When Hollywood comes to London
One of the great aspects of British culture is its ability to do glitz and glamour with a good helping of understatement, style, and accessibility. Founded in 1974 by eminent figures within the film industry including Laurence Olivier and David Lean, the BritishAcademy of Film and Television Arts is no exception, and exemplified by the organisation’s ornate stone-fronted headquarters situated on Piccadilly. The exterior of the building is traditionally beautiful, but quite modest when one considers the fame and wealth of the industries it represents. Indeed, on walking past the quaint market in the courtyard of St James’s Church, you could be forgiven for missing the place completely, since its entrance is discreet and unremarkable. Despite this, the building’s 19th century legacy as the administrative offices of the Royal Institute of Painters in Water Colours, seems in keeping with its modern role.
With the headquarters’ limited capacity, it is not surprising that the organisation’s showcase event, the British Academy Film Awards (‘the BAFTAs’), shifts to the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden. The capacity and impressive design of the famous opera venue is more suitable to accommodate a large international audience of stars and industry professionals including, no doubt, a contingent with equally large egos.
With the millions of pounds flying around the movie business, it will surprise some to learn that BAFTA is actually a charity with aims to support and promote visual arts relating to moving image including film and television, and more recently, video games, a huge multi-million pound industry of which Britain is a major player. The organisation extends its activities throughout Britain, and in the USA coordinated via its New York and Los Angeles offices. Analogous to its bigger brother, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Beverly Hills, BAFTA is funded by a range of sources including subscription fees from its 6,500 members, donations, corporate partners, trusts, and so on. It’s also notable that, unlike the now defunct Film Council, BAFTA receives no government subsidy and its level of success is an example of how an independent arts organisation can survive through radical social and economic upheavals. This robustness is clearly aided by a strong Royal patronage including HRH The Duke of Cambridge, the current President. Members of the Royal Family are regular attendees of the prestigious awards ceremonies who, along with the A-list Hollywood actors, draw huge international media interest.
As well as the glamorous side of the Awards, The Piccadilly venue is busy throughout the year with many workshops, film screenings, and social events that support its objectives and raise funds to secure the future of the organisation. Indeed, on entry to the building away from the mad bustle of Piccadilly, there is a businesslike air, as if stepping into a lawyers’ firm or corporate conglomerate. And on initial inspection, apart from the famous BAFTA masks, there is little to suggest you are at the artistic heart of Britain’s film business, this only becoming apparent when entering the lounge and bar areas, where the walls are beautifully decorated with black and white portraits of the rich and famous from the movie business.
In the cafe area, you’re in danger of thinking every face is a familiar one. Is that Helen Mirren dropping in for coffee? Soon enough, you may find a few looks heading your way – others perhaps wondering if you are a movie producer on the lookout for talent. Whatever the reason for this exchange of curious glances, the atmosphere is relaxed, unpretentious, and certainly bustling with ‘creatives’ in deep discussion, jotting notes, or tapping on laptops. Some gather in large groups, presumably for workshops or auditions.
All of this creative thinking requires energy, and the restaurant provides an excellent opportunity to refuel. This is central London, so prices are commensurate with the setting, though not extortionate. The staff whiz about relentlessly, are extremely attentive, and not overly stuffy or formal despite the glamorous surroundings. The film business is, after all, precisely that, a business, and thankfully, people for the most part seem to attend BAFTA with their feet firmly on the ground. The restaurant too is practically minded and flexible, so pretty much anything is on offer that takes your fancy from full breakfasts, teas, coffees, and pastries, through to lunches and evening meals from their extensive international menu. The bar is well stocked and, to coin an overused TV phrase, a ‘must see’. Here, rumour has it that their fine blackberry cocktail, ‘stormy afternoon’, is ‘unmissable, darling’.
If this insight has inspired you to attend the British Academy Film Awards, then members can reserve their tickets for place on Sunday 16 February 2014 at London’s Royal Opera House. Non-members can see it on the BBC, and there is also an opportunity to catch the stars on the Red Carpet, but it is essential to check the BAFTA website beforehand, as access is strictly controlled and you will need a special wristband.
So, whether you’re donning your best finery for the walk down the Red Carpet, or booking a night in front of the television, enjoy the BAFTAs!
Article © James Smith 2013