Andrzej Lukowski: Do the Evening Standard Theatre awards really go to the most famous nominees?

Nicole Kidman with her award in 2015. Photo: Dave Benett Nicole Kidman with her Evening Standard Theatre award in 2015. Photo: Dave Benett
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In recent years, the Evening Standard Awards has been accused of rewarding the most famous, if not always the most deserving, performers with a gong. Andrzej Lukowski runs the numbers and takes a scientific look at whether this is really true

The gaudiest night in the London theatre calendar took place earlier this month, as hordes of A-list actors dutifully gravitated towards the 2017 Evening Standard Theatre Awards. link

But the rise in number and celebrity status of these stars has increasingly raised questions about the event. It prides itself on being the UK’s longest-running theatre awards, but seems to run on something more akin to face control in an upscale Moscow club than actual critical judgement.

The question is: does a Hollywood blockbuster on the CV hold more weight in the final reckoning of the awards winners than a good old-fashioned barnstorming stage performance?

The shift has not unreasonably been attributed to Evening Standard proprietor Evgeny Lebedev. It would be a little fanciful – but not totally nuts – to suggest that a big reason he took over the paper in 2009 was because it came with a shiny awards ceremony and the opportunity to be photographed sitting impassively next to the stars of stage and screen.

In any case, the sense that it has been reshaped in his own self-image came to a head with the the hoo-ha over the 2013 resignation of three of its longterm judges, who cried foul over Helen Mirren being named best actress. It feels like the Rubicon was crossed at this moment.

But was it? We decided to carry out some extremely in-depth, rigorous research to see if there really had been a shift towards the A-listers in the acting and directing categories of the awards. Our hugely scientific method was to compare the winners from 2013 to 2017, with the five years before that. Obviously Lebedev was a presence, but not so heavy-handed that judges walked.

First, let’s look at the contentious best actress category. The winners between 2008 and 2012 were Penelope Wilton and Margaret Tyzack (joint), Rachel Weisz, Nancy Carroll, Sheridan Smith, and Hattie Morahan.

This stacks up fine with the Oliviers, where Tyzack (solo), Weisz, Carroll and Smith all won (Smith for best supporting actress). That means the Standard’s only real deviation was giving an award to the respected, but not very famous Morahan. There is no scientific measure of celebrity, but of the bunch, you’d probably only call Weisz and Smith household names.

From 2013 to 2017, the ES winners were Helen Mirren, Gillian Anderson, Nicole Kidman, Billie Piper and Glenda Jackson. All A-listers. Two also won Oliviers: Piper, and (ironically) Mirren. However, the remaining three Olivier winners in the same period are noticeably less starry: Lesley Manville, Penelope Wilton and, of course, Denise Gough.

Now, without donning our tinfoil hat, let’s just say this: since 2013, the most famous actress has always won at the Evening Standard Theatre Awards. That does not make them undeserving. But it is a fact. And there is at least one absolute howler of a decision there: Kidman’s triumph over Gough was totally preposterous.

Men-wise, and 2008-12 gives us Chiwetel Ejiofor, Mark Rylance, Rory Kinnear, Benedict Cumberbatch joint with Jonny Lee Miller, and Simon Russell Beale. That’s quite celebby, though most of them were less ‘Hollywood’ famous back then. The Oliviers went for Ejiofor, Rylance and Cumberbatch/Miller, plus Derek Jacobi and Roger Allam.

For 2013-17, ES gave us Rory Kinnear and Adrian Lester (joint), Tom Hiddleston, James McAvoy, Ralph Fiennes and Andrew Garfield – the last four all major film stars. The Oliviers offered Kinnear (solo) then four totally different, less famous winners: Luke Treadaway, Mark Strong, Kenneth Cranham and Jamie Parker. Garfield’s not in fact eligible until next year’s Oliviers but even so: if nothing’s quite so shocking as the Kidman decision, it’s fairly apparent that once again the most famous person has always won.

Attribute it to what you will (certainly it’s worth noting that the makeup of the judging panel has changed since 2013, and contains fewer critics). But since ‘Mirren-gate’, the awards have systematically rewarded more famous actors over less famous ones.

The other categories have generally been more sensible, though it’s worth remembering last year’s hysterically silly best director result, where John Malkovich somehow conspired to triumph over John Tiffany.

What’s really besmirched the ES ceremony’s image, though, is the special awards. In 2013, there were six of these, most infamous of which was David Walliams’ ‘award for comedy’, an uncontested category, never repeated, that had allegedly been made up to celebrate the magnificence of his turn as Bottom in Michael Grandage’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Other winners that year included the theatre icon award (to Maggie Smith), the Lebedev Award (to Andrew Lloyd Webber) and the editor’s award (to Kevin Spacey, hey ho).

A quick run through later highlights include 2014’s bewildering award to Kate Bush, 2015’s newcomer in a musical category (contested, but a one-off that seemed purely created to give Gemma Arterton a gong), and 2016’s decision to honour the admittedly legendary, but not-very-well-known-for-his-theatre-work David Attenborough.

The abiding impression from these special awards was of almost pathological frivolity. It’s difficult to imagine anybody who, wasn’t an actual medieval monarch, wouldn’t see it as a little venal.

So have things changed this year? After an unusually sensible shortlist, there was speculation that new editor – and advisory panel member – George Osborne might have enough influence to shake things up a bit for 2017.

There’s actually not much evidence of that in the main awards, which were again all won by the most famous nominees – Garfield, Sam Mendes in the director category and Jackson (though a few famous people missed out of nominations entirely, notably Sienna Miller). But here’s the thing: there wasn’t a single special award given this year. No lifetime achievement award, no nothing. We’re not aware of there being any explanation for this, but it’s certainly made the awards seem vastly less silly.

In a sense, most awards shows are about the optics. And between 2013 and 2016, the Evening Standard Theatre Awards made no effort not to look like they were being run like a tinpot dictatorship.

Mark Shenton: The London Evening Standard Awards’ focus on fame demeans worthy winners

In 2017, they made a bit of an effort. And as it turns out, the famous people still showed up. The awards would seem to be heavily stacked towards the very famous, but at least they’re now not rubbing it in our faces. The industry gets a night out, and Lebedev gets to be photographed with some people off the telly. It probably wasn’t the original dream of the awards when they launched in 1955, but it’s a small step back from the abyss, and for that perhaps we should be grateful.