The secret life of the red carpet

As Cannes reaches its climax with the Palme d'Or and the celebrities gather in London for the Baftas tonight, Kate Youde and Jack Dean investigate the real star of the show

An unknown from Cheshire will be the centre of attention tonight as some of the nation's most famous faces from the small screen gather for the TV Baftas. The unassuming star is likely to get walked on by the likes of Benedict Cumberbatch, Emilia Fox, Miranda Hart and Dominic West. But that is as it should be because, you see, the focus of camera lenses at the British Academy Television Awards will be a 45-metre strip of red carpet from the Plantation Rug Company in Stockport. As has become obligatory for awards ceremonies, actors will parade down the scarlet sward ahead of the event at the Royal Festival Hall in London.

Last week, Brad Pitt and Kristen Stewart were joined by the pop stars Kylie Minogue and Cheryl Cole on the red carpet at the Cannes Film Festival, which ends this evening. And around the world, from awards ceremonies to film premieres, VIP arrivals, state visits and royal events, a rug of red (or occasionally some other colour) has become a must. Here, The Independent on Sunday weaves the story, alphabetically, of the red carpet.

A is for Agamemnon

Agamemnon hesitated to walk on the "crimson path" laid before him in Aeschylus's play of the same name, because he wasn't a god. Written in 458BC by the Ancient Greek, this is thought to be the first mention of the red carpet. Even then, it wasn't designed for mere mortals.

B is for bling

Red-carpet styling is not just about the frocks and locks, dazzling gems are important, too. For instance, Cameron Diaz wore $1m (£630,000) worth of Tiffany jewels to this year's Oscars. With music stars and actors often asked "who" they are wearing, brands vie to get their products on A-list bodies.

C is for creatures

Why should humans be the only ones to enjoy some red-carpet action? Pigs, dogs, camels, monkeys and penguins are among the animals to have enjoyed the VIP treatment. The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge shared the carpet with an equine star at the premiere of War Horse in January.

D is for Dennis Pennis

The shock celebrity interviewer on BBC2's The Sunday Show, would visit red-carpet events in an attempt to ambush and interview famous faces. Portrayed by comedian Paul Kaye, the character hassled A-listers including Hugh Grant, Kevin Costner and Demi Moore. He asked Steve Martin, "How come you're not funny any more?"

E is for Egyptian Theatre

The Egyptian Theatre was opened in 1922 and lays claim to Hollywood's first red carpet and its first film premiere, for Robin Hood. Sid Grauman, founding Academy member, takes the credit for the red carpet becoming a Tinseltown mainstay. It has appeared at every Oscars since 1929.

F is for foam

The expected pre-ceremony glamour of the 2002 Baftas turned into a foam party when flame retardant chemicals in a red carpet bought by the organisers from "someone called Frank" years earlier reacted badly with heavy rain. The resulting soapy mess ruined the designer shoes of Hollywood's finest, including Kate Winslet.

G is for green

It's not easy being green. The International Indian Film Academy awards and the Moscow International Film Festival buck the red trend with their use of green carpets, the IIFA to promote environmental awareness and Moscow for corporate reasons. Main sponsor Megafon has insisted on a green carpet for the past three years.

H is for Hollywood

The red carpet is most synonymous with the glitz and glamour of Hollywood, from film premieres to award ceremonies. It separates the somebodies from the nobodies. A VIP arrival is so important that the Oscars has pre-shows dedicated to red-carpet interviews and style gossip.

I is for Iron Lady

A blue carpet was laid out for last year's Iron Lady premiere, (starring Meryl Streep). No doubt Margaret Thatcher would have approved, given that the colour is the Conservatives' official hue. They're not the only ones with a bad case of the blues: the Swedish royal family uses a pale blue carpet for events.

J is for Jolie's limb

Even if you can't remember the winners of this year's Oscars, it is unlikely you will have forgotten the star of the night's A-list proceedings: Angelina Jolie's right leg. Her bare limb – protruding from the thigh-high slit in her dress – dominated her red-carpet pose, spawning a plethora of spoofs.

K is for Kim Jong-il

Not your typical carpet star, the former North Korea dictator grabbed headlines at February's Academy Awards when comedian Sacha Baron Cohen dumped an urn of the late leader's "ashes" over red-carpet host Ryan Seacrest. The Ali G star performed the stunt as the character General Aladeen from his new film, The Dictator.

L is for length

Organisers of last July's world premiere of Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows: Part 2 conjured up a Guinness world record for the longest red carpet at a film premiere. It stretched 455 metres, from Trafalgar Square to Leicester Square in London. The longest red carpet – created in Haarlem, the Netherlands, last June – measured 5,149m.

M is for mishaps

When High School Musical star Zac Efron accidentally dropped a condom at the premiere of the children's animated film The Lorax earlier this year, it made a change from the usual red-carpet bloopers. Top mishap is the "wardrobe malfunction", of which Tara Reid used to be a prime culprit.

N is for New York Central Railroad

People travelling on the 20th Century Limited, an express passenger train that the New York Central Railroad ran between 1902 and 1967, were welcomed with a specially designed red carpet on arrival in Chicago and New York. This is thought to be the origin of the phrase "red-carpet treatment".

O is for orange

Nickelodeon's Kid's Choice Awards and the Academy of Country Music Awards think the future of red carpets is, well, orange. Both use orange carpets. While the organisers probably like standing out from the crowded award ceremony scene, fashion-conscious stars will quietly fret over trying to co-ordinate their outfits with the bright hue.

P is for Pope Benedict XVI

When Pope Benedict made a state visit to the United Kingdom in 2010, high winds meant there was no red carpet for his arrival at Edinburgh airport. The carpet was removed because of health and safety concerns, and the Pope was blown away by the size of the Scottish crowds.

Q is for quirkiness

With a steady stream of celebrities heading up the red carpet, it can be difficult to stand out from the VIP crowd. Which goes some way to explaining some of the more unusual outfits: enter Icelandic singer Bjork wearing a swan for the Oscars in 2001. She even laid an "egg".

R is for Renaissance

Red carpets are a common feature of Renaissance painting, usually reserved for saints, kings and deities, and are also a decorative element in religious painting. Although the carpets in the pictures are patterned, red is usually the predominant background colour. They are often depicted in front of thrones.

S is for suppliers

One supplier, Custom Made Red Carpets in Cornwall, offers six types of red carpet. A typical cost for a 10m x 1.5m size carpet is £275. The company has supplied Madame Tussauds and Shakespeare's Globe theatre, and delivered a red carpet to the Royal Barge for the Diamond Jubilee celebrations.

T is for tumbles

Efforts to look elegant sometimes fall flat. And, on the red carpet, there is always someone to see you tumble. Photos of the French singer Mylene Farmer tripping up the red carpet on the steps outside the Elysée Palace in Paris ahead of a state dinner appeared across the globe in 2010.

U is for umbrella

One thing we can rely on in Britain is the unreliability of the weather, and so organisers of last month's Olivier Awards had 100 umbrellas at the ready in case the weather took a turn for the worst. However, staff did not need to brandish the brollies to protect theatre stars' red-carpet style.

V is for verger

Forget Wills and Kate, it was verger Ben Sheward who really knew how to make an impact on the red carpet at last year's Royal Wedding. He became an internet hit after showing off his acrobatic skills by cartwheeling down the aisle once the 1,900 guests had left Westminster Abbey.

W is for waiting

A red carpet wouldn't be a red carpet without the flashing camera bulbs and adoring fans. Film buffs and autograph hunters often queue for hours – or even days in the case of last summer's premiere of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 – to catch a glimpse of their idols.

X is for Xanthorhoe decoloraria

Otherwise known as the red carpet, the moth with the Latin name Xanthorhoe decoloraria is common in northern England, Scotland and north Wales. It has a wing span of about 32mm and flies from dusk. Like attention-seeking celebrities who relish strutting their stuff on the red carpet, moths are attracted to bright lights.

Y is for yellow carpet

For the 2007 UK premiere of The Simpsons Movie at the renamed D'Oh 2 Centre in London, Marge, Homer, Bart and Lisa took to a yellow carpet. Guests entered through a giant sculpture of Homer's mouth. The yellow dress code was largely ignored, although socialite Lady Isabella Hervey obliged with her frock.

Z is for Rachel Zoe

Keen to avoid the next day's inevitable "worst-dressed" lists and "circle of shame" radars, stars often enlist a stylist to choose their red-carpet look. Top of the crop is Rachel Zoe, who has a reality television show and has dressed such luminaries as Anne Hathaway, Nicole Richie and Mischa Barton.

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