This Happy Breed by Noel Coward

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BBC Radio 7, 24 August 2008

How is it that a propaganda piece preaching old-fashioned English values such as self-reliance and strength can still pack such an emotional punch, sixty-five years after its premiere? That was the question raised by Glyn Dearman’s 1989 revival of This Happy Breed, a 1943 flag-waver telling the story of the Draper family in the two decades between 1918 and 1938.


On the face of it, the material seems unprepossessing. Frank Draper (John Moffatt) remains resolutely unambitious, committed to the twin ideals of family and home. The experience of the First World War taught him not to expect much, except to maintain an inner strength. His wife Ethel (Rosemary Leach) is a professional homemaker who considers it her duty to provide three meals a day and look after her children. Their three offspring Queenie, Ivy and Reg are all wayward to some extent, but gradually come to learn the error of their ways and settle down to lives of domesticity. Coward emphasizes the importance of experience: you might say or do what you like, but you should eventually understand timeless values such as home, family and children, and thereby ensure future prosperity as well as maintain social stability.


Such beliefs struck a chord in war-torn London of 1943; but they seem almost laughably archaic today. We might argue with some justification that Britain fell behind its European competitors in the post-1945 world as a result of such attitudes; no one felt the need to experiment in a world dedicated to family values and lack of ambition. But perhaps This Happy Breed should be approached less as social commentary, and more as an expression of the author’s inner yearnings. Born to a middle-class family in Teddington, south-west London, he never enjoyed the security of family life on account of his sexuality, even though he tried his best to do so by living with his partners Graham Payn and Cole Lesley.


This Happy Breed not only communicates his belief in the nuclear family as the foundation of society. This was vividly brought out in Frank’s final speech, delivered to his little grandson (who was nothing but a baby). He looked forward to a world free of strife, one where people had the right to express their views and cultivate their gardens, while enjoying the security and self-confidence provided by family life. In a sense, therefore, Dearman showed that individuals could achieve their dreams, so long as they did so within the framework of community values.