The Orange Prize is held in the wholly refurbished Royal Festival Hall this year. The atmosphere is bubbly and the Taittinger is being liberally dispensed. Once your glass has less than three inches in it a nicely groomed young person is at your side within moments.
“Would you like some more champagne?”
“I really oughtn’t notter. Tee hee!”
“Sir is such a card!” Glubglub.
When the Orange Broadband Award for New Writers is announced, the winner, Karen Connolly, author of ‘The Lizard Cage’, steps up to the lectern, does the “I wasn’t prepared for this but I’ll just whip out these notes” gag then, as is her perfect right, makes a speech. Her novel, I learn, is about the experiences of a Burmese protest singer arrested by the secret police and sentenced to twenty years’ solitary confinement. Not chicklit then. Connolly thanks people like you have to then extends her thanks to some of the Burmese people she has met, some of whom are also interned. Her voice breaks a little as she lists their names. Out in the body of the Hall hardly anybody is listening. Saturated with Taittinger (I do not except myself), the large crowd chatters merrily, scoffs the darling finger foods, hails its chums and kisses them.
A few minutes later the main award – the Orange Broadband Prize for Fiction – is announced. It goes to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie for ‘Half of a Yellow Sun’, set in 60s Nigeria during the Biafra war. A great cry of exhultation fills the hall as Ms Adichie steps up to get the statuette (the big cheque comes later). The author is wearing an elegant white strapless dress and a colourful head wrap. She delivers a short, gracious and witty speech, thanks no one, pauses for photos and is out of there. The hall rings with enthusiastic applause.
Now, certain things can be pointed out: it was the main prize so you’d expect bigger applause. Possibly Adichie’s publishers and people were there in greater numbers than Connolly’s. People were drunker by the time Adichie took to the stage. That last one is silly – there was only a six minute gap between presentations. Why then, did Connolly get (almost) ignored? Was it because Adichie is more physically striking? Seems a bit of a cheap point. Was it because her book was better? I bet most people there hadn’t even read it.
Connolly’s mistake, I would venture, is that she made a speech. The old-fashioned sort that lasts more than 40 seconds, the sort the Oscar organisers, among others, are desperate to stamp out. Despite the fact that, in theory, winning an important literary prize is something you would wish to mark with an appropriately scaled response, many awards ceremonies as ‘occasions’ have been absorbed into the presentational priorities of television or the press and streamlined accordingly.
Speaking for myself, I love a good speech, be it at a wedding, funeral or presentation. I have the time for them and I can put up with unsuccessful ones. Watching, for example, the BAFTAs and the stream of potentially amusing or thoughtful or moving award winners hurrying through the statuette gate, I get increasingly frustrated. Surely the main point is to hear their reactions? Can they not halve the number of prizes and double the permitted speech length? What if you went to a funeral and the bereaved said “I feel very sad that my father is dead. He was a great man. Well, that’s enough from me.”?
The odd thing is that the Orange Prize was not extensively televised. It trimmed itself. This is the Stockholm Syndrome. You are not compelled to internalise the values of the broadcast media! Soon the original model will be lost – all ceremonies will focus on tailoring to the exclusion of everything but brief interludes of statuette donation.
I was at the do for about two hours. The presentations lasted about 25 minutes. For the rest of the time we glugged like bastards. Great. But why give us all that booze if all we do is collude in the muted but pervasive cry of “Fast forward!”