“Who are the judges?” At least three high-profile nominees at Sunday’s Olivier awards asked me that question. They weren’t asking it out of petulance – two of them were winners. In each case it was, in the words of The King and I, a puzzlement. And when three leaders of their respective fields don’t know the answer, it raises questions.
The assumption has always been that the Oliviers work as London theatre’s version of the Booker prize: that is, a group of experts dutifully see every show, then gather together in what Masterchef’s Loyd Grossman used to call “a judgely huddle” to argue and/or fight to choose the winners. This often led to accusations of horse-trading with certain awards deemed to have been either strategically or politically deployed.
In fact, it was never quite thus. The awards used to be in the hands of eight or nine judges – industry professionals plus keen theatregoing members of the public – but, as Nica Burns told me during her reign as president of the Society of London Theatre from 2008 to 2011, the judging was voted on in secret ballot, ruling out collusion between panel members who were expressly proscribed from speaking about shows in contention. Why? Because overly passionate advocacy by an individual judge or judges might sway opinion.
Not only did that suggest the chosen arbiters were absurdly feeble-minded, it meant there could be no challenged or developed opinions about the work under consideration. This is why, as a very general rule, awards went not to the “best” of something but the “most”: the flashier the work, the more likely it was to win.
Then, in 2013, the system changed. SOLT members felt aggrieved that the subsidised sector routinely cleaned up leaving the commercial West End out in the cold. So, with the exception of the awards for affiliate theatres, and for dance and opera, voting for both nominations and winners was taken almost completely out of the hands of judges and into those of SOLT members.
Since it was commercial theatre that paid for them and wanted to promote their work, that made sense. Let’s face it, even with relatively high ticket prices, last Sunday’s fully staged ceremony in the Royal Albert Hall (with about 4,000 guests) plus a champagne-drenched party in the cavernous Natural History Museum doesn’t come cheap. Yet, as the annual grand marketing opportunity for SOLT to sell London theatre to the world, it is deemed to be worth it.
However, almost no one among the backstage or onstage talent up for the awards understands the voting system. The SOLT website page on how the winners are chosen leads with: “Each year, the Olivier Awards winners are decided by a group of distinguished industry professionals, theatre luminaries and members of the public specifically chosen for their passion for London theatre.” Technically correct, that’s also misleading.
The judging panel still exists but its role is almost wholly advisory only. Having verifiably seen everything, the panel draws up a list of recommended nominees. Those recommendations are then asterisked in a complete list of every eligible person in each category, which is then sent electronically to the 200 or so SOLT members who then vote to choose the nominees.
This process is followed by a second round in which the winners are chosen once again by both membership and the panel. But, since the panel has a tiny handful of votes, the power rests almost wholly with the SOLT members who are, effectively, voting for their own shows and interests.
Julian Bird, chief executive of SOLT, points out that the system is run and overseen externally by the Electoral Reform Society to ensure it is fully accountable and above board. Lobbying by individual producers is not allowed beyond a single email and physical incentives are strictly forbidden. But the tricky thing is that the system operates on an honour code.
Members are requested to vote only in categories in which they have seen all contenders. But, hand on heart, does every voting member abide by that? What’s to stop members who have missed shows opting to vote for ones produced by regular colleagues or voting not for the best work, but for shows still running over ones that have closed?
Furthermore, large organisations like ATG and Delfont Mackintosh have, quite legitimately, multiple votes. That enables them to look after their own work. This is possibly one reason why a show such as the breakout cult hit Six managed to cause a stir in the nominations when voters felt generous, but wound up empty-handed on the night because its producers and theatre had fewer votes in its pocket than its category rivals.
It is, of course, possible that every vote was entirely legitimate and based on merit but, call me sceptical, it seems a shade unlikely. No awards system is perfect – three critics famously quit the Evening Standard Drama Awards when they became The Editor’s Prizes for the Most Famous and Glamorous. This year’s Oliviers went to entirely deserving candidates but I know I’m not alone in being uncomfortable with the opaque nature of the judging.
Read David Benedict’s columns every Wednesday at thestage.co.uk/david-benedict