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Noma Dumezweni

How it all began

The Olivier Awards with Mastercard are not only world-renowned, they’re the most sought-after and highly regarded accolade in British theatre. The awards have always marked true theatrical greatness and celebrated excellence in the industry. However, they have not always been how we know them today.

In 1976, the Society of West End Theatre (now known as the Society of London Theatre (SOLT) created an eponymous awards ceremony to celebrate the very best performers and creatives in the West End. Among the winners were Alan Howard, Peggy Ashcroft, Penelope Keith and Jonathan Miller.




After that inaugural ceremony, things evolved quickly. In the second year, the number of categories rose from 12 to 16 and included awards for opera and dance. Since then, the number of awards given out has more than doubled with the 2017 ceremony announcing 26 winners.


The awards used the image of Sir Laurence Olivier in 1984


Though Lord Laurence Olivier was awarded the Society’s Special Award in celebration of his contribution to London theatre in 1979, it wasn’t until 1984 that the hugely acclaimed actor agreed to become the namesake of the awards. Not only did the name change, but the physical award did, too. Prior to 1984, winners would take home a blue Wedgewood urn, affectionately dubbed an ‘urnie’ rather than the bronze statuette of Olivier we know today.


The Olivier Awards at The Royal Albert Hall in 2017


Every year, the Olivier Awards is a glittering affair. To cater for the ever-growing number of attendees, it’s had quite a nomadic existence. The first was held at Cafe Royal on a wintry Sunday night in December. Since, it has been presented in ballrooms and theatres across London throughout the years including the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden (from 2012 to 2016) and the spectacular Royal Albert Hall in 2017.


Kenneth Branagh is honoured at the 2017 Olivier Awards


A Special Award is given to a stand-out member of the British theatrical community at each ceremony. The list reads like a real who’s who of stage history. As well as Laurence Olivier, the award has been received by: Ralph Richardson, Joan Littlewood, John Gielgud, Alec Guinness, Peggy Ashcroft, Harold Pinter, Peter Hall, Judi Dench, Alan Bennett, Andrew Lloyd Webber, Alan Ayckbourn, Maggie Smith, Gillian Lynne, Michael Frayn, Nicholas Hytner and Kenneth Branagh.