On Sunday, many of the biggest names in world cinema will take their seats in the Royal Albert Hall to applaud the winners of this year's BAFTAS. Academy member Russell Galbraith reflects on a growing UK institution.
Voting closes today at the end of a long process bursting with high achievers. The deadline for anyone who enjoys waiting until the last minute will be 6.00 GMT. BAFTA's near-8,000 members worldwide have been asked not to miss it. To win a BAFTA in any category is a career-enhancing event.
The winners' splendid trophy is probably the sole surviving link between what happens now and BAFTA's early beginnings more than 60 years ago. Then, two groups with a high opinion of themselves, if not each other, put aside their differences just long enough to form the Society of Film and Television Arts. At times, it appears, encounters involving all sides of the developing industry failed to represent a meeting of minds. On occasion, we have been told, in their dealings with each other, members of the British Film Academy and the Guild of Television Producers and Directors could behave like 'warring tribes'.
Writing in 1954, when the BBC with a single channel was the UK's sole television provider, documentary-maker and film theorist Paul Rotha acknowledged that TV served 'its mass entertainment purpose well enough'. However, in his opinion, television drama was 'constipated by its studio bindings' and could never 'aesthetically hope even to equal the film because of the latter's easy powers of mobility and its god-given access to the whole living world'.
An academic study by Emma Pett and Helen Warner for Edinburgh University Press, dated October 2020, maintained: 'Prior to the merger, the relationship between the academy and the guild was informed by growing tensions that had escalated between the two competing industries since the advent of television'.
In search of a common cause, perhaps, both sides showed an unwavering commitment to an awards programme designed to identify – and reward – excellence in the workplace. Barely two years after its launch in 1947, the British Film Academy held its first awards ceremony at what eventually became the Odeon, Leicester Square. The prize for 'best film from any source' went to Laurence Olivier and Hamlet
. Established six years later, the Guild of Television Producers and Directors endeavoured to reward excellence on the small screen with an inaugural dinner in the Savoy Hotel, at which the iconic winner's mask created by Mitzi Cunliffe, an American designer living in Britain, was introduced.
Far from failing to make its mark as an umbrella organisation devoted to excellence at every level of the film and television industry, both at home and overseas, as the gloom merchants predicted, the Society of Film and Television Arts prospered, renaming itself the British Academy of Film and Television Arts in 1976; the same year the Queen, accompanied by the Duke of Edinburgh, Princess Anne and Lord Mountbatten of Burma, opened the organisation's totemic new headquarters at 195 Piccadilly.
From a world in which acronyms compete constantly for attention, exit SFTA, enter BAFTA. An improvement, surely.
With cinema attendances seriously affected by the pandemic, BAFTA has been anxious to ensure all entries, in all categories, have been seen. This year, it claims, more than 94% of the voting membership has accessed BAFTA View, the academy's dedicated online platform where every entry is meant to appear.
This year, 233 films were submitted for consideration across all categories. They included 217 with an eye on the main prize: best film. For the second year running, long lists were employed to bring order (and sense) to the final vote. Changes in the the voting system, introduced during the last two years, are supposed to ensure that the film awards 'reflect the UK film industry, all eligible films, woman directors, people of colour and people from under-represented groups'.
The academy's long-established custom of holding its own awards ceremony ahead of the Oscars no doubt helps to sustain interest in the British results, not least in the United States. It must be a moot point, however, just how many waverers, nursing their Oscar votes, are influenced by what happens in London; although it can be surprising the number of times final judgements coincide.
According to Vanity Fair's
correspondent, David Canfield: 'BAFTA's overhaul of its voting system has led, for the past two years now, to a more interesting, less predictable set of nominees with harder-to-read tea leaves for the Oscar race'.
Roll out the red carpet!
Russell Galbraith is a writer and former television executive