Judging by accounts in the Twittersphere, the BBC coverage of Sunday’s Laurence Olivier Awards was a bit of a muddle, which is a shame, because from where I was situated, it was without doubt a resounding success. To say that these revamped Oliviers are a step up on previous years is an understatement.

Leaving aside the audience interest, fuelled if not satisfied by the BBC, this year’s Oliviers succeeded in whipping up the greatest sense of occasion I’ve witnessed in the theatre industry itself in quite some time, and certainly the greatest in relation to this event since I’ve been writing about it.

My first Oliviers was in 1998 so I’ve seen these awards through Friday matinee performances in the Lyceum (three times), Victoria Palace, National and Albery Theatres, followed by buffet lunch receptions and highlights shows on BBC2; through to broadcast banishment, Sunday nights at the London Hilton, loss of the Hilton headline sponsorship to terribly closed-shop, boozy and interminable black-tie dinners at Grosvenor House (since 2007).

As you know if you’ve been following reporting on Whatsonstage.com and elsewhere, the first signals that this year would be different came months ago with announcements of the BBC partnership, bringing the awards back on to television (albeit via the Red button), then the Mastercard tie-in and shortlists launch event, and the first publicly available tickets in nearly a decade.

By Sunday afternoon, when I met colleagues for a pre-event drink at One Aldwych, a stone’s throw from the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, the sense of anticipation and excitement was palpable. We weren’t the only ones to pick One Aldwych as a launching point for the evening. The bar was packed with industry bods in their finery and, sipping swift cocktails with hotel guests looking on in bemusement, everyone was buzzing.

Expectations were quickly met, and often exceeded, from the sashay down the red carpet that ran the length of Catherine Street (once past the militant security team) and was strewn with a list of stars too long to mention, to the oversized souvenir programmes, crammed bars, BBC camera crews roaming the aisles and corridors, a packed press room, massive video screens and general hubbub.

For the ceremony itself, I was sat in the stalls – Best Actor winner Roger Allam to my immediate left, Rachael Stirling and Summer Strallen to my front, Ramin Karimloo to my right (thanks to whoever did that seating plan). And the show that played out in front of us was of an impressively high standard. The MasterCard sponsorship is purported (though not officially confirmed) to be in the region of £1 million (to put that in perspective, that’s roughly 40 times the budget of our own Whatsonstage.com Awards Concert), and you could see where the money went, starting with the 72-strong BBC Orchestra.

Michael Ball and Imelda Staunton were congenial hosts, and there were plenty of glittering guest presenters ready to make gags to keep things rolling nicely, rallying calls in the face of arts cuts, a few obligatory surprise winners (Roy Williams’ play Sucker Punch winning the choreography prize over the year’s big musicals?). Performance-wise, Barry Manilow’s “Copacabana” got the thespians around me rollicking as they watched the sign-language interpreter in the Circle above us trying to keep up with the showgirl lyrics. Performances from Alfie Boe (could there be a more enchanting rendition of “Some Enchanting Evening”?), Ramin Karimloo, Adrian Lester earned the wildest applause.

And then there was one of the West End’s best-kept secrets of 2011, the appearance of Angela Lansbury to present, along with Cameron Mackintosh, this year’s Special Award to Stephen Sondheim. Before Sondheim showed his face, Lansbury received the evening’s first standing ovation of the evening simply for turning up. Thirty seconds later, we were all back on our feet to show appreciation for the man himself, and watching in awe, along with Mackintosh and Sondheim perched on stools stage right, as living legend Lansbury proceeded to serenade Sondheim. Pure class.

At the after-party at the Waldorf Hilton, the first question industry guests kept asking each other was, “Wasn’t that great?”, as if they still couldn’t believe it. One insider, reflecting on Oliviers past, told me, “So many years, I’d sit there cringing and thinking, thank god this isn’t on television. But tonight made me really proud to be part of this industry.” Another wondered: “I’ve been complaining for so many years how s**t the Oliviers are – what am I going to complain about now?”

Well, it would seem we’ll have to complain now about the BBC coverage. If it didn’t convey what a wonderful occasion this was, that’s not just a disservice to theatre lovers, but to those who worked so hard on producing this major awards event. But I’m sure that a lot of those lessons have been learnt and already duly noted for next year when, I hear, the Oliviers will move to the Royal Opera House (Drury Lane being otherwise engaged with Sunday performances of Shrek from this June). Another step up.

In the meantime, hats off to all involved. Knowing how much work goes into our much smaller affair with the Whatsonstage.com Awards, my mind boggles at how many people must have been need to make Sunday night happen. I’ll just mention two by name, the two Julians: Julian Bird, the new chief executive of the Society of London Theatre (SOLT), which runs the Oliviers (and much else in Theatreland) – according to SOLT’s current elected president Nica Burns, he’s “very good news”, and I’d have to agree - and Julian Stoneman, of Julian Stoneman Associates, who produced the ceremony with Bird. Congratulations to them and their teams on a job well done.

Speech highlights

Having ladled out the praise, I’ll admit to some Olivier gripes as well, mainly around the media information provided, which made planning coverage and reporting on the night much more difficult than it needed to be. I’ll address specifics privately and hope that they can be added to the list of improvements for 2012.

But one implication to our coverage, which I sincerely regret, is that we didn’t do our frantic note-taking to publish speech highlights on the go – we assumed these would have been shown in full as part of the new BBC-led format. If you missed any and are still interested, here from my memory were some of the best bits (in no particular order):

  • A heavily pregnant Nancy Carroll (Best Actress for After the Dance) lumbering onto the stage, pointing to herself on the video screens and gasping “God, I look even bigger up there!” She then revealed that, between hosting her daughter’s third birthday party that afternoon – complete with bouncy castle and 30 toddlers – and the shock of winning the gong, “if I don’t go into labour in the next 24 hours, I’ll be amazed”. She also told a lovely story about her mother, to whom she dedicated the award, helping her through her stage fright as a child, by tap-dancing with her in unison from the wings of a performance.
  • Thea Sharrock (collecting Best Revival for After the Dance) admitting “I’m a huge Arsenal fan so I’m not used to winning”, a theme picked up by David Thaxton (Best Actor in a Musical for Passion), “a lifelong Everton fan so I’m even less used to winning anything” (I was sat near Bill Kenwright but couldn’t gauge his reaction to this).
  • Sound designer Adam Cork (winning for King Lear) thanking “a little known director named Rupert Goold” for giving him his first paid job.
  • Adrian Scarborough (Best Supporting Actor for After the Dance) revealing that he and wife Rose are “having our kitchen done at the moment and the shelf I’m gong to have built for this is going to be resplendent (all the while an ecstatic host Imelda Staunton, clearly a close chum, blowing kisses at him).
  • Queen’s Brian May (accepting the Radio 2 Audience Award for We Will Rock You), recalling the critical panning they received on opening in 2002: “Something’s gone seriously wrong. We Will Rock You is supposed to be the enfant terrible of the West End – it’s not meant to be at the Oliviers.”
  • An emotional Sheridan Smith (adding another Best Actress in a Musical gong for Legally Blonde to her Whatsonstage.com Award) swearing and trying not to cry and do a “Gwyneth Paltrow” or keep folks too long as “I know we all want to get to the after-party and get hammered” before thanking the producers who “let a Chav play an American rich girl”.
  • Lyric Hammersmith Sean Holmes (collecting the Achievement in an Affiliate Theatre prize for his revival of Sarah Kane’s Blasted, immediately after the “Copacabana” and “Finian’s Rainbow” performances): “From Barry Manilow to Blasted… you couldn’t make it up.” He also noted that Kane, who was a friend and who committed suicide in 1999, would never have agreed to come to the Oliviers (revamped or otherwise) herself.
  • American playwright Bruce Norris (accepting his third Best New Play prize for Clybourne Park), in the wake of numerous references to impending arts cuts during the ceremony, sharing that “we’re still so jealous of you that you have anything to cut in the first place”.
  • And Stephen Sondheim, trying not to tear up as Cameron Mackintosh had predicted, saying that he’d read in a newspaper that the Special Award was for his contribution to British theatre, but going on to give thanks for “the contribution that British theatre has made to me.