was remade several times, including another film with Novello again starring in the lead. It is this 1932 version (a.k.a. The Phantom Fiend), directed by Maurice Elvey, that is the subject of a dialogue exchange in Gosford Park.

Also in 1932, Novello's comedy Fresh Fields enjoyed a successful run on the London stage. Whitaker's Almanac named him Dramatist of the Year, for, in addition to the hit comedy, his Proscenium had a long run; however, a third play from his pen, Flies in the Sun, did not attract an audience. All told, Novello wrote or co-wrote 14 plays and appeared in 24, including Shakespeare's Henry V. However, his real love was composing lush, romantic, and sentimental musicals. He wrote waltzes and popular tunes and during the '30s and '40s he created eight elaborately staged musicals, starring in six of them. He composed over 250 songs.

When he died in 1951, 7,000 people attended his funeral. The women outnumbered the men 50 to 1.

Jeremy Northam, who portrays Novello, notes, "It is slightly odd to play a person who actually lived and was very well-known, within this fictitious supposition of what part of his life might have been. Within the story he's something of a device, because he brings people who are not part of this aristocratic country house circle into that world to explore it. His music is also essential to the film. Most of my work before we started shooting involved trying to find out about him and define a personality for him. It was not our intention that I should impersonate Ivor Novello, but that I would get the essence of his personality and try to find appropriate music."

Northam's eldest brother Christopher is a professional pianist. Although himself an accomplished pianist, Jeremy looked to his brother for help with the music and to be reminded what it is like to play in public: "Sometimes you realize that being at the piano is the safest place to be, because from that vantage point you can see the rest of the world going by and you become comfortable with that sense of detachment."

The music also heightens yet another difference between above stairs and below stairs: when Novello plays after supper in the drawing room the aristocrats seem bored, while all through the halls the servants are drawn to listen to the music as if under a spell they are truly entertained.


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