Celebrated actor Richard Stent has just won a BAFTA for his portrayal of the celebrated British actor and playwright Noël Coward, and such is his connection with the character that he leaps at the opportunity to buy Goldenhurst Manor, the Kent mansion that Coward occupied for him and his partner Fran. However, on moving into the house, he and his acquaintances all experience bizarre goings on in in that lead him to believe that the house could very well be haunted, and the spirit of Noël Coward is perhaps not fully at rest.
I was so entertained by Julian Clary’s novel Murder Most Fab that I rushed to grab a copy of Briefs Encountered, not least because the title is also a play on my fifth favourite film of all time. And, indeed, that’s all I thought the title was – a cheeky pun that worked because it just so happened to be the title of a well-loved Coward creation. However, late on in the book you actually realise that the title carries far more significance than that, and I chuckled to myself once again at Clary’s wicked sense of humour.
Such is his sense of humour, in fact, that Clary casts himself as one of the supporting characters in the novel– the previous resident of Coward’s abode, who sells it to Richard Stent, and he pokes fun of himself from the start. The novel is set out like a play, with it being divided into acts and scenes as well as there being as list of characters at the beginning, and Clary is introduced as “annoying camp actor and renowned homosexual”, which sets the tone for the amount of ribbing he dishes out to himself over the course of the book.
Throughout the novel, the main protagonists makes snide comments about Clary’s grubby flamboyance (despite Richard Stent being gay himself), or trying to avoid him, and Clary even writes a humorous, albeit cruel ending for himself that includes his career taking “a dive that Tom Daley would have been proud of.” Such self-deprecation is rare in comedians these days – they love making fun of everything and anything but one word of mockery in their direction and they show their true diva colours – but Clary isn’t afraid to poke fun at the aspects of himself that he knows people are saying already, and in doing so, the novel is ever the more charming.
The story itself takes the formula that many a women’s weepy novel has: alternating narration between Richard Stent’s first person in the present and Noël Coward’s story, written in third person. Both Stent and Coward have plenty in common: they are famous British actors, both are gay (though in the primitive times Coward lived in, he had to keep his sexuality much more under wraps), and both struggle with the testing work/life balance and the effect it has on the relationships it has on their loved ones. It is clear from the way Coward’s story is painted, and the wandering eye of his unsatisfied American boyfriend Jack, that their love story won’t be a happy ending, and it is with trepidation and eagerness that we turn the page to see if the same doom will be inflicted on Richard and Fran.
As with Murder Most Fab, Clary dabbles with all the themes he knows most about: celebrity (hilariously, at one point the “Julian Clary” character compares his fame with Stent’s, only for the protagonist to internally sneer), man/man relationships, sex, and doing naughty things when we really ought to know better. His writing style is both unpretentious yet incredibly sharp, and as with MMF, the observations on life and certain celebrities are absolutely bang on the money.
Noël Coward was famous for his liberal depictions of adultery in his plays, for which he was lambasted by some critics, but this laissez-faire attitude towards relationships and free love is shared by Clary, and so him writing a fictionalization of Coward’s life makes perfect sense. Elements of Coward’s songwriting and poetry are interspersed throughout the storytelling, and the fact that he was clearly a very gifted raconteur and damn funny bloke is captured in the book, which, for its depiction of his flaws, renders him lovingly. Clary has clearly done his research, and Coward’s encounters with Hollywood greats such as Katharine Hepburn in the novel feel so realistic, you can actually imagine the conversations happening.
Finally, whilst some books’ treatment of the afterlife feel either mawkish or overwrought (I’m thinking The Lovely Bones, which I did not at all consider a good book), Briefs Encountered paints the spirits so naturally that they don’t feel any different from normal people, and thus we can really believe they exist. There’s dry social commentary aplenty – in the Coward segment of the novel, the actor is hounded out of his mansion by a homophobic policeman who seems intent on arresting him, yet takes quite the nosy interest in his sex life, suggestion repression on his own part, as well as a twisty whodunit to pique our interest. With a fabulous sense of humour, polished writing style and a neat eye for pacing, Clary has once again produced a treat.