Awards ceremonies for the arts can be vainglorious affairs. Performing artists make their living by the manifold projection of their personalities. Artists who work in solitude need to focus so fully on their tasks that it can make them oblivious to the wider world’s demands. The artist’s psychic state is not like other people’s. It is both more expansive and more fragile. Put a group of them in a plush room together with food, drink and trinkets, say lovely things about them, take lots of photographs. It is never going to be a picture of dignity and understatement.
And yet. There was a moment in this week’s South Bank Sky Arts Awards, near the end of proceedings, that brought a subtler lump to the throat than is customary. Tom Stoppard was giving an award for outstanding achievement to his fellow playwright Michael Frayn. There was a discernible quiet around the audience because Stoppard is a genius with words, and we knew that his words would be heartfelt. He paid generous tribute to Frayn’s mastery. Whenever one of his novels or plays came around, Stoppard said, it signalled a “red-letter day in the culture of the nation”.
The culture of the nation: a worthy and old-fashioned phrase, and one you might expect as one septuagenarian acknowledged the long-lasting talents of another. It is a phrase that belongs to an idealistic past, the era that saw Britain set up the Third Programme on the BBC, the Festival of Britain, the Edinburgh Festival, in its determination to start a new, all-embracing cultural dialogue that would be accessible to each of its citizens.
Many lament the passing of that idealism. The all-powerful entertainment industry and the shrillness of the mass media have proved too strong and too crude to enable that delicate sense of cultural dialogue to remain intact. Quality has been sacrificed at the altar of noise, runs the argument. The X Factor has drowned out more subtle pleasures.
But there was plenty in that glitzy room at the Dorchester on Tuesday that said the opposite. The South Bank Sky Awards (full disclosure: I was on the judging panel) are rare, possibly unique, in rewarding artists across the widest range of art forms. The same stage that saw Stoppard and Frayn greet each other also saw Channel 4’s toe-curling sitcom of student life, Fresh Meat, rewarded with the prize for best TV comedy.
Tom Jones presented an award to Kate Bush, making a rare public appearance, for her typically bold and visionary album 50 Words for Snow. Michael Boyd, artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, thanked whoever it was who handed him the DVD of Tim Minchin’s live concerts – the spark behind the commissioning of Matilda, winner of the theatre prize. Everyone loved Melvyn Bragg, populariser par excellence.
Here was a world in which distinctions between high and popular art had all but vanished. It was a telling snapshot of today’s “culture of the nation”. I sat next to a charming young actress who told me of her early experiences setting up a theatre group, and of paying her provincial dues as Olivia in Twelfth Night. I googled her while she wasn’t looking. She had also been the lead lesbian vampire killer in, what else, Lesbian Vampire Killers. Today’s culture of the nation is nothing if not a gleeful mash-up of contrasting voices and styles.
It is also capable of infinite nuances of tone. At the table next to mine were the protagonists of Twenty-Twelve, the BBC’s splendid sitcom that gently satirises Britain’s planning for the Olympic Games. An early episode featured a cameo from Sebastian Coe, who must have sat through hours of the bureaucratic doublespeak that is mocked in the programme’s scripts. Was it a form of catharsis for him? In any case, it augurs well for our ability to poke fun at the monstrous event.
Twenty-Twelve lost out to Fresh Meat, but its deconstructive panache was echoed in the work of the visual art award winner, Grayson Perry, for his brilliantly conceived show at the British Museum, The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman. Here was another sign of a cultural institution at the top of its game. In the exhibition’s thrilling mix of contemporary and ancient, it showed Britain’s cultural dialogue to be more urgent, and at the same time more playful, than ever.
It was Frayn’s day, however. His play Democracy, centring on the political life of West Germany’s chancellor Willy Brandt, is shortly due to transfer from Sheffield to London’s Old Vic. Across town, his farce Noises Off plays to packed houses. That two such diverse and intelligent productions should simultaneously grace the West End is a tribute to London’s eclecticism; that they should come from the same mind beggars belief.
By the time the awards had ended, the rain had stopped and the sun was seeping out. Across town an angry politician tried to bring down the world’s most powerful media mogul by quoting Bob Dylan, and a woman who changed her name to Spartacus was nominated to win the country’s most revered art prize. Business as usual. Another red-letter day for a more complicated, but thriving, nation.
More columns at www.ft.com/aspden