The problem with audience awards…

On The Culture Show this week Mark Kermode tried to redress the glaring omissions in the Oscar nominations by presenting his own personal awards, the Kermodes, which demonstrated the array of outstanding films that the Academy fails to recognise each year. The Academy Awards may favour certain films, but at least with awards like the Oscars or the Baftas you can hope that not only are the voters fairly knowledgeable about films, they’ve also seen quite a few – and hopefully the ones that they are judging.

Audience awards such as the National Television Awards, and last week’s WhatsOnStage.com Awards, throw up a whole new array of problems. I accept that I can’t complain if these forays into viewer democracy come up with the wrong result. Although I think it’s a travesty that Downton Abbey beat both Sherlock and Doctor Who to Most Popular Drama, or that Colin Morgan (who I do think is a good actor) beat Benedict Cumberbatch and Matt Smith to Most Popular Drama Performance, evidently they are the most popular – at least amongst the demographic that votes for the NTAs. The fact that there are a plethora of awards for programmes that I don’t watch – from daytime TV to soaps – leads me to think that I’m not typical of the average voter. We do need a balance when it comes to awarding recognition; awards voted for by experts are hardly representative of the country’s taste as a whole.

As a regular theatre-goer, I take more of an interest in the WhatsOnStage.com Awards, although again I often disagree with the results – I appreciate that there must be something about Wicked that audiences love, as it’s (to me inexplicably) nearly always ahead of the pack when it comes to audience awards for best musical or West End show. But what annoys me the most about audience awards for theatre is the fact that most voters won’t have seen most of the productions nominated. I go to the theatre more regularly than most, but I’ve seen less than half of the productions nominated. Productions from smaller venues suffer as they struggle to muster enough votes to beat productions that are playing to thousand-strong audiences every night.

Aside from the fact that people haven’t seen most of the productions, the obvious domination of the awards by famous nominees suggests that people really do just vote for what they know. Stephen Fry was excellent in Twelfth Night, and a worthy winner of Best Supporting Actor in a Play, but he didn’t stand so far ahead of his peers that he deserved half of the vote (49.3%) in a strong field. The rest of the nominees’ votes can be marked pretty much according to their fame; from Mark Gatiss (19.7%) to Kyle Soller (5.3%). I can’t judge, because I haven’t seen Long Day’s Journey into Night, but I’m sure Soller would have been an equally worthy winner – and had people known who he was he might have been.

The tendency for audiences to vote for what they know must surely have played a role in deciding the recipient of Best New Musical – how else would Loserville have secured nearly a quarter of the vote, only slightly behind Top Hat and The Bodyguard. And again, I’m sure Sweet Smell of Success and Soho Cinders were hampered by their small venues.

Having said all this, I do think audience awards should have a place alongside traditional awards – and I don’t have any answers on how to solve their problems. They’re inherent to democracy, and replicated in all its forms, right up to Parliamentary elections. This year there was one benefit to the susceptibility of audience to be led by external forces. Presumably thanks to its celluloid reincarnation, Les Mis beat Wicked to win Best West End Show with over a quarter of the vote. But maybe Wicked’s star is just on the wane – it was beaten down into third place by the excellent Matilda the Musical.

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Parade’s End

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From its announcement, Parade’s End has inevitably drawn comparisons with ITV’s Downton Abbey. I enjoy Downton, but it’s completely outclassed by Tom Stoppard’s adaptation of Ford Maddox Ford’s work. I hadn’t read it before I learnt of the BBC adaptation but, borrowing the books from the university library, I found them deeply engaging as a portrait of the tumultuous state of the aristocracy, and the country, in the early twentieth century.

Downton tends to cover social change with quite inconsequential details such as the addition of a telephone to the house, and Sybil’s involvement in the Suffragette movement seems intended largely to generate drama and familial discord rather than to make any insightful point. While Downton portrays the period in a descriptive way, Ford’s work is a detailed exploration of the decline of the aristocracy, the impact of the First World War and changing social ideals.

Both Benedict Cumberbatch as Christopher Tietjens and Rebecca Hall as his wife Sylvia give excellent performances; these characters could have been distinctly unlikeable in the wrong hands. Cumberbatch was the obvious choice for the conservative, intellectual and emotionally repressed Tietjens, and he certainly delivered in his portrayal of the complex emotions suppressed behind Tietjens’ controlled façade. Hall gives Sylvia, portrayed unsympathetically in the books, enough likeability to prevent us from condemning her outright as she amuses herself at the expense of others.

The BBC drama adopts the fractured structure of the novel, flitting between time and place at the start of the first episode. It certainly demands your attention, but is easier to follow than I feared it might be (perhaps aided by the fact that I have read the book). While the first episode largely sets the (rather complicated) scene, I’m looking forward to the next instalment, which promises an increase in the action and the onset of war.