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Baftas 2014: 12 Years a Slave defies Gravity to claim top prize

Steve McQueen's slavery epic wins two awards, but Gravity named biggest winner of the night with six awards

Fifteen years after winning a Turner Prize for his art, the film director Steve McQueen picked up the best film trophy at the EE British Academy Film Awards last night for his drama 12 Years A Slave, on a night where the big-budget British blockbuster Gravity was the other main winner.

McQueen, a Londoner, became the first black film-maker to win the best film Bafta. The director, 44, thanked his parents, before saying: “Faith, never give up … This means a hell of a lot.”

12 Years A Slave is a historical drama based on the true story of Solomon Northup, a free man who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in the US in the 1840s.

McQueen said his partner, the cultural critic Bianca Stigter, discovered the story. “As soon as I had the book in my hand it was a revelation. Every page was a revelation,” he said. “We can put it back in its rightful spot. Everyone in the world now knows who Solomon Northup is.”

The film stars another Londoner, Chiwetel Ejiofor, who was named best actor for his role as Northup. “Wow, wow, wow,” Ejiofor said. “ I’m so deeply honoured and privileged to receive it.” He hailed director McQueen for “your work, artistry and passion”, and said winning a Bafta was “an incredible feeling”.

“I’ve been acting for a while and was here before,” Ejiofor added. “I’ve always been thrilled and excited by Bafta.”

Cate Blanchett was named best actress for her role in Woody Allen’s bittersweet comedy Blue Jasmine. She dedicated her win to the US actor Philip Seymour Hoffman, who died earlier this month.

Gravity, the sci-fi blockbuster that sent Sandra Bullock into space with George Clooney, won six awards, including best director for the Mexican film-maker, Alfonso Cuaron. "You can't tell by my accent, but I consider myself to be a part of the British film industry," he said.

Cuaron later returned to the stage at the Royal Opera House in London with his producer, David Heyman, to collect Gravity’s award for outstanding British film.

There had been controversy over whether the $100m Hollywood blockbuster should be entered into the category. “I don’t need to set the record straight,” Cuaron insisted. “There are a series of rules that makes it a British film and this has all the requirements.”

Gravity was filmed in the UK, the vast majority of the crew who worked on it were based here, and Cuaron has lived in the UK for more than a decade.

Heyman, a British producer, said the award recognised “everyone working on the film - we had the most incredible crew”.

He went on to pay tribute to Framestore, a special effects company based in London’s Soho, which created the ground-breaking visuals of astronauts in peril after their spaceship is hit by satellite debris.

Gravity, which had an effects team of 450, won Baftas for best special effects, best sound and best original music.

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Others nominees for outstanding British film included Philomena, which won the best adapted screenplay award and stars Dame Judi Dench and Steve Coogan, and the Bradford-based kitchen-sink drama The Selfish Giant.

The best supporting actor prize went to Barkhad Abdi, who plays a Somali pirate in his debut film Captain Phillips, with Tom Hanks. Abdi was born in Mogadishu but moved to the US, where he worked as a limousine driver before landing a part in the film after an open audition. He said: “I’m loving every moment of it. It’s quite a dream.”

Jennifer Lawrence was named best supporting actress for American Hustle, which also won best original screenplay and best make-up and hair.

Peter Greenaway, the director whose body of work includes 8½ Women, The Draughtsman’s Contract and The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover, was honoured for his outstanding contribution to British cinema.

This year’s fellowship of the British Academy, the highest honour it can bestow, was presented to Dame Helen Mirren by the Duke of Cambridge.

Prince William described her as “an extremely talented British actress who I should probably call ‘Granny’” because she had played the Queen on stage and screen.

Collecting her honour, Dame Helen, 68, paid tribute to her former teacher who died recently and “alone was the person who encouraged me to be an actor”.

Accepting her accolade as “encouragement to carry on”, she then made an impassioned speech in support of the National Youth Theatre, saying: “The way [acting] is going it’s becoming a prerogative for kids with money. We couldn’t afford it.”

Dame Helen ended by quoting from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, saying: “We are such stuff as dreams are made on and our little life is rounded with a sleep”.

She added: “My little life is rounded with this honour, thank you very much indeed.”

Later, when asked what she had thought about Prince William’s quip, she replied: “I wanted to take out a hankie, spit on it and wipe his face.”

Read more: Helen Mirren criticises growing portrayal of dead women in dramas