Downton Abbey beat Doctor Who and Sherlock to the prize of Best Drama at the National Television Awards this week and the odds are that you know that. Skyfall was snubbed at this year’s Baftas and that made the news too. Lincoln looks a shoo-in for a Best Picture Oscar even though Les Mis probably deserves it.
But name last year’s NTA drama winner. Or Bafta. Or Oscar.
I used to know this stuff. I worked for Radio Times, I worked for BBC News Online’s entertainment section, I had this stuff at my fingertips and it was important. Today I can’t tell you without cheating – and I don’t only mean searching Google for last year’s winners. I just had to search for this year’s nominees too.
In 2010 or 2011, I cut a short promo video for Radio Times that had Dermot O’Leary calling for us all to vote in the NTA Awards. The script was funny and clever, he delivered it very well but I knew I wouldn’t vote. I studied that video almost frame by frame: it was the first time I’d replaced green screen with a new background and the studio’s green backdrop was crinkly, sometimes a shard of green poked through the video. So even now I can bring to mind every gesticulation, every beaming smile, every joke of that video. But I still wasn’t persuaded to even watch that year’s NTA.
I’ve stopped watching the Baftas. Haven’t seen the Oscars in a century. For a while I did regularly take part in a twitter fashion critique where a huge number of people and this one straight man discussed the Oscar frocks in the red-carpet coverage. But I’d switch off after that, only partly driven away by how the banality of the red-carpet presenters make you ashamed for your species.
It’s not as if presenters of the main awards shows are all that much better, except when they are: I would’ve stayed up for the Golden Globes this year if I’d realised how great Tina Fey and Amy Poehler were going to be.
But this is the good stuff you can check out on YouTube the day after. Someone else does the watching of the show and someone else does the compiling of the good bits. Everyone else, absolutely everyone else lists the winners and talks about what a significant and great result it is or isn’t for Britain, about how it does or doesn’t send a signal about what will do well at the Oscars.
I’m not exactly on my own in awards disinterest: ratings for TV coverage is trending lower each year. But you wouldn’t know that from the number and length of news reports so I feel as if I stand alone.
I can’t help that. Maybe it’s because the voting is always the same. I wasn’t very keen on Skyfall but you knew its Oscar buzz was nonsense: no Bond film will ever win Best Picture. I am very keen on Safety Not Guaranteed but even as it moved me and I’d surely call it tremendous, it didn’t even occur to me that it would be in with a chance at a Best Picture Oscar. It wasn’t.
Maybe it’s because the voting can never be anything else. Even among the type of films that tend to get nominated, the winners feel the same each time. Our culture does laud actors but an acting performance stands on the shoulders of the script, the direction and the whole production. So comparing Denzel Washington with Bradley Cooper (I cheated and looked it up) is as much comparing their films, Flight and Silver Linings Playbook.
You do suspect that the Academy and maybe all awards organisers have yet to twig that. Otherwise you’d never get the ridiculous situation where a film wins Best Picture but the script isn’t even nominated. Actors make it all up, plainly, and for me that undermines the whole concept of awards being a genuine celebration of film and TV.
You can’t compare two actors beyond whether you enjoyed one film more than another. Maybe if you had two actors playing the same role in two otherwise identical films you could actually measure and rank acting skill. We might be able to compare Michael J Fox with Eric Stoltz if the latter’s Back to the Future performance were released. But otherwise, it doesn’t happen because it won’t happen because it can’t happen.
Equally, you can’t really compare Citizen Kane with The Maltese Falcon but the Academy tried to in 1941. (I relished them both but the Academy preferred How Green Was My Valley. Thank you, Wikipedia.)
So when a ceremony declares this film or that actor to be the best, the actual best, the really best of the whole year, it simply is not true. It simply can’t ever be actually true. You can’t measure so you can’t rank so there can’t be a winner. Best Picture, Best Actor and the rest are only We Really Liked This. You’re thinking now about voting bias and favouritism and giving a director an award for this film because he didn’t get one when he or she should have. You’re wrong: it’s never a she.
Even if voting was always pure, the kicker for me is that winning an Oscar has no bearing on whether I’ll enjoy the film. It used to have a bearing on whether I’d go see a film but I’m afraid now I doubt I’ll even remember to watch a movie called Silver Linings Playbook regardless of how it fares.
No award makes me see a film. Actually, no actor makes me see one either: I think Jodie Foster is a fascinating talent – listen to her on the commentary track for Contact where she is just so interesting – but that doesn’t guarantee I’ll go see her every movie. Writers might do it to me: I will eventually check out all Aaron Sorkin movies and for a long time I used to go see see every Woody Allen one.
But I’m persuaded more by the story than who’s in it. Until there’s an Oscar for Best Interesting Story or Supporting Idea for a Film, awards won’t mean a thing to me anymore. Best Trailer, that’d be a good one: trailer-making is an enormous and fascinating skill but of course it never gets any time in the spotlight.
Whereas it’s all spotlight for the Oscar winners even though there is truly only a finite amount of genuine news you can get from one film being picked for an Oscar out of nine nominees.
But you wouldn’t know that from how much news coverage the winner will get.
Until next year when it’s forgotten by the news and by you. Join me ahead of the curve: get in early and forget them before you ever knew them. Ignore what wins and what's nominated and instead ask your friends what’s good instead. Go see Safety Not Guaranteed, would you? Got any recommendations for me?