There are many different aspects to the theatre industry, and judgement of it has become an integral cog in the wheel which continues to make the whole thing turn. Shows and the people behind them are consistently held up before the judicious eye of the critics and the theatre-going public, whose subjective views can make or break a production. Judgement is also the silent partner in the celebration of theatre however, forming the backbone of the various award ceremonies which have arisen from a desire to acknowledge and reward the very best of the industry. In the UK, the likes of the Whatsonstage.com Awards, the BroadwayWorld UK Awards and the Evening Standard Theatre Awards were all created for this purpose, but the most prestigious of them all has to be the Laurence Olivier Awards.
First established in 1976, the Olivier Awards have become an annual event presented by the Society of London Theatre (SOLT) to ‘recognise excellence in professional theatre’. The 38th Olivier Awards takes place this Sunday (13th April 2014) at the Royal Opera House and theatre fans around the UK are eagerly waiting to find out which shows in the West End/London will be emerging victorious this year.
The Olivier Awards are widely recognised as the highest theatrical honour in the UK. For anyone working in the theatre industry in this country, whether it be on the stage or behind the scenes, an Olivier win is a defining nod of approval and stands as the pinnacle of achievement. In this country, they are to theatre what the BRIT Awards are to music and what the BAFTAs are to film and TV – so why do they not receive the same ‘red carpet’ treatment?
The Olivier Awards are one of the most memorable dates in the theatrical calendar, but I doubt many people in the UK would know that they are being held this weekend. Heck, I doubt that many people in the UK even know what they are! While the BAFTAs and the Brit Awards become the focus point of the media during their seasons, the Oliviers have barely made a blip on the radar.
Theatre-based websites exploded when the nominations for the 2014 Awards were announced and Twitter timelines were filled with theatre fans posting about them, but when it came to the UK press it was a very different story. The Evening Standard for example, printed a tiny article covering the nominations which didn’t even take up a quarter of the page, and as was typical with other publications/media organisations, the focus was less on the theatre industry itself and more about the celebrities who were up for an award. The names of nominees Jude Law, Tom Hiddleston and Judi Dench dominated every mention of the Olivier Awards, with most shows relegated to a few brief sentences at the end of each article. If the media aren’t interested in the Oliviers then why should the British people be either?
The lack of proper media attention doesn’t just concern the lead-up to the Oliviers though, but also extends to the coverage of the actual event itself. The award ceremony used to be regularly televised, but BBC2 dropped it from their programming in 2003. After an absence of seven years, it was a victory for the theatre industry when the BBC picked up coverage again, albeit only through the airwaves of Radio 2. Since then progress has slowly continued to be made in regards to securing a place for the Oliviers as a significant presence on UK TV screens. The 2012 ceremony was broadcast online and through the BBC’s red button digital service, and in 2013, ITV aired a highlights programme on its main channel shortly after the end of the Awards on that same evening. ITV will again present highlights of the Oliviers this year, but BBC Radio 2 have declined to continue with their live coverage of the event and instead opted to air a 2-hour highlights package in its place. Still, it seems that full televised coverage of the ceremony remains out of reach for now.
The Olivier Awards are held up as the UK equivalent of the Tony Awards, the annual US award ceremony which celebrates Broadway theatre. Both are considered the most prestigious theatrical awards on their respective sides of the Atlantic, but the Tony Awards are a far bigger deal in the US than the Olivier Awards are on our shores. They have been broadcast on US national television since 1967 and the amount of press coverage they receive before, during and after the event reflects the standing they hold in the US. As evidenced in the coverage of the Oliviers here, our theatre industry isn’t ranked quite so highly.
That the UK theatre industry isn’t afforded the status which it deserves is the main travesty in this issue. The West End is a tourism hotspot and attracts millions of people from all over the world each year. More people visited the West End than ever before in 2013, with nearly 15 million people attending the theatre that year and generating record-breaking box office returns of over £585 million. The popularity of the West End continues to grow with every passing year, and just as film, television and music are largely celebrated in the UK, so too should be theatre. Unfortunately, while the Olivier Awards remain a highly noteworthy and exalted affair within the theatre industry, outside of it they just don’t carry the same prominence. Increased coverage by the media would help to open up the wonderful world of theatre to a much wider audience, and if more effort was put into the promotion of the shows in the West End, those box office figures would likely be boosted to an even greater number. Indeed, I recently came across an article on newyork.com from June 2013 which highlighted the fact that not only have shows which have been big winners at the Tony Awards shown significant increases in ticket sales following the ceremony, but performances of musical numbers on the night generated raised interest which resulted in higher sales too.
The high quality of our London theatre scene is something which should be shown off with pride come the award season in the UK, not given a customary glance and quick nod of acknowledgement. The media should be rolling out the red carpet and jumping at the chance to be involved in such a special occasion, giving over mega-inches of column space in the newspapers to the Oliviers and broadcasting full coverage of the ceremony on a regular annual basis. The disinterest in doing so speaks volumes about the importance placed on theatre in the UK and frankly is an insult to every hard-working person in the theatre industry, as well as the loyal fans who support it. One can only hope that the time will come when the Olivier Awards, and West End theatre by extension, receives the recognition it so richly deserves.
By Julie Robinson (@missjulie25)
The 38th Laurence Olivier Awards take place on Sunday 13th April 2014 at the Royal Opera House, London.