Director Sam Mendes and playwright Tom Stoppard (pictured) were the big theatrical winners at the seventh annual South Bank Show Awards, which were aired last night in a special edition of the arts television programme on ITV.

Mendes scooped the Theatre Award – winning out over playwrights Caryl Churchill and Peter Gill for their premieres of, respectively, A Number and The York Realist - for his direction of Uncle Vanya and Twelfth Night, his farewell productions at the Donmar Warehouse, where he finished last month after ten years as artistic director. Currently in New York where the double bill has transferred to critical acclaim (See The Goss, 23 Jan 2003), Mendes accepted the South Bank statuette by video link.

He said working on the two productions - which features a much-laurelled cast including Simon Russell Beale, Emily Watson, Mark Strong and Helen McCrory - has been "the best time I've ever had in theatre" and that "it seems wholly unfair to be given this (the award) now for having had so much fun". Mendes also took the opportunity to acknowledge the support of the "tightknit" theatrical community in London, which he said was very special.

Tom Stoppard's accolade came at the evening, after the handing out of the nine other awards for art forms ranging from cinema to literature, popular music, opera and dance. Diana Rigg presented him with the Outstanding Achievement in the Arts award - well deserved, she said, since "for nearly 40 years, our theatre has been blessed with his extraordinary voice". The actress also pointed out that, lest people think Stoppard too serious, it was important to note that "he does give the best parties imaginable".

In a speech full of anecdotes and reminiscences, Stoppard praised outgoing National Theatre artistic director Trevor Nunn, who directed his epic trilogy The Coast of Utopia, the piece which precipitated the South Bank honour. "He's really really good, you know," said Stoppard with telling understatement. Amongst other categories, the trilogy has also been nominated in the Theatregoers' Choice Awards for Theatre Event of the Year (click here to vote - voting closes 31 January 2003).

Amongst those in the star-studded audience of the South Bank Show Awards ceremony, held last Tuesday at the Savoy Hotel, were: Sean Bean, Jerry Hall, Brenda Blethyn, Matthew Bourne, German Greer, Madness’ Suggs, Meera Syal, Chiwetel Ejiofor and the show’s presenter and awards emcee Melvyn Bragg.

- by Terri Paddock