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Standard Mutterings of Discontent

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Word reaches me that all is not well with the nominations for the Evening Standard drama awards on Sunday night. Two or three members of the judging panel -- which comprises Henry Hitchings, Charles Spencer, Georgina Brown, Susannah Clapp and Matt Wolf -- are unhappy with the decisive rail-roading at both long list and short list stage by the Standard's deputy editor, Sarah Sands, who has exceeded her brief of a traditional chairmanship role.

Not even the fearsome figure of Veronica Wadley, the Standard editor before the Lebedev one-penny buy-out, and the installation of Geordie Greig and Sands, interfered beyond once plaintively asking her judges to consider the case of the overlooked Frost/Nixon at the Donmar Warehouse, a wholly justifiable intervention.   

And Wadley's predecessor Max Hastings once bullied the panel into giving a special award to Nicole Kidman (who had appeared in the buff in David Hare's The Blue Room, also at the Donmar) to try and boost a fast failing circulation.

The big difference now is that Sands effectively sits on the panel as a judge, not an editorial supervisor or casting voter, and this should probably be made a bit clearer than it is at the moment.

Passions always run high, anyway, in the secret voting sessions. Bernard Levin once threatened to throw himself out of the nearest window if he didn't get his way. And Milton Shulman was mightily hacked off when I argued successfully, on separate occasions, for awards to go to Steven Berkoff and Ken Campbell.

Michael Billington went even further. He resigned from the panel altogether when Shulman vetoed a democratically approved special award for the Young Vic, privately declaring the awards to be irredeemably corrupt.

Sarah Sands, who shares the same literary agent as her critic, Henry Hitchings, is a good friend of Nicholas Hytner, but it would be altogether inappropriate to suggest that Hytner's prominence in the nominations is therefore a set-up; he's had a really remarkable year of success.

So let's hope all goes swingingly at the black tie "do" in the Savoy Hotel on Sunday night, even though the impact of these occasions is tarnished, or at least lessened, by the lack of television coverage and genuine red carpet glamour.

Traditionalists still yearn for the old-style, star-studded luncheons compered at the same hotel by the late, great Ned Sherrin in the more sensible New Year period; and former panellists like myself will continue to bemoan the new system of long and short lists that seriously detracts from the awards' authority in the days when white smoke emerged from a black tie dinner party in a private supper room in Soho.

Old days came back to haunt us a bit at the Menier Chocolate Factory, too, the other night, with the opening of the cheerfully cheap and jolly The Invisible Man by Ken Hill, the nearest we ever came to an anointed successor to Joan Littlewood at Stratford East.

The audience included the wondrous Toni Palmer, Ken Hill's widow, for whom the Maria Friedman role was written back in 1991 (Hill died in 1995), as well as Joan's amanuensis, Peter Rankin, Hill's orginal Phantom, Peter Straker, fall-over funny guy, Sylvester McCoy, and the lustrous Nancy Carroll, whose husband, Jo Stone-Fewings, was throwing himself about the stage with admirable silly-ass aplomb.

I think everyone wanted the show to be a good deal funnier than it actually was, but it was reassuring to see that the raucous spirit of music hall is not entirely missing from our serious fringe theatre.


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