For many years, the Baftas – Britain’s pre-eminent awards ceremony – has lagged behind its American cousin in terms of raw drama. Where the Oscars has had the Moonlight kerfuffle of 2017 and last year’s notorious “slap”, Baftas night has always been rather safe. Almost boring. This has been aided by the fact that, although the show has been broadcast in some form since 1956 when Vivien Leigh was hosting, it is generally aired on TV at least a few hours after news of the winners has broken. That kills both the innate tension of the prizegiving and also stifles the possibility for the sort of spontaneous carnage that has typified events at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles. So it was a relief to find out that the 2023 incarnation, anchored by Richard E Grant, would be sort-of, almost, not-quite broadcast live.
And when you’re in the market for carefully manufactured mayhem, who else would you go to but Alison Hammond? The Brummie TV presenter, who began her career as a contestant on Big Brother (where she was the second person evicted that season), has become famous for getting a giggling Harrison Ford drunk on mini whiskeys and knocking sailors into the Mersey on live television. She is, in a word, fun. “I feel like a competition winner,” she announced, as she took to the stage. A joke that, as the ceremony proceeded, felt closer to the bone.
But Hammond was very much the co-host, playing second fiddle to Grant, who was taking the gig on for the first time. The quality of awards show hosting in recent years – from Ricky Gervais to Tina Fey, Ellen DeGeneres to Chris Rock – has been highly variable. Some play it too safe and end up in a milquetoast middle ground, others go for the biting satire of edgy stand-up and run the risk of offending a room full of Hollywood decision makers. It is rare to see it done truly well, but, in general, they all make it look easy. Grant, however, did not. Visibly anxious, he stumbled over half the lines of his opening monologue (“As toast,” he gamely declared, “toast? Host!”), shaking like a leaf as he read from his CV, while most jokes landed with the thud of a depressurised squash ball. I felt enormously for him – it is an unwritten rule of celebrity that famous people cannot be nervous in front of other famous people. That’s a job for civilians.
And yet, in spite of the rather shambolic presentation, there’s something irresistible to me about seeing beautiful, rich, successful people further rewarded in life. It is the great paradox of award shows, that somehow watching gorgeous millionaires given little gold trophies makes me – an embittered nobody – feel better about my life. From Kerry Condon thanking her “horses and dogs” to Guillermo del Toro adjusting the arm of his miniature Geppetto, and Brendan Fraser giving Austin Butler a solo ovation to Ariana DeBose’s excruciatingly patronising rap about women in film; even the earthy Baftas achieved an air of Californian charisma. Naturally, awards for things like Editing, Casting and Documentary (where the winners were not unusually glamorous) were relegated to a couple of minutes worth of montage.
But just as it gathered momentum hurling awards at A-listers, the show would throw to Hammond – exiled, mysteriously, to her own off-stage studio – to bumble her way through interviews with the likes of Emma Thompson and Austin Butler (nudged together into a painful flirtation) and Helen Mirren (who was assured, by Hammond, that Elizabeth II had loved her performance in The Queen). These interludes punctuated an already wincingly embarrassing ceremony, which became a live broadcast in time for its final few gongs. “You can really feel the atmosphere in the room,” proclaimed Hammond, returning to the stage. “It is palpable,” replied Richard. That’s a generous interpretation: by the time the show reached its conclusion, the only thing palpable was a deep, unintended, patina of cringe.