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Boss Blog: WOS 15th birthday: Reporting on the Oliviers over the years

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With last week’s 36th annual Oliviers glam-fest coinciding with Whatsonstage.com’s 15th birthday coverage, I couldn’t help but reminisce on how our own coverage of the country’s most prestigious theatrical prize-giving has changed over the past 15 years.

In Whatsonstage.com’s first year, 1997, the Oliviers were held, as they long were, in February so we didn’t cover them at all since they pre-dated my employment and our official birth by a few months, and our first news story, about Ian Rickson taking over as artistic director of the Royal Court, by a few months more.

Nevertheless, some key names were repeated from that year to this: Maria Friedman, 1997 Best Actress in a Musical winner for Passion, this year performed in honour of Special Award recipient Tim Rice, while her Passion co-star Michael Ball co-hosted the 2012 ceremony (for a second year); Clive Rowe, a 1997 Best Supporting Performance in a Musical for Guys and Dolls (with his inimitable Nicely-Nicely Johnson “rocking the boat”), attended this year on behalf of multiple nominee The Ladykillers; and, less happily, playwright Pam Gems, whose Stanley won 1997’s Play of the Year as well as Best Actor for Antony Sher, was last week memorialised as one of the greats who recently passed away. Even the now-headline sponsor MasterCard had a look-in in 1997 as the sponsor of Best New Musical, which went to Martin Guerre.

Whatsonstage.com’s first awards report came with the 1998 – or 22nd annual – Oliviers. The ceremony was held that year as a Friday daytime event at the Albery Theatre (now the Noel Coward). I wrote a 443-word news piece on receiving the results press release, following up a few days later with an extra paragraph with news of the final two awards – Outstanding Musical Production for Chicago and Best New Comedy for Popcorn - which were presented on location at their respective theatres and not announced until broadcast on a BBC2 highlights programme.

I was invited to my first Oliviers in 1999 when it was hosted by Clive Anderson at the National. That was the year that Eileen Atkins (in The Unexpected Man) unexpectedly beat off competition including “theatrical Viagra” Nicole Kidman (in The Blue Room) for Best Actress, the cast of Kat and the Kings won over soon-to-be Hollywood-export Hugh Jackman (in Oklahoma!) for Best Actor in a Musical and Hollywood-import Kevin Spacey scooped Best Actor for The Iceman Cometh at the Old Vic, long before his artistic director tenure there.

It's so often the upsets and omissions that stick in the memory at the Oliviers. Like Kat and the Kings in 1999, and Collaborators over One Man, Two Guvnors this year, others that come to mind include The Lion King losing out to Honk! The Ugly Duckling for Best New Musical in 2000, Martine McCutcheon grabbing Best Actress in a Musical in 2002 for My Fair Lady despite notching up fewer performances than her understudy, Matthew Kelly (in Of Mice and Men) stealing Best Actor from the clutches of contenders including Michael Sheen (in Caligula) and Kenneth Branagh (in Edmond) in 2004, and The Mountaintop triumphing over Jerusalem and Enron for Best New Play in 2010.

Whatsonstage.com has tried to roll with the Olivier punches, expanding our coverage year on year, from those Friday matinee ceremonies, through to the broadcast blackout years from 2007 to 2010, when the event was an industry-only, Sunday night dinner at a Park Lane hotel. During those years in particular, we felt it our duty to report ad nauseum so that you, our avid theatregoing audience, felt like you had access to everything happening and being said.

We were pleased when even some of the talent onstage at the Oliviers recognised our small contribution: not least, in 2005 (aka the year of The History Boys and The Producers) when Leigh Zimmerman’s version of “Let’s Do It” included a lyric about the Whatsonstage.com Discussion Forum; and in 2007 when Daniel Evans, collecting Best Actor in a Musical for Sunday in the Park with George, thanked all his colleagues who were following proceedings on Whatsonstage.com.

As the Oliviers has opened up, and got its groove back, we remain one of the top reporters on the Awards. With the exception of awards organiser Society of London Theatre (SOLT) itself, and its partners at the BBC, there’s no single publication that writes as much about the Oliviers. From our 443-word beginning, our coverage has expanded to an annual microsite with 20-odd different articles – full shortlists and results, analysis, blogs, photo galleries and fun facts – as well as copious tweeting.

I was proud this year that, with our 12-strong team of theatregoer tweeters, in combination with our in-house reporters, we substantially helped fuel the #oliviers2012 and #wosoliviers trending on the night – and highlighted the theatregoing community enjoyment of this ultimate Theatreland awards celebration.

We’ll be back reporting on the 2013 Oliviers at the Royal Opera House – it remains a privilege to do so. As for exactly what form that coverage will bring, we’ll have to see what new surprises the organisers have in store for us as they continue to build the Oliviers into a world-class event. And, of course, please do tell us what you’d like to see.

In the meantime, another huge congratulations to all the winners and nominees, but most of all to everyone involved in putting on the Oliviers. Following a major step up in 2011, the 2012 Oliviers were another gob-smacking leap forward in scale. You have done theatre and the theatre industry proud. We applaud your effort and ambition.


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