Noel Coward and Ian Fleming
The picturesque coastal town of Dover has long captured the imagination of writers and artists. The town’s unique position as the gateway to the Continent means that many famous authors have passed through the town. Famed Romantic poet Lord Byron memorably spent a few days at the Ship Hotel and Middlemarch novelist George Eliot spent several weeks in the town. Victorian poet Matthew Arnold wrote his well-loved poem ‘Dover Beach’ whilst honeymooning at the Lord Warden Hotel. This melancholy, beautiful lyrical poem perfectly captures the famous coastline:
"The cliffs of England stand/ Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay. Come to the window, sweet is the night-air!"
In the twentieth century, holidaying on the English coast was du jour: British coastal locations were chic and highly sought after holiday home locations. Perhaps unsurprisingly, two of Britain’s best-known and most iconic authors chose to make the Dover region their home: seminal British playwright, director and composer Noel Coward and creator of James Bond and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Ian Fleming.
It is now over forty years since these two influential men lived in Dover, but their ongoing legacy and the continued interest in their respective works prompted Dover Museum to stage a well-received and fascinating exhibition on Coward and Fleming in Dover.
Early 20th Century: St Margaret’s Becomes a Coastal Getaway
In the early twentieth century, the Dover region and specifically the village of St Margaret’s-At-Cliffe established a reputation as an attractive, secluded London getaway. St Margaret's became increasingly popular with well-known, wealthy people who made their homes here or bought summer lodges.
Henry Royce, of the Rolls-Royce engine fame, lived from 1914 in the house Seaton. The house was high on the cliff, with a balcony commanding views across the channel. The actor and dramatist Peter Ustinov spent the 1930s living in the old coastguard lookout near the cliff edge. George Arliss, Ursular Bloom and Peter Cushing are a few of the other famous names who lived or visited the Dover region. They enjoyed the luxuries of the Granville Hotel, the fine views across the channel, and the quiet and private beaches.
During the Second World War, many coastal homes were requisitioned for military training purposes. As Dover became heavily bombed and its close proximity to the continent became increasingly precarious, the high profile owners of Kent holiday homes were no longer so keen to live here and many left.
Post-war, the increase in motor car ownership led to increased numbers of day trippers and tourists visiting the area. Noel Coward and his high profile guests at his home White Cliffs also promoted St Margaret’s as a stylish holiday location. St Margaret's became a popular place for celebrity spotting.
By 1951 Noel Coward complained that the Bay had become “a beach crowded with noisy hoi polloi” and he made the subsequent decision to return to the peace and quiet of Goldenhurst, his previous home in inland Kent. He left on 16 December 1951, having sold White Cliffs to Ian Fleming.
Coward and Fleming
Despite their mutual love for Kent and their mutual literary successes, Noel Coward and Ian Fleming had very different starts in life. Coward was born into a modest family, albeit with a highly ambitious mother who, following her son’s success, described herself as “the mother of a genius.”
Ian Fleming, meanwhile, was born in 1908 to a wealthy family of Scottish descent. He was overshadowed in early life by his successful travel-writer brother, Peter Fleming.
The two men also had contrasting beginnings to their respective careers. Coward rose to fame in the 1920s following the premiere of his controversial play The Vortex, which scandalised and fascinated London theatre going audiences. A story about drug addiction, which many believed was a metaphor for homosexuality, The Vortex launched Coward’s career. He followed up his first hit with successes such as Private Lives, Bitter Sweet and Cavalcade.
Conversely, Ian Fleming drifted through his twenties. He attempted to become an Officer Cadet at Sandhurst but he did not respond well to the discipline of army training. He also tried to win a place in the Civil Service but was unsuccessful. Eventually, through his influential family’s connections, Fleming became an unenthusiastic stockbroker.
It was in the early 1930s that Fleming first discovered the Royal St George’s golf club in Sandwich, Kent. Later in life he was to immortalise the famous golf course as the setting for the tantalising golf game dénouement to his Bond novel Goldfinger. Fleming rarely changed the names of real places or brands in his novels; this is interesting in light of the avid product placement in recent Bond movies. Fleming made an exception, however, for Royal St George’s which is renamed in the novel as Royal St Mark’s. Fleming loved the serenity of the Kent course and he did not want enthusiastic Bond fans to flock to Sandwich and to change that for him. Fleming’s relationship with Royal St George’s continued until his sudden death in 1964, when he had been due to become Captain of the club.
In the Second World War, Coward failed to get a military position: he was desperate to do something to aid the war effort but no one would take him seriously enough. Eventually he put his efforts toward writing morale-boosting plays such as This Happy Breed and writing the successful film In Which We Serve in 1941. This film starred Celia Johnson, otherwise known as Mrs Peter Fleming, Ian Fleming's sister-in-law.
Ian Fleming thrived in the Second World War: he finally found a role which he enjoyed, working as personal assistant to the Director of Naval Intelligence. He was personally chosen by Admiral Godfrey and later rose to the rank of Commander. It was in this post that his flair and imagination were put to their best use. Fleming co-ordinated propaganda and devised elaborate undercover sabotage operations. These ideas were often not used, but Fleming later reworked many of them into his James Bond novels. During the war, Fleming was also sent abroad on special duties to Tangier and America. In the later years of the war Fleming successfully captured the entire official German Naval archives.
Noel Coward Moves to Dover
Noel Coward bought the house White Cliffs at St. Margaret's Bay Norton in 1945. Coward’s previous house Goldenhurst, located further inland in Kent, had been requisitioned by the army during the war. Coward decided that, until he could acquire the necessary money and permits to refit his previous home, he would spend his time at White Cliffs. Coward derived great pleasure from the coastal location, the house was built so close to the sea that the waves lapped the walls of his bedroom, and the cliffs rose steeply behind the house. “I don't think I can fail to be happy here” he remarked.
During the war, White Cliffs had been torn apart by British and Canadian troops training for D-Day. There was no heating or lighting and the wind whipped through the broken windows. With the help of his stage designing friend Gladys Calthrop, who lived nearby on the cliff in The Moorings, and the comfort of delicious lunch boxes from Madame Floris, a London confectioner, Coward set about installing electricity and plumbing. He also painted the house from top to bottom, transforming it into a glamorous seaside home.
On the long beach of St. Margaret's Bay there were then only four houses and White Cliffs was the closest to the sea. Coward wanted to purchase them all in order to secure his privacy, but in the post-war days of 1945 there was a housing shortage in South East England and thus Coward was forbidden to purchase more than his one house. To ensure Coward's privacy, two of the other houses were bought by Coward's friends, novelist Eric Ambler and Cole Lesley, and the third by Coward's mother and Auntie Vida. Despite investigation by Fleet Street and a suspicious Ministry of Works, no breach of the law was discovered.
The beach-side location of White Cliffs afforded stunning views of the Channel; Coward was delighted by the nearness of the water on one side and the sheer cliffs on the other. After the exceptionally cold winter of 1947, Coward spent £2000 pinning back the chalk cliffs behind his house. This safeguarded both himself and the ten chickens he kept, whose feathers had fallen out due to too much chalk in their diet. His chickens were the cause of much amusement in St Margaret's, but they were indispensable to Coward who required fresh eggs for breakfast each morning.
Noel Coward’s Life at White Cliffs
After the house was completed in late 1945, Noel Coward longed to show it off to his friends. His neighbour Gladys Calthrop was a regular visitor, whilst actors Graham Payn and Joseph Cotten regularly drove down for weekend breaks from London. High-profile figures such as Gertrude Lawrence, Daphne du Maurier, Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn were also often known to drive down from London to enjoy the Kent coast. During her stays, despite the often freezing weather, Katherine Hepburn famously went for regular swims in the sea outside the house.
Weekends were spent playing canasta or scrabble, listening to classical music and doing the Times crossword which Coward considered “very good exercise for the brain.” Coward's new songs or snatches of his latest play would regularly be performed aloud to assess the reaction of his guests.
Interestingly, Ian Fleming, who was later to buy White Cliffs from Coward, was considered the best audience. The two had met in Jamaica and Fleming often dropped in from his house Summers Lease which was situated nearby.
Movie-going in Deal, Dover and Folkestone was popular among Coward and his guests. Coward also enjoyed attending the performances of the amateur dramatic society in Deal at weekends. He read a great deal, especially E. Nesbitt, author of The Railway Children, and spent long hours in bed because he said the sound of the sea close to his house lulled his senses. From his bedroom window he could watch the ever-changing channel traffic.
Noel Coward had envisaged his life at White Cliffs as being tranquil and restive, but in reality the years he spent living there were highly active and productive. He travelled to London twice weekly to discuss his work and visit the theatre. He also often caught The Golden Arrow ferry and train service to Paris to spend a few days in his apartment in the Place Vendome for what he called a “changement de décor”. In 1940s Britain, food was still rationed and consequently Coward loved to take a quick trip to Calais or Paris in order to obtain the French delicacies which delighted him so much. When in Paris for pleasure or for gala performances he drank cocktails at the Cafe de Paris or Schiaperelli's, socialising with Mary Pickford, Marlene Dietrich and Maurice Chevalier.
Each time Coward embarked on each new theatrical project, a new stream of famous guests would arrive at 'White Cliffs' to discuss the work and to relax in the peaceful surroundings.
While Noel Coward was away on his long trips in London, the Continent or Jamaica, he loaned White Cliffs to the Duke of Kent and his family. The family loved spending time in St. Margaret's Bay and nearby Sandwich Bay; their presence was a cause of much delight for the locals and visitors.
During the six years Noel Coward spent at White Cliffs, he worked on numerous outstanding plays, songs and short stories, including Ace of Clubs and Blithe Spirit. Most famously, Coward rewrote the plays This Happy Breed, Brief Encounter and The Astonished Heart into films. Academy Award nominated Brief Encounter has since become one of the most iconic British films of the twentieth century.
Noel Coward’s Paintings
Noel Coward had painted in watercolours since the early 1930s and he found that the beauty of St Margaret’s inspired him to further his artistic endeavours. With the advice of Winston Churchill, Coward took as interest in oils. He purchased paint and canvas and began to spend every afternoon in the company of friends Cole Lesley and Graham Payn, painting seascapes and landscapes.
At first Coward used oils in exactly the same way as he had used watercolours, producing paintings in pretty pastel colours. The artist Derek Hill helped Coward understand the art of priming in order to cover the stark whiteness of the canvas, whilst artist Clemence Dane recommended that Coward should adopt a style with “courage and attack.” Coward, Payn and Lesley fearlessly experimented with different effects on canvas, using Cole Lesley's house as a studio because of its large windows overlooking the sea.
For one short spell they attempted to emulate the Impressionists by painting out of doors and capturing light on the canvas. Not only did the unpredictable English weather make this short lived, but Coward's black poodle Joe would trample the masterpieces at the end of the day. Coward made trips to his local junk shops to buy old paintings in ornate frames. He would then paint over the old pictures in order that he would have instant frames in which to display his work.
Noel Coward was greatly inspired by Jamaica. He had lived there for a brief period in the late 1940s, and he later died there in 1973. Many of his paintings attempted to capture the bright, bold colours of this tropical island. On returning to St. Margaret's for the summer, however, Coward remarked 'I really think I love White Cliffs more than anywhere else in the world!'
Following his death in 1973, most of Noel Coward's oil paintings remained at his house in Les Avants, Switzerland. In 1988, thirty of these paintings were sold at Christie's auction. The proceeds went to various theatrical charities. Many of the paintings were scenes of his homes at Blue Harbour and Firefly Hill in Jamaica, but two views of “the greyish cliffs of Dover”, as Coward called them, were included in the sale. One entitled The Cliffs above St. Margaret's Bay was purchased by Dover District Council and exudes the atmosphere of the famous cliffs which Coward could see from his house on the beach. The painting is on display at the St Margaret’s Visitors Centre.
Ian Fleming and White Cliffs: inspiration for James Bond
Ian Fleming purchased White Cliffs from Noel Coward in 1951 and he lived there until 1957. Fleming’s love affair with Kent pre-dated the purchase of his new home and he continued to regularly visit his favourite golf course, Royal St George’s.
Fleming was so inspired by the dramatic White Cliffs of Dover and the picturesque surrounding region that he used the region as the setting for the Bond novel Moonraker. The 1955 classic is the only Bond novel to take place solely in Britain and Fleming enjoyed using his beloved Dover as the location. The villain of the novel, Hugo Drax, has built his Moonraker rocket just outside of Dover, near the seaside town of Deal. The 1979 Bond movie is not set in Kent however. The film bears little resemblance to Fleming’s novel and the movie is set in the United States, Italy and the Amazon rainforest!
Fleming also used South-East Kent as the location for his other beloved creation: Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. The car famously flies to the Goodwin Sands where the Potts family enjoy a picnic in the middle of the English Channel.
Noel Coward's painting The Cliffs above St. Margaret's Bay.