With more than 35,000 votes already cast for the BBC Radio 2 Audience Award and the nominations for this year’s Olivier Awards with MasterCard less than a month away, we met Julian Bird who, as part of his role as Chief Executive of the Society of London Theatre – which also runs this site – is the man who re-launched the Olivier Awards so successfully three years ago, who told us more about his ambitions for the UK’s most prestigious stage awards this year and in the future.
I think the Oliviers are about two things. They are about celebrating excellence, but they’re also about the opportunity to market London theatre and UK theatre around the world. The broadcast, the red carpet and all the coverage we now generate gives us a huge opportunity to do both of those things.
When I started we had a three-year plan to try to get the Oliviers the recognition that we see the BAFTAs and the Tonys getting. We wanted to try and get a major broadcast at the end of those three years. That’s what this year is probably about more than anything.
I genuinely think we’ve got a great situation with two great broadcasters. We are long term partners of BBC Radio 2, not just on the night but with the Audience Award in the lead up. It very naturally feels like our home. I think the fact that ITV have really thrown themselves with gusto into this project is exciting for us. I think the TV deal is really important in terms of promoting what London theatre is doing. I hope it makes people think “Maybe we should go and see a show.”
As one of the biggest theatre fans you will ever know, I can think of nothing better than watching the whole three hours live on television. However, I’m also realistic enough to realise that no mainstream television channel is going to give us three hours for the whole show. They don’t give the BAFTAs the whole show; it goes out exactly the way we will with ITV. One day that may be different, but it’s just not the case today. The edit is going to be a really tough process. A lot of the performances will go in and the major awards, however you determine what those major awards are. The one thing we have agreed with ITV is that every single award and the people collecting them will be featured, but I can’t promise every award’s going to get three or four minutes. That’s impossible.
People will always have an opinion on any year’s Olivier Awards; I have my own opinions on the last two years when I’ve produced them, good and bad. A few people have written columns and assumed that we’re going to pack the show full of soap stars from ITV. Nothing could be further from the truth.
In my mind, the show’s more than 90% there now. Of course, we have to wait for the nominations. A little bit of a track record and a major television broadcaster does help to open a few doors. It’s still early, we’re more than two months away, but if things turn out as they are at the moment I think we’re going to have some very exciting special guests with us on the night. We’re excited about the show at the moment, but by the end of the week it could look completely different. The start and end of Act 1 completely changed last week. There’s a point when it gets locked down, but we’re weeks away from that.
We and the Americans have a very close relationship. It’s exciting when the manager of a major American star knows all about the Oliviers and says “We’re really interested.” It’s not all about the big Americans, but the biggest single international market for London theatre visitors is America, so being able to get that global recognition is quite important at some point in a three hour Olivier show.
People’s favourite question to me is “How are you going to top that?” It’s not about topping it; it’s about doing it differently. It was very exciting to add the Covent Garden Piazza event for the public last year. It was our first year doing that and we’ve learned a lot. This year will be really amazing. We’ve got great things lined up already. A lot of awards ceremonies find it very difficult to involve the public at all. We moved the Oliviers to the month of April and that gives us is an opportunity to do an outside event. I’m delighted that with our main partners MasterCard we’ve been able to offer quite a few tickets for the ceremony this year, which is great. The Royal Opera House is an amazing building, but would that we had somewhere like Radio City Music Hall in the middle of the West End with 6,000 seats. We just don’t have that, so there is always going to be a limit to how many members of the public we can have in the building and I think the Piazza gives us an opportunity.
We’re working on a worldwide broadcast at the moment, with lots of help from other people. It’s an area we’d obviously like to see explored and exploited. We have this great product now that lots of people would like to see a part of. There’s definitely an audience for that around the world, more in some countries than others, but those are the countries we’re targeting.
We have started to talk about what the 2014 ceremony might look like already. Those discussions naturally evolve because you can’t do everything every year. Some of the special guests from around the world we’ve been talking to are committed for this year, so we’re already talking about the next couple of years.
I have personal views – I go to the theatre probably more than most people – but those are my private opinions. I personally think some categories this year will be very close run. One of the things I love about the Oliviers is the fact that we now do a very private celebratory lunch for the nominees. We have a big photo call for all the nominees together and then we have a lovely lunch with them. That’s their opportunity to celebrate being nominees, because I know there has to be a winner, but it’s very hard to separate them.
I think there’s sometimes a perception that theatre is for a certain strata of the population and that there might not be a wide scale interest in it. The fact that 14 million people go to the theatre each year, in SOLT theatres alone, shows that’s not true. But you have to tackle that perception and make it clear that theatre is relevant to everybody today. We’re helped by the fact that major stars of theatre now mix theatre careers with film and television careers, probably more than ever. I think sometimes we’re not good enough at shouting about all the price ranges there are. Every theatre has cheap tickets every night. People always quote the top price, that’s only natural, but actually we’re very good. That’s why I feel passionate about the work we do to make sure we’re bringing new generations into the theatre.