Polymath Ivor Novello, born David Ivor Davies in Wales in 1893, was one of interwar London’s prolific entertainers. Novello was his mother’s maiden name; choosing this as his professional title undoubtedly gave him greater name recognition than his paternal family name. Novello’s first success came as a songwriter during the Great War, with the popular tune ‘Keep the Home Fires Burning’.

During the interwar period, Novello was active as a composer, actor, playwright and screenwriter, occasional film producer, and all-round society figure. In 1926 he ran a nightclub together with actor Constance Collier, with whom he also regularly collaborated on creative projects. The club, the 50/50, was temporarily struck off the register of licensed premises after alcohol had allegedly been served after licensed hours.

Besides his collaborations with Constance Collier, Novello’s interwar projects read like a who’s who of creative Britain. He wrote songs for a play penned by P.G. Wodehouse, wrote songs for Jack Buchanan and had an affair with Siegfried Sassoon. His British film debut came in 1923 as the lead in Adrian Brunel’s The Man Without Desire; Novello also co-produced the film with Miles Mander. The Man Without Desire is a romantic historical melodrama set in Italy; it was the first in a series of roles in which Novello played foreigners, often of high birth. His dark features made him equally convincing as British, Mediterranean, or Eastern European.

After The Man Without Desire came The Rat, which proved so popular that it spawned two sequels. This film was based on a play which Novello had co-written with Collier. In The Rat Novello starred as Pierre Boucheron, a dashing figure in the Parisian underworld. His long-time friend Odile is clearly quietly devoted to him, but the Rat is seduced by the wealthy Zelie de Chaumet, before inevitably realising it is Odile who can provide him with true love. Zelie first sees the Rat in an underground dive bar, where he performs a passionate parody of the Apache Dance with a young woman.

The Apache Dance in The Rat exemplifies Novello’s sexual ambiguity on screen. In real life he lived quite openly as a gay man with his lifelong partner Bobbie Andrews. This was possible in the artistic circles in which Novello and Andrews moved, but clearly it was not possible to explicitly depict homosexuality on screen or stage. Instead, Novello is positioned as a romantic hero; sensual rather than virile, and sometimes surprisingly a-sexual.

Ivor Novello portrait

In Hitchcock’s Downhill, for example, Novello’s character Roddy is not seduced by Mabel, despite her best efforts. Whilst Roddy’s friend Tim is wooing Mabel in the back room of the shop in which she works, Roddy is chatting to some small children who have come to buy sweets. When Roddy later in the film marries the actress Julia Fotheringale, the film never shows any physical intimacy between the couple. Unlike many films of the period, Downhill does not end with the establishment of a heterosexual couple, but rather with Roddy’s restoration as the male heir to his family.

Novello collaborated with Hitchcock for a second film in 1927, The Lodger. This film, based on a popular novel by the same name, was inspired by the Jack the Ripper murders. Novello reprised his role as ‘the Lodger’ in a 1932 sound film remake, directed by Maurice Elvey. In both versions, Novello’s character courts Daisy, the daughter of his landlord. Daisy already has a suitor, a police officer in the 1927 film and a journalist in the 1932 version. Daisy’s original suitors are men of action, who expect that Daisy will marry them based on their previous courtship. Novello’s character, however, manages to win Daisy over through conversation and emotional sensitivity rather than by displaying any of the more traditionally ‘masculine’ traits.

A year after the first version of The Lodger, Novello starred as Lewis Dodds in one of the multiple adaptations of the bestselling novel The Constant Nymph.1 Here Novello was again directed by his friend Adrian Brunel to play the composer who marries one woman but finds that his wife’s young cousin, whom he has known since she was a child, is more devoted in her affections. Again, Novello’s character is linked in a coupling which cannot fulfil the expected template.

After film transitioned from silent to sound, Novello returned largely to the West End stage as a writer and actor of musical comedies. This may in part have been due to the limitations of his specifically recognisable voice and accent, which made him less convincing in the foreign character roles in which he was regularly cast. Novello’s contribution to the musical genre continues to be remembered in the song writing and composing awards named after him, which were established a few years after his death.

The theatre in the building where Novello kept a flat for most of his adult life was also named after him in 2005. It is situated across the road from the Aldwych Theatre, where Tom Walls and Ralph Lynn first became famous; another one of the countless connections that put Novello at the heart of London’s interwar entertainment industry.

[1] Lawrence Napper, British Cinema and Middlebrow Culture in the Interwar years, (Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 2009), pp. 35-79