CRAIG BROWN: The cigarette holder's gone in a puff of smoke

CRAIG BROWN: The cigarette holder’s gone in a puff of smoke… just like Tipp-Ex, floppy disks, alcopops, skiffle and Yellow Pages

Something struck me when I was looking at old photographs of Sir Noel Coward, who died 50 years ago next Sunday. His cigarette holder!

There it was, in virtually every photograph, an emblem of elegance now long past. Like Tipp-Ex, floppy disks, alcopops, skiffle and Yellow Pages, the cigarette holder has turned into a relic from bygone days, a reminder of what has been and gone.

I would guess that, nowadays, if you showed one to someone under the age of 30, they might mistake it for a pen, or perhaps a tiny fishing rod.

Coward was the last celebrity to be photographed on a regular basis with a cigarette holder. Princess Margaret used to brandish one, almost as a weapon, but she was more sheepish about being photographed with it: for a royal, smoking in public was, even then, considered poor form.

Coward, on the other hand, was rarely seen without a cigarette. He even smoked when he went to be knighted in 1970. In his top hat and tails, he posed for photographs outside Buckingham Palace, puffing away.

Coward was the last celebrity to be photographed on a regular basis with a cigarette holder

He started smoking in his youth, ‘partly’, he recalled, ‘because everybody did it, and partly because it was at least an aid to outward nonchalance’.

From early on, he had realised that a cigarette could be used to great theatrical purpose.

The film director Basil Dean noticed that the 29-year-old Coward used it as a conductor employs a baton: ‘Every effect was sharp and clear as a diamond . . . he had already learned . . . how to use the cigarette as an instrument of mood, punctuating witticisms with a snap of his lighter, and ill-temper with a vicious stabbing-out in a nearby ashtray.’

In their heyday, cigarette holders came in four sizes, from opera length (anything up to 20 in) all the way through theatre length and dinner length down to cocktail length (under 4 in).

I would guess that Coward’s was dinner length (between 4 in to 6 in). At any rate, it was to play a key role in his public image.

‘Why am I always expected to wear a dressing-gown, smoke cigarettes in a long holder and say ‘Darling, how wonderful’?’ he once asked. But, of course, he knew the answer only too well: he had cultivated these elements so assiduously that his public would have felt let down were he ever to have appeared in jeans and a T-shirt, puffing on a roll-up, grunting: ‘All right, love?’

Though the cigarette holder is now remembered, if it is remembered at all, as a fashion item, it originally served a practical purpose.

Before the days of the filter tip, it was thought to stop nicotine stains on the fingers and teeth, and to prevent ash falling on to clothes. Later on, it was also believed to reduce the health risks that had become increasingly associated with cigarettes.

Elegant props of a proper bounder: Actor Terry-Thomas, Coward’s near-contemporary, was never without his cigarette holder

Though it was similar, in its way, to a pipe, it appealed to an entirely different market. The pipe was the preserve of the crusty, the trusty and the thoughtful, whereas the cigarette holder attracted the louche, the racy and the glamorous. Princess Margaret would never have smoked a pipe, and nor would Jacqueline Kennedy or Ivor Novello. In the same way, it’s hard to imagine Tony Benn, C.S. Lewis or Captain Haddock ever employing a cigarette holder.

The gap-toothed comic actor Terry-Thomas, Coward’s near-contemporary, was never without his cigarette holder, to such an extent that they were almost a double act.

He possessed a collection of 40, of which his favourite, made by Dunhill, was 7 in long (theatre length), made of black lacquered whangee (a type of bamboo), and decorated with an 18-carat gold spiral band, along with 42 diamonds. In his case, it served to boost his image as a bounder, and it did the same for his fictional fellow baddies, the Penguin in Batman, and Cruella de Vil in One Hundred And One Dalmatians.

But as smoking became less popular, so too did cigarette holders. These days, they can only be bought in antique shops or at auction. Gone, too, are their various offshoots, not least the double-barrelled holder, popular in the U.S. in the 1920s, which allowed the keenest smokers to puff away, two at a time.

Those were the days! But, like so much else that was once fashionable, the cigarette holder seems to have vanished, in a puff of smoke.

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