Arts Recipients in The New Year’s Honours List: The Right Choice?

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The New Year’s Honours list is often fraught with controversy, not necessarily for those awarded them but for those who are not, and for those who believe that the system itself should be abolished as a relic of a bygone and morally ambiguous era. Michael Sheen recently revealed that he had given up his OBE due to Britain’s controversial history with Wales, whilst other theatrical figures such as Honor Blackman, Alan Bennett and Danny Boyle have declined awards altogether. This year’s list reveals the priorities of its deciders, for better or worse, but more positively, also reminds us of the importance of the arts, and its workers, to British culture.

One surprising element of the list is the lack of female recipients. The women highlighted by the list are admittedly very well-deserving; Sheila Hancock and Jane Glover in particular, for the sheer length of their careers (as well as their wide-ranging contribution to multiple art forms). Still, female nominees are numerically few and far between, and this is especially alarming the further down the list you go. Women make a strong showing in the Damehoods, but as you scroll down the official listing towards the MBEs, the number of creative women decreases. It seems an odd choice during a time where female representation in the arts seems at its peak; to give comparatively few women awards appears poorly thought-out.

The recepients are also noticeably white. This may reflect the age of both the decision-makers and the awardees. Honours are generally given to older, more established artists, and due to the structural race and gender biases that were even more prevalent when these women began their careers (Sheila Hancock started out in 1950), which was a time when white actresses and creatives tended to receive a greater level of fame and acclaim due to their race, set apart from their talent. However, this is a view that patronises both the industry, which has been marginally more accepting of ethnically diverse viewpoints than has been historically recognised, and the women who strove to change those biases, such as Josette Simon or Floella Benjamin, have received honours in previous years. As a result, we are still faced with an honours list which predominantly contains white men, and which fails to reflect the incredibly diverse and deserving theatrical talent present throughout the industry.

In contrast, many awards on the New Year’s Honours list appear to have been presented due to the diversity of their recipients’ interests. Sheila Hancock, for instance, has combined a theatrical career encompassing straight and comedic work with radio, television and film appearances, book writing, mountain climbing and charity work. Indeed, the official description of her award highlights its charitable aspect, by stressing the age of both her theatrical career (‘over seventy years ago’) and campaigning (‘from 1955’). The specific charities she supports are also described in extensive detail, as are those of Graham Vick, whose achievements as an opera director and company leader are balanced by his work in “integrating local volunteers into the process of making and building bridges with the city’s socially diverse, multi ethnic population”. Awards for the arts are therefore not based on the work alone, but rather their impact on the local and artistic community at large, a more democratic and indeed commendable reason for honouring a particular subject. This helps to reinforce a notion that the government has sadly ignored during the COVID-19 crisis; the transformative effect that the work of individuals in theatre can have on the lives of thousands of others.

This impact has also been recognised in the multiple artistic ventures of various awardees. Jane Glover’s work has been both practical, in her musical direction of the Glyndebourne Touring Opera and of Opera at the Royal Academy of Music, and academic, producing two books on classical composers and appearing frequently as a critic/analyst on the BBC. Therefore these honours recognise the individual in all dimensions of their profession. Similarly, actors are honoured due to the quality and breadth of their work, rather than, as many critics have done, looking to the medium in which they perform it as an indication of quality. Both Lesley Manville and Toby Jones have performed successfully across television, film and theatre, their awards being “for drama”, suggesting that the quality of their work transends the limitations of a particular medium and should be celebrated for its flexibility and consistent detail. Conversely, although the vast majority of Sally Dynevor’s work has been in playing a single character, Sally Webster, on Coronation Street since 1986, by awarding her an MBE the New Years Honours help to dispell the myth that soaps are a lesser art form and that the acting on them cannot be as sensitive or impactful as Toby Jones’ in Uncle Vanya. The Honours List makes a virtue of flexibility and dedication to a wide-ranging craft, which can at times be ignored by the critical establishment.

Although this year’s New Years Honours list continues to attract controversy, and fails to accurately reflect the contemporary and historical diversity of the theatre industry, its willingness to commend the profession for its dedication, community impact and career diversity should be a reminder of what the arts can do, and of what they have been prevented from doing due to government action during the pandemic.

Words by Issy Flower.


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