Behind all the back-slapping, celeb-spotting and faux humility, showbiz award ceremonies are meant to be about celebrating the hard graft and dedication that goes into making theatre, film and TV. It’s just that the anonymous grafters often tend to get edged out of the picture by the glitzy A-listers.
In an effort to redress the balance, this year’s Olivier Awards, with the help of sponsors Mastercard, will inaugurate the Be Inspired Champions: six unsung performing arts heroes nominated by the theatre sector and members of the public.
“Theatre can inspire people in many different ways,” explains Julian Bird, chief executive of the Society of London Theatre, which organises the Oliviers. “We wanted to give the public and the profession a chance to nominate the people who had inspired them. We had hundreds of entries in the form of short videos or written statements.
“We were amazed and inspired by the number of entries and by the range of people working in the performing arts in its broadest sense, whether in a professional or amateur capacity. We’ve made six videos of the winners that we will be posting on the Oliviers website.”
Another legendary behind-the-scenes character, Edwin Shaw (pictured above) was box office manager at the London Palladium for 22 years and helped organise 18 Royal Variety Performances during his tenure.
Shaw, who was recognised by The Stage with an Unsung Hero award in 2012, began his career 60 years ago as a trainee assistant manager at the Empire, Sheffield, his home town, and went on to work in nearly every one of the 26 Moss Empire theatres in the country. He says: “I did a bit of everything, from cleaning the toilets to serving interval drinks. These were the bygone days of customers turning up at the theatre to book their tickets, and people queuing outside the theatre from 4am to make sure of tickets to see, for example, John Hanson in The Desert Song.”
He moved to London in the 1950s and worked at the Victoria Palace in the last gasp of The Crazy Gang – “great fun to work with” – and the six-year run of The Black and White Minstrel Show. Joining the Palladium staff in 1968, he witnessed Sammy Davis Jr in that theatre’s first ever stage musical, Golden Boy, and was there for memorable performances by Danny Kaye, Judy Garland, Frank Sinatra and Gracie Fields.
“It was a seven-day-a-week job in those days because on the Sunday we had Sunday Night at the London Palladium for TV,” Shaw recalls. “It was my whole life, but I didn’t mind because that’s where all my friends were.”
Performer Amanda Holden has said on Twitter she is “over the moon” for her friend Harry Gabriel, who is not only the West End’s longest-serving stage-door keeper but arguably also the most popular. He has been the Shaftesbury Theatre’s guardian angel for 37 years, having first joined the staff in 1980 for the musical They’re Playing Our Song, with Tom Conti.
The management put on a special gala performance of Flashdance for Gabriel when he notched up 30 years in 2010 aged a mere 75. He says he is currently having the time of his life with Motown the Musical. “I’m easy to please,” he jokes when asked which show he enjoyed most. “I like everything that comes to the Shaftesbury.”
Gabriel describes his colleagues at the theatre as “my second family”. Given that he is 82, does he have any plans for retirement? “No immediate plans,” he says. “I still love my job and I’m filled with joy about being nominated for an Olivier award.”
The only posthumous recipient of the award, Coleman died from pneumonia in March, following a recurrence of cancer that was first diagnosed in 2013. She was 40 years old.
A dancer, choreographer and director, Sally-Anne Coleman started out with the young people’s theatre company Starmaker in Reading in the late 1980s, and went on to study performing arts at Henley College.
Coleman found her vocation in the education and coaching of young people in the Reading area, including Starmaker, the company that inspired her younger self.
Matt Whitelock, who worked with Coleman on a production of Oliver! at Reading’s Hexagon last year, said of her: “Sally-Anne fully understood the vital need for the education of young people in the performing arts and worked tirelessly to inspire confidence and encouragement in those she coached. The day she died, the brightest rainbow appeared over Reading as if she was saying goodbye.”
A special needs drama teacher for the past 18 years, Clements works mostly with high-functioning children on the autistic spectrum at Laleham Gap School in Ramsgate, Kent.
“You have to offer a lot of encouragement and praise,” he says. “They tend to struggle with relationships with each other and with the staff, so those are the areas we address through drama to help build up their self-confidence and self-esteem.”
Clements believes drama is beneficial for all children, not just those with special needs, and laments the fact that so many secondary schools now lack drama provision.
He is also involved in after-school drama in Ramsgate and recently produced a programme of Roald Dahl stories and songs. “When it comes to drama one of the blessings of autism is their ability to learn lines quickly. However, they do find the emotional aspects of drama more difficult to grasp.”
Because Clements has been at Laleham Gap for so long, ex-students tend to come back to the school to visit, and “quite a few” of his students have gone on to performing arts courses at a higher level.
How does he feel about the Olivier nomination? “Of course it’s really lovely to be appreciated but at the end of the day I’m just doing my job.”
Retired primary school teacher Mark Thorburn, 66, ran the Coventry Youth Operetta Group for 15 years in the 1980s and 1990s. He did one of the first amateur productions of 42nd Street with them.
Thorburn taught for 20 years in Leamington Spa, and used to stage productions with his pupils, as well as organising trips to the Belgrade Theatre, Coventry.
He left teaching to run the National Operatic and Dramatic Association for seven years, the highlight of which was directing two centenary concerts at the Royal Albert Hall in 1999.
Costume supervisor of The Mousetrap for the past 15 years, Janet Hudson-Holt says it was a nice surprise to be nominated because she feels wardrobe is often taken for granted by the profession.
“Nobody really sees what we do because we’re tucked away in a room somewhere, usually on the top floor,” she says. “There is a lot involved, such as research, understanding the time and setting of the play, the challenge of sourcing what we need. It’s a mixture of making and buying things in.”
Hudson-Holt has to be at the West End’s St Martin’s Theatre for every performance in case of wardrobe malfunctions. “It’s pretty much a full-time job as it’s just me. I don’t have any assistants. The cast changes once a year, which obviously entails a lot of costume changes and adjustments.”
She is a great enthusiast for the Costume Networking Group on Facebook, through which several thousand theatre wardrobe workers from all over the English-speaking world share information and experience.
“There are always going to be things that are difficult to source, so it is nice that the people who work in wardrobe are so willing to share their knowledge.”