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Michael Coveney: Standard awards special prizes to Smith, Spacey, Walliams and Lloyd Webber

Last night's star-studded ceremony at the Savoy was hosted by Damian Lewis

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Damian Lewis hosting the ES Awards
© Dave Benett

I hadn't been to an Evening Standard awards ceremony for some years and, at first, last night's black tie event at the Savoy Hotel was a strange and forbidding experience, with only a backstop welcoming duo of Nick Curtis and his editor, Sarah Sands, providing a familiar touch behind a phalanx of PR receptionists and Russian security guards.

Whereas these awards were once a prestigious adjunct of the Standard's arts coverage, they're now an extension of the proprietor's curiously do-gooding and highly developed sense of vanity; Evgeny Lebedev's salvation of the title in a collapsing market has been as spectacular as his campaigns against poverty, illiteracy and gangland culture.

The arts are for Lebedev an essential expression of London's metropolitan identity, hence the award-giving podium speeches of the Mayor, Boris Johnson (saluting Kevin Spacey's Old Vic tenure in the discretionary "editor's award"), the deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg (applauding Lucy Kirkwood's Chimerica as best new play), and scourge of the media Hugh Grant cheerleading for Maria Friedman's Menier Chocolate Factory revival of Merrily We Roll Along as the best musical ahead of the heavily hyped and tweeted Broadway import The Book of Mormon.

Best musical is given in memory of Ned Sherrin, the peerless host of these awards for so many years, and Clarke Peters, singing a poignantly downbeat version of "There's No Business Like Show Business", paid tribute not only to Ned but also to his writing collaborator of distinction, the critic Caryl Brahms; it was their Cinderella re-write, I Gotta Shoe, that set him on the road to fame, fortune and The Wire.

See the full list of Evening Standard Award winners

Our host this year was Damian Lewis, with voice-over announcements from his wife, Helen McCrory. They both did pretty well until, with exhaustion flooding the room as the clock ticked past 11pm, Lewis started doing some recherché mime charades that everyone seemed to understand apart from the starry folk on my table; as these included two of the brainy judging panel - Libby Purves and Susannah Clapp - as well as Maureen Lipman, David Suchet, Anna Chancellor, Jonathan Kent and Park Theatre boss Jez Bond, we should reasonably conclude that Lewis had somehow exceeded his brief, or gone to great lengths.

Dane Edna Everage kept things simple in giving the oddly named "award for comedy" to David Walliams for his Bottom (I'd say that was a deeply debatable accolade) by clarifying why Lord Fellowes wasn't to be lured away from writing Downton Abbey: "Maggie needs the work."

Maggie, ie Dame Maggie Smith, managed a wry, lemony smile before taking the stage herself to modestly accept the hideously titled "Theatre Icon Award", yet another discretionary gong, one of several that seem to be an add-on to the core judicial procedure. But how touchingly she accepted it: "I've done nothing in the theatre to justify this," she said, astonishingly, adding that the pleasure of appearing in the National Theatre's 50th anniversary gala had made her want to do more. But what, she wondered?

She recalled that when she received her first Evening Standard award as best actress in Peter Shaffer's The Private Ear and The Public Eye (in 1961, starring with Kenneth Williams), she promised "to do better next term." The new girl went on to win three more Standard best actress statues - for Hedda Gabler directed by Ingmar Bergman at the National in 1971, her own favourite production; for Edna O'Brien's version of Virginia Woolf at the Haymarket in 1981; and, three years after that, for her definitive Millamant, directed by William Gaskill, in Congreve's The Way of the World at Chichester and, again, the Haymarket - a feat matched only by Vanessa Redgrave's quartet of prizes.

There was a short filmed tribute to Maggie to which I contributed (along with Anthony Page, Penelope Wilton and Robert Fox) and a clip of her Myra the vamp in Hay Fever at the National in 1964; it's often forgotten that she'd come from revue and West End comedy to play, first of all, Desdemona and Hilde Wangel for Laurence Olivier; he alone at that point knew that her comedy playing was often a shield for tragic depths, and these she learned to release right through the armature of her brilliant, instinctive technique. Even her serrated Lady Bracknell 20 years ago (template for the acerbic old dowager she plays in Downton Abbey) had an inner child of tenderness and vulnerability.

The best actress this year, quite rightly, was adjudged to be Helen Mirren in The Audience, a play honoured in the design award to Bob Crowley, who also designed Alan Bennett's People at the National and the lovely musical Once, which I would have backed in the best musical category. Dame Helen can be as basic as Dame Edna, and didn't disappoint: "I'm dying for a pee," she confided, looking absolutely gorgeous, "but I'm so not looking forward to the five minutes of horror with my spanx."

The Lebedev Special Award went to Andrew Lloyd Webber (presented by Dame Kiri Te Kanawa), who singled out Hal Prince and Trevor Nunn as his key collaborators and quoted Billy Wilder as saying that the trouble with musicals was that everything was in long shot. Still in something of a philanthropic fervour after the opening last week of the new theatre he's underwritten at the ArtsEd drama school in Chiswick, he emphasised the importance of people who succeed in the theatre "giving something back."

Richard Eyre was a popular winner as best director for his utterly poetic and symphonic production of Ghosts at the Almeida (moving into the West End in the New Year), modestly chuffed that he'd beaten off challenges from fellow NT artistic directors current and to come (Hytner and Norris, both in the audience) and making special mention of the Almeida stage-management team as the best in London.

Wonderful though it was, and presented by everyone's favourite broadcaster, Sir David Attenborough, I don't really understand why the BBC Proms were given yet another special award, "Beyond Theatre," nor why there is both an outstanding newcomer (Seth Numrich in Sweet Bird of Youth, presented by the fantastic Barbara Windsor) and an "emerging talent" (Cush Jumbo for her Josephine Baker show, presented by Tom Hiddleston). But best musical performance is a good innovation, and Rosalie Craig the obvious first winner for her sensational singing acrobatics in The Light Princess at the NT.

It was appropriate, too, that Nicholas Hytner's glorious period in charge should be celebrated in Rory Kinnear and Adrian Lester sharing the best actor award for Othello, all jealousy on hold. It's a shame these awards are no longer televised, but that might change next year when the Evening Standard has a TV channel of its own... meanwhile, we can all get on with the real business of the WhatsOnStage Awards, revving up nicely with votes pouring in and the nominations party at the Cafe de Paris fixed for the first Friday in December.