And the winner is …

THE acerbic and highly entertaining Daily Mail columnist and theatre critic Quentin Letts presents an occasional series on BBC Radio 4 called “What’s the point of …?” It asks searching and intelligent questions about a wide variety of sacred cows and hallowed institutions, from pubs to the Privy Council, from the Methodists to the National Trust, from the Lord Mayor of London to the Chief Rabbi.

You might well ask, “what’s the point of awards?” There are so many now that hardly a day passes without some accolade being announced, for everything from world peace to the nation’s favourite chocolate biscuit.

There are awards (the Oscars, BAFTAs, Cesars, Palme d’Or, etc) for films; awards (Oliviers, Tonys, etc) for stage plays and musicals; awards for television (BAFTA, Emmies, etc); science (obviously the Nobel Prizes, but also countless awards for individual disciplines, for research and for achievements); literary prizes (Man Booker, Orange, Samuel Johnson, etc); cars (by motoring organisations, motoring magazines and individual car manufacturers); or for volunteers, recognising the contribution made within communities, regions or nationally.

There are awards for export, awards for industry, awards for schools, awards for best performing councils, awards for tourism and, of course, for sport. And I haven’t even started on all those faux awards that come from winning one or other reality television talent contest.

Awards have become big business. They guarantee big viewing figures for the glitzy film and theatre awards, and they promise rich rewards for the winners. A film that is garlanded with Oscar and BAFTA success will do the rounds again of the multiplex cinemas and handsomely repay all the lobbying and schmoozing that smoothed its path to nomination. Who knows what goes on behind the locked doors but we (naively?) like to believe that at that lofty level, the judging is objective and independent.

Awards reward and recognise achievement and as such they are, as Sellars and Yeatman put it in 1066 And All That, a Good Thing. Indeed, when unsung heroes and heroines are rewarded, perhaps even with a visit to Buckingham Palace or No 10 Downing Street, we can really rejoice that it is a Very Good Thing. Winning a Nobel peace prize or Nobel prize for physics or economics remains the supreme accolade, and the awards are rarely challenged or criticised (although the Nobel award to Barack Obama looked premature at the time but it was a rare blip in a noble process.)

Not all awards have the same weight or come attended with the same gravitas in the presentation. The Mercury Prize for the best recording of the past year and the Brit Awards for the current pop scene are predictably (and quite rightly) showy, loud and dazzling.

The aim of some awards, both national and regional, is to support and promote areas of activity – so regional amateur theatre and musical awards, such as Somerset’s Cinderella pantomime prizes and Rose Bowl theatre awards help to keep local standards high, while NODA (the National Operatic and Dramatic Association) does the same across the country. Theatre and musical lovers, including professional reviewers and critics, give up many hours to trek to distant village halls and theatres to produce thoughtful and constructive reports. Most are volunteers.

Food awards have becoming increasingly popular – nationally there are the Great Taste Awards, run by the Guild of Fine Food, based at Gillingham in Dorset, and the World Cheese Awards, also run by the awards and feedback to producers and hospitality businesses across the six West Country counties. The Guild’s awards are based on blind-taste judging by panels of industry experts, chefs, food producers and food writers. Businesses nominate themselves for both the Guild awards and Taste of the West, but the blind-taste (food and drink) and mystery shopper (pubs and restaurants) style of judging ensures that it is as fair, objective and rigorous as possible. Winning Great Taste stars, World Cheese gold or Taste of the West gold, silver or bronze is a valuable advertisement for the product or business.

The waters can be rather more murky with the awards run by media companies. Awards for local heroes, volunteers, youth achievements and community groups are generally well-run, the results usually beyond reproach, and the only money involved that contributed by sponsors whose generosity enables the media organisation to promote and publish the nomination process and host an event to announce the winners.

More lucrative and more questionable are the business and food awards where some media companies have now identified a key money-making opportunity. Not only do sponsors pay, often heavily, to have their name attached to a particular prize, but finalists are all expected to pay for their tickets to attend the presentations, where a celebrity will be given a script from which they must not depart, and more attention is paid to the gossip and chitchat on a Twitter feed on the big screen than to the actual results. The winners will also be canvassed to pay to advertise in a subsequent promotional advertisement feature or supplement.

I am lucky to have been a Great Taste Award judge for several years, and both a Taste of the West and World Cheese Award judge for the first time this year, so I do know how these events work and what a difference they can make to the winners, and finalists. You don’t have to be a Top 50 three-star Great Taste Award-winner to get a sales boost from the elegant black and gold GTA sticker on your product. One or two stars still shout quality! Similarly, to be a finalist in classes for best food producer, best pub or best restaurant in counties like Devon, Dorset or Somerset should be a mark for high achievement.

The most respected media awards are run on the basis of reader nomination – all award schemes are open to some forms of abuse (multiple nominations with identical wording for a pub or shop are a bit of a give-away) but this system gives a broader range of nominations and involves readers in the awards. Readers are customers, both of the publication and of the establishment or business; they know about their area and they often know more than the possibly remote award organisers.

As a guest at last week’s Dorset Magazine Food and Farming Awards at the Exchange in Sturminster Newton, I could see how important the recognition was to all the finalists, and how thrilled everyone was for the winners. Hopefully everyone who made it through the nomination process to be a finalist will benefit, as the magazine’s managing director Tim Randell encouraged everyone to support them and to support local independent businesses.

That’s how awards can help – benefitting the winners, the finalists and the organisers, benefitting the area and the region. That way, we are all winners.

Fanny Charles