'He is, I fear, a born drifter'

Graham Payn, a South African-born singer and actor who was a post-war fixture in London’s West End, has died, agents for the estate of Payn’s long-time companion, Noël Coward, said on Monday. He was 87.

Payn died on November 2 in a hospital in the Swiss village of Les Avants, where he was the main executive of Coward’s estate, said the London-based Alan Brodie Representations. He was buried last week near Montreux, according to a death notice in the Lausanne-based daily 24 Heures.

Payn, a product of the white-tie-and-tails school of song and dance, made his breakthrough in Coward’s 1945 Sigh No More, highlighted by his singing of the haunting feature number Matelot.
That song, written for him by Coward, marked the beginning of Payn’s personal and professional relationship with the British playwright, lasting until Coward’s death in 1973.

But while Payn became a West End regular, appearing in a number of Coward stage productions and even directing The Master himself, he never rose to stardom as Coward had hoped.

“He is, I fear, a born drifter,” Coward said of Payn in the 1960s. “I love him dearly and forever, but this lack of drive in any direction is a bad augury for the future. I am willing and happy to look after him for the rest of my life, but he must do something.”

Payn was born in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa. He was educated privately in England, where he first began performing as a soprano in concerts and boys’ choirs.

At 13, he began appearing on stage and in films, debuting with the part of Curly in Peter Pan at the London Palladium in 1932. A year later, he had a small part in Coward’s revue Words and Music.

After receiving wide acclaim for his performance in Sigh No More, Payn appeared in other Coward productions, including the 1948 Broadway staging of Tonight at 8:30. He also performed in films, including the British cult favourite The Italian Job alongside Coward, Michael Caine and Benny Hill.

After Coward’s death, Payn administered Le Chalet Coward, the estate he shared with the playwright at Les Avants, above Montreux at the eastern end of Lake Geneva. Payn co-wrote Noël Coward and His Friends, published in 1979, and edited The Noël Coward Diaries.—Sapa-AP

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