I have been quite conscious this year that I have failed so far to celebrate the centenary of Duke Ellington’s birth. One reason for this is that every time I sit down to attempt something worthy of the great Duke, I remember that it is also the hundred anniversary of the birth of Noel Coward, and I can’t quite see why one man deserves it any less than the other.
So I did nothing about either until one day I had the brilliant idea of combining both of them in the same tribute, and I started writing a Cowardesque one-act play (called “Separate Encounters”) in which Noel Coward and Duke Ellington are leading characters. They meet aboard a transatlantic liner - well, I’ll give you an extract to whet your appetite...
The cocktail lounge of the liner. Noel Coward is sitting at a table, admiring himself in the polished reflection. Enter Duke Ellington.
Duke: Mind if I join you?
Coward: Not at all. Whom do I have the pleasure...?
Duke: Duke Ellington is the name.
Coward: A duke? I am honoured indeed. I am merely Mr Noel Coward.
Duke: Well, I am only an American duke. That is to say, I was given the title by the public for services to music.
Coward: How wonderful. In England, one gets titles merely for being born. In America, you have to deserve them instead. And what brings you to Europe?
Duke: I am bringing my orchestra with me.
Coward: How very grand. It is a long time since I last met a nobleman who bothered to take his own minstrels around with him.
(That’s as far as I had got when I learnt something disturbing. It was also Alfred Hitchcock’s centenary in 1999. Undeterred, I continued the scene, with some adjustments.)
Duke: I’m sorry - did I kick you under the table?
Coward: No, I felt nothing.
Duke: Well, I certainly kicked someone.
Coward: Could there be someone under the table?
Duke: One of my musicians, I fear. Some of them are rather too fond of the bottle. From under the table comes Cary Grant, dusting himself down.
Grant: Sorry to disturb you, gentlemen, but I am currently in danger of my life. I am being pursued by a murderous character who mistakenly wishes to finish me off.
Coward: I know the feeling. With me it is generally someone from the Inland Revenue. At that moment the unmistakable podgy form of Alfred Hitchcock passes by the window of the lounge. Cary Grant dives into hiding again.
(Things were now going nicely, I thought, when I learnt something else. There was another big centenary. Bicentenary,actually. Pushkin had been born two hundred years ago. Clearly he had died before Coward, Ellington and Hitchock had been born,but my tribute play would never be performed in Russia if I didn’t get him in somehow, so it was back to the drawing board...)
Enter a Russian poet, Pushkin.
Pushkin: May I join you, gentlemen? Pushkin’s the name.
Duke: You’re not the fellow that’s trying to bump off the other fellow, are you?
Pushkin: I don’t think so. In any case, I am all for peace. I am the father of Russian poetry.
Duke: That’s dandy. I’m the father of American jazz.
Coward: Personally, I have no intention of ever being a father. But tell me, Mr Pushkin, is not poetry a young man’s game? Being the father of Russian poetry is hardly a job for a grown-up, is it?
Pushkin: Perhaps you are right. But I never got the chance to find out. I was already dead at thirty-eight.
Coward: Dear, dear. And of what Russian disease did you die?
Pushkin: I was shot in a duel.
Duke: A strange death, for a man of peace.
Cary Grant: (under the table) Stop talking about these things! Go away! I’m not here!
Enter a tall Italian nobleman in old-fashioned clothes.
Italian: Gentlemen, may I join you?
(This new arrival is Giacomo Casanova, whose unexpected arrival is brought on by listening to Radio 4’s “A Good Read” the other day, on which film critic Alexander Walker said we should all be celebrating the great seducer’s bicentenary this year. However, I have just looked him up and he died in 1798 and Walker is wrong, and it’s not his bicentenary at all...)
Coward: No, you may not join us. There’s no more room. Go away. Exit Casanova.
(Shortly after that I also learnt from the radio that it was the three hundredth anniversary of the introduction of the sweet pea, but despite the attraction of having Noel Coward say: “What a tragedy for such a beautiful flower to be named after a kitchen vegetable,” I felt things were getting out of hand and I have now decided to abort the whole tribute.)
The Independent Friday July 16 1999