The Olivier Awards: Do Celebrities Hold All the Cards?
Following the Olivier Award nominations announcement earlier this month there has been countless articles both online and in print analysing which shows, productions and performers missed out, or in a more dramatic sense, 'snubbed' from the shortlist. With any award announcement, be it TV, Film or Theatre, similar articles are immediately published to consider 'the best of the rest' and form speculative conclusions as to why one thing was chosen in favour of another.
With this years Olivier nominations, one criticism seems particular consistent - that of the awards favouring 'stars' and 'celebrities' over anyone else. From Gillian Anderson in The Young Vic's 'Streetcar Named Desire' to Nicole Scherzinger in 'Cats', these names crop up and have a much more familiar pull to those outside the theatrical bubble. But is this ethical?
LondonTheatre.co.uk reviewer Mark Shenton has long since argued a similar case with regards to the Evening Standard Awards, who in recent years have favoured celebrity driven award winners in order to raise their own profile, gaining media attention both nationally and globally. Sad as it is, a performer such as Beverley Knight is more likely to grab headlines in a non-industry publication, which not only raises the brand of the award giver, but in turn London theatre as a whole.
Is the same thing happening with the Olivier Awards? Now I'm not here to argue a particular performer's case against another - I was not on the voting panel - but I can't help but see that this year more than any other that celebrities have been pushed to the forefront in a number of key categories:
Best Actress/Supporting Actress in a play or musical includes: Gemma Arterton, Katie Brayben, Tamsin Greig, Beverley Knight, Samantha Bond, Haydn Gwynne, Nicole Scherzinger, Lorna Want, Angela Lansbury, Gillian Anderson, Kristin Scott Thomas, Imelda Staunton, Penelope Wilton.
How many of these could you call a 'celebrity'? I'd say over half.
Now the first comment to make is a simple one. The awards merely reflect the current state of London theatre - a state where Producers know that celebrities sell tickets. Would 'Speed the Plow' have sustained a run without Lindsay Lohan? Probably not. Would 'The Elephant Man' or 'American Buffalo' be such big news without their own Hollywood stars? I'm tempted to say no. So in many cases, are the Oliviers merely reflecting this culture where the average audience member wants to see a familiar face on stage?
To some degree I would argue that is correct. There is however a more cynical side to me who would argue a different side. Knowing how award ceremonies in many industries are planned - the aim of the game is for publicity. Whilst awards are in place to recognise certain achievements, they also exist to build and raise the brand of those doing the giving - something that anyone who has seen the ever rising number of websites who have started their own awards will no doubt have noticed.
You may think that the Oliviers themselves are a big enough brand to not have to think about this - but in the context of the past decade, you'd be wrong. As a child, I grew up watching the award ceremony with such excitement - they gave me, a weirdly theatre obsessed child living in the relatively cultural black-hole of the north-east, an 'in' to what was happening in London. I looked forward to seeing these awards every year - and despite not knowing what half of the shows were, without the internet they were one of the only ways in which I could feel in any way connected to the industry.
Over the past few years we've had BBC red button coverage, highlights packages, live streams, radio coverage and a whole host of different (and in my eyes confusing) ways to watch the awards - and every year the broadcaster is faced with heavy criticisms from those within the industry it is trying to support.
In 2012 only 181,000 people watched the ceremony live via the BBC's Red Button, with a total of 681,000 people watching the edited highlights package and another 31,000 watching a live internet stream. In 2013 for the first year of broadcast on ITV the edited package was watched by 1.3million viewers - equating to around 10% of the audience share. SOLT (Society of London Theatre) were encouraged by the figures, but were a long way off the most comparable broadcast, being the BBC's coverage of the BATA Film Awards that that drew in almost 5 and a half million viewers, at a similar timeslot earlier in the year.
The theatre industry is a bubble. The London theatre industry is an even smaller bubble. It's difficult to forget when scrolling through Twitter feeds and browsing your favourite bookmarked theatre websites, that the nitty-gritty industry news, reviews and gossip are absorbed by only an exceptionally small slice of the general public. I say that to in no way to put anyone down (I am one of those people), but what I'm saying is that it is very easy to forget that a London centric theatre awards show that recognises the achievements of a very slim slice of life, doesn't factor hugely in the general day to day of the average British public.
I am by no means putting the Olivier Awards down - I have already expressed the importance watching them has been on my life, and I am someone who wastes many a day YouTubing videos of Tony Award acceptance speeches - but I'm merely saying we need to consider them within a much more general context.
So to try and pull this piece into some form of argument - consider if you will that you've been given the task of producing and broadcasting the Olivier Awards on a national TV channel. Your aim is to get as many people interested, engaged and watching the broadcast as possible. Would having household name celebrities on the red carpet, preforming at the event and even taking home awards increase the chance of coverage of the event as a whole? Of course it would. Would the possibility of Nicole Scherzinger, the darling of ITV, singing 'Memory' live on the Broadcast to the nation, justified by being nominated for Best Supporting Actress in a Musical, increase the number of potential viewers for the whole show? A no brainer.
Call me a cynic, but the roll-call of celebrities on the award nominations roster is clearly beneficial to all. More people watch the show, more people are interested in the awards, leading to more people seeing live theatre. Whether the trend for celebrities in productions is the cause or effect of this is debatable, but I don't hear either ITV or SOLT complaining.
Is this a bad thing? I am by no means suggesting any celebrity is not worthy of their award nomination - I was personally transfixed by Gillian Anderson's Blanche DuBois as much as I was by James McAvoy in 'The Ruling Class' - I am merely speculating on the mutual advantages familiar faces being nominated has for the industry. If this is what it takes for the Oliviers to be broadcast on TV every year - then my 12 year old self, and my 26 year old self, am all for it.