Evgeny Lebedev

Organising my theatre awards makes Brexit look easy

The Spectator Friday 3 February 2017

The new government seems to be struggling with the logistical intricacies of removing Britain from the European Union. I can only assume they have never tried to put together a theatre awards.

The Evening Standard Theatre Awards take a year to arrange, but it can sometimes feel like the whole thing is done in a week, which passes in a blur of seating plans, speeches, menus and other thespian miscellany. It is theatre within theatre. If the Prime Minister is reading this, I am available to consult on how to manage conflicting egos in a high-pressured environment.

Between Maggie Smith, Eileen Atkins, Kristin Scott-Thomas, Joan Collins and Shirley Bassey, a full range of damehood is on display. As Rob Brydon pointed out, with the exception of Kristin these ladies are all eligible for the government’s winter fuel allowance. The usual complaint is that the worlds of stage and screen are obsessed with youth. Not here. It wasn’t just the women, either: David Attenborough and Michael Gambon are many things, but few would call them sprightly youths. Diversity takes many forms.

As usual there were several contenders for the worst-behaved guest, but the competition for best behaviour had a standout star: Vladimir, my borzoi puppy. He arrived and left on time, sat quietly during the speeches, and didn’t once get up to go to the loo. He even hummed along to Elton John’s performance of ‘The Circle of Life’, from The Lion King. The borzoi is also known as the Russian wolfhound. They were bred by the Tsars to hunt wolves on the steppe. So despite Vladimir’s immaculate manners he will probably not be introduced to Boris and Lara, my other two pets, who are timber wolves and live in Italy. We all have difficult cousins.

Radio 2 broadcast the event live, and as part of the build-up I recorded Tracks of My Years with Ken Bruce, whose gentle Glaswegian burr was later subject to a brilliant Brydon impression. I could hardly leave out David Bowie, who died this year. And one of my other choices was Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’. Dylan had just been awarded his Nobel Prize and we talked about how Cohen was the only other living singer-songwriter who would be up to the prize. Had I known I was cursing my choice to die immediately afterwards, I might have picked someone else. Cohen was a genius.

Elizabeth Debicki, the wonderful Australian actor who starred in The Night Manager, stole the show on the red carpet. Elizabeth is 6ft 2in and manages to be even more glamorous in real life than on screen, which is saying something.     Not that height makes much difference most of the time. Some of the most impressive people I ever met were the Bayaka pygmies, who live in the middle of the Central African Republic. They are only about 4ft tall, but highly accomplished at tug of war, as I learnt. They also smoke a terrific amount of weed, which has the effect of making them very horny and liable to rub themselves against the nearest person — or the nearest tree, if a person isn’t around. At the Old Vic we made do with champagne and cocktails.

The Duke of Cambridge was our guest of honour and presented Sir David Attenborough with his Beyond Theatre award. The Duke and I share a love of animals, as well as the theatre. It is perhaps a surprise that London is such a centre of elephant conservation, but I suppose it’s harder to organise a fundraiser in the middle of the Serengeti. Later this month is the Animal Ball, the elephant family’s conservation knees-up. I’d never put it like this to the actors, but you could argue that the elephant’s cause is even more urgent than theirs. (The jury’s out on who holds a grudge better.)

The advantage of owning a newspaper or two is that there is never just one thing to monopolise your attention. While all this glamour is going on in one part of the Evening Standard, much of the rest has been taken up by Food for London, our campaign to combat food waste and food poverty. We have raised more than £1 million for the Felix Project, which delivers surplus to charities that make meals for the nearly 400,000 people who live in food poverty in the capital. Soon our Christmas campaign will start. These projects do brilliant work. It’s more important than ever that we help improve the lives of London’s most vulnerable citizens. Nothing could be more gratifying than less fortunate Londoners saying that the Evening Standard has changed their life.