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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Loserville

Loserville is the new musical opening at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, created by Elliot Davis and James Bourne (of Busted and Son of Dork). Set in 1971, it tells the story of computer geek Michael Dork as he sets out to crack communication between computers while falling in love.

The show has an interesting aesthetic, with a metal frame set complemented by boards carried by the ensemble. While distracting at first, this technique was often used effectively to represent everything from a house to a QWERTY keyboard. All the cast gave enthusiastic performances, but while Gareth Gates’ casting has been used to pull in audiences it is Aaron Sidwell as Michael, Eliza Hope Bennett as Holly and Lil’ Chris as Francis whose performances stand out.

The production aims at a wide target audience, from teenage fans of Gareth Gates to those who remember the ‘70s, and the night I went there was a variety of people in the audience. While the musical would be entertaining enough for anyone I think that it will probably be most appreciated by those who were a fan of the Busted/ Son of Dork music of the early noughties. You can certainly tell that the music is by an ex-member of Busted, and roughly half of the songs are taken from the album Welcome to Loserville by Bourne’s band Son of Dork. While cheesy the songs are easy to listen to, and have been growing on me since I saw it (partly due to the fact that I haven’t been able to get them out of my head for the last couple of days).

This is Bourne’s first venture into writing for theatre, accompanied by veteran Davis, and while Loserville is not ground-breaking it has a certain charm about it. I only saw this at a preview, but it definitely has potential.