Described as ‘one of the most important interpreters of Coward that we have’, Stefan Bednarczyk returns to the Crazy Coqs this week with his Noel Coward show (concentrating on Coward during the war and post-war years, but also including Coward’s works from the 1920s and ’30s as well as some of his lesser-known songs). There are also anecdotes and insights that Bednarczyk has gleaned from his friendships and acquaintances with people who knew and worked with The Master, including Judy Campbell, Sheridan Morley, Wendy Toye and Graham Payn.
Bednarczyk is an actor, musical director and cabaret performer. His extensive credits as musical director include shows at the National Theatre, the Barbican, the Almeida, Hampstead and Open Air Theatre, Regent’s Park, and the British premiere of Boy Meets Boy at the Jermyn Street Theatre. As a solo cabaret performer he has enjoyed seasons in London, New York and many major European cities.
You wear many hats in a career that spans acting in both theatre and films, cabaret, musical composition and direction, playing piano and church organ, and conducting a church choir. Which came first, music, acting, singing or writing?
The piano came first – literally at my mother’s knee. Both she and my grandmother were talented amateur pianists and singers and Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight Sonata’ (from the News Chronicle book of Music For the Home) ran in tandem with ‘If It Wasn’t For the ’ouses Inbetween’ (from the News Chronicle book Sixty Old Time Variety Songs)!
For your Noel Coward show you concentrate on the songs of the 1930s and ’40s. Is this because many of them are not as popular as the earlier 1920s and ’30s material and, when you researched the Coward songs, did you uncover many rarities?
Indeed, I concentrated on the later songs because they are not so well known, and I think many are worthy of reappraisal: songs like ‘Never Again’ from Set to Music; ‘Evening in Summer’ from Ace of Clubs; ‘Something Very Strange’ from Sail Away. It’s difficult for me now to have the perspective to decide what counts as a ‘rarity’ – but it was gratifying last year that some Coward aficionados said I brought things to their notice that either they didn’t know or had forgotten about.
If you find something new about Coward or his songs, do you add it to the show, or is it now set in stone from last year?
The show has been ‘tweaked’ here and there – but is largely the same as last year.
You have unearthed some of Coward’s personal ‘Verses’ that were never intended for public consumption. Do you read them or have you set them to music?
I speak them. He always called them “verses” rather than claiming them as “poetry” – but I think that many of them are poems by any definition. I also think that there was something about the process of writing them – perhaps the strictures of verse rather than prose – that made him rather more truthful than in some of his autobiography.
Everybody and his wife quote anecdotes about Coward. No doubt in your journeys you have collected stories from the likes of Coward’s acting colleagues Judy Campbell and Graham Payn, together with Coward biographer Sheridan Morley. Do you have any choice bons mots up your sleeve that might be hitherto untold?
I wish I could claim so, but I doubt it! Sheridan was such a prolific author, Graham wrote his own book, Judy was interviewed so extensively during the Coward centenary that most things must be ‘out there’ somewhere. Perhaps the fact that I knew them, and can bring their stories and experiences together under the same roof and from my perspective, is the most I can claim. Judy died ten years ago last month, and never wrote an autobiography – so keeping her memories and anecdotes alive and circulating is important to me.
Coward performed his own material with infinite ease and rapid-fire delivery but would you agree that the songs are very difficult to sing effectively?
Yes! The Michael Flanders phrase “Carefully rehearsed…to look spontaneous” comes to mind.
Many performers are adept at mimicking the talking and singing style of Coward. In your show do you ‘play’ Coward or just appear as yourself?
I am myself. I will occasionally quote his way of performing, or reference it, but try to interpret Coward the writer without relying on my knowledge of Coward the Consummate Performer.
You studied music at Oxford and was a choral scholar at Queen’s College and then wrote for Granada TV. Was that musical composition or scriptwriting?
Ha! David Plowright, who then ran Granada, saw me in a revue at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and I think gave instructions that I should be ‘used’. I wrote some undistinguished incidental music for a couple of dramas, then some songs for a series called Off Peak. The series was good; the songs were bad. I fled to London!
You have written music for the Dick Barton stage show and other productions. Do you still have the time, the inclination or the commissions to write more music?
Yes – I’ve just written songs for Brecht and some Shakespeare plays at RADA, and will be going back up to Nottingham Playhouse in the autumn. But, to quote Charlie Kringas, “which comes first, the words or the music? Generally, the contract”!
Are you still doing your Flanders & Swann show and, after Coward, are you planning any more tributes to great British songsmiths such as G&S or Ivor Novello?
I would love to do more F&S, as and when I’m asked. I love G&S – I appeared in Mike Leigh’s Topsy-Turvy, and enjoyed being in the first professional revival of The Grand Duke at the Finborough a couple of years ago. Ross Leadbeater is doing a fine job at keeping Novello ‘in the frame’. I’m open to offers from all of the above!
In the Daily Telegraph’s list of the top 50 British songwriters, Noel Coward came seventh, John Lennon was No. 1 with Ivor Novello at 50. Who would you rate as the Best of British?
Ooh, lord! ‘Best’ is a horrible concept in this context. I think, of the 20th century, the musicals of Vivian Ellis and Sandy Wilson remain undervalued – as are the lyrics of Herbert Farjeon from the between-the-wars years. I grew up loving the songs of Elton John and Bernie Taupin, of Queen and Freddie Mercury… and in current British musical theatre the tunes of Howard Goodall and of Gwyneth Herbert are the ones I find myself most often singing around the house.
What does the future hold for you – more composing, more musical direction, more playing the organ and conducting the choir at St Patrick’s church in Soho, more acting and, perhaps, more cabaret?
More of all the above, I hope. For cabaret I’ve just started co-devising a show with my friend Anne Reid. She is, officially, the busiest woman in our business, but with luck we’ll have the show ready for a first tryout before the end of the year.
Stefan Bednarczyk returns to the Crazy Coqs at London’s Brasserie Zédel from 15-19 July.
Compiled by Michael Darvell