Evgeny Lebedev

Much Ado About Theatre: Hosting the Evening Standard Awards 2014

Evening Standard Magazine Friday 9 January 2015

Evgeny Lebedev, owner of the Evening Standard and co-host of the London Evening Standard Theatre Awards, reflects on this year’s unforgettable performances and a night to remember at the London Palladium


When, just over five years ago, I bought the Evening Standard, I had a very clear idea of what I wanted to do with it. People think that the biggest change we made was taking it free — and of course, now that the paper is profitable, and reaching two million Londoners every day, that decision was completely transformative.

But my ambition for this great newspaper wasn’t just commercial. It was cultural, too. The newspaper I bought was journalistically superb, with outstanding writers covering news, sport, business and the arts, not least in this magazine. So there was no need for big change there. And yet I was determined that, if the Evening Standard stood for anything, it must celebrate the extraordinary cultural power of modern London. And nothing could do this quite like our London Evening Standard Theatre Awards.

Say cheese!

2014 hosts, Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan

Every metropolis has its specialisms. Paris has the art of the Louvre, just as St Petersburg has the Hermitage. Rome and Venice have their exquisite churches; and New York has an infectious energy all of its own. And as for London, my home? Well, if this really is the greatest city on Earth today — and I believe it is — the best thing about it is the London stage. And it is the glory of this stage to which these Awards — and this souvenir edition — are dedicated.

This year was the 60th Evening Standard Theatre Awards, which everyone in the industry holds to be the official awards ceremony for those who work on our stage. The world is a very different place from 1955, when the Awards were first held. It is 60 years since a row between the judges meant a special award of Most Controversial Play had to be invented so it could be handed to a strange new work called Waiting for Godot.

From the very first, it set in motion a tradition of remarkable prescience among the winners of such highly coveted awards. So compelling is the roll call of those who have been honoured, it is easy to overlook the fact that you can only win one for work performed in the flesh, in front of a live audience, right here in this city. Richard Burton, Laurence Olivier and John Gielgud all won them. In 1967, Tom Stoppard was the Most Promising Playwright. We have made a habit of selecting and rewarding those who go on to acquire greatness, and that was a particularly good call. This year we named him Greatest Living Playwright, and I was honoured to sit next to him at the dinner.

To have such a giant of literature in our midst is special, and we are luckier than perhaps we realise. It was wonderful to see talent of the calibre of Gillian Anderson and Tom Hiddleston, among others, given due recognition. But for me, the magic of these Awards comes from the mixture of legendary names with fantastic young talent. If the Awards aim to do anything, it is to recognise not just the unforgettable performances of the past, but the potential for future excellence in our midst. I adored the moment when the winner of this year’s Emerging Talent Award in partnership with Burberry, Laura Jane Matthewson, told the crowd: ‘It’s such an honour just to be invited to an event like this and not be serving the drinks.’ Who knows where her talent will carry her next, but she has probably poured her last gin and tonic.

It was a privilege to work alongside my co-hosts, Anna Wintour of American Vogue and Christopher Bailey of Burberry. It was Anna Wintour’s father Charles who, then deputy editor of the Evening Standard, persuaded Lord Beaverbrook to sponsor an ‘awards ceremony for West End drama’. Viscount Rothermere, and his father before him, were excellent custodians of the event.

We know how many of you cherish this magazine, and it seemed fitting that we should honour the Awards with a dedicated issue. I hope you enjoy it, and that over the coming year you will join me and this newspaper in supporting the inspirational cast of characters who, between them, have raised London’s stage to the status of living legend.