Brits with knobs on

'If we must have awards, let them be Ivors.'; You get a better class of acceptance speech here. Reg Presley has had such a busy year that he'd 'only just got me runner beans in'

The Ivor Novello Awards ceremony took place this week under the gold chandeliers at Grosvenor House in Park Lane. There was lunch and then there were prizes, and the ones that didn't go to Reg Presley of The Troggs (he had a triple-winning year thanks to Wet Wet Wet's cover of "Love Is All Around", positioned lucratively on the soundtrack for the film Four Weddings and a Funeral) went to people like Van Morrison (Lifetime Achievement Award), Elvis Costello (Outstanding Contemporary Song Collection) and Lonnie Donegan (Outstanding Contribution to British Music).

Doubtless the earliest Novello Awards ceremonies were comparatively modest, low-tech affairs - a glass of bubbly, a smattering of applause. In their fortieth year, the Ivors took place on a purpose-built, floodlit stage- set with Paul Gambaccini compering, a written-for-the-occasion theme tune booming in at key moments and synchronised video clips from three screens poised above the stage. There, though, all comparison with the Brit Awards or the Grammys in America must end.

Pop music prize ceremonies will often strike one as inherently absurd, unbalanced affairs - the solemn commemoration of flashes in the pan, the distribution of gongs for baubles. But if we must have awards, then let them at least be Ivors. Awarded in the main by a committee of songwriting peers, the Ivors are, for one thing, beyond meddling from record companies. No one at the Ivors gets an award simply because they have a new album to promote or because the head of their record company happens to be the person responsible for counting the votes. And regularly the committee seems prepared to engage with the tricky (in this area) notion of excellence without being too stuffy and academic to turn its nose up at the genuinely popular. Don Black, the lyricist for the musical Sunset Boulevard, won a Jimmy Kennedy career award this year. And Songwriter of the Year was Tony Mortimer of East 17, which harked back to last year when the young shaver Gary Barlow of Take That won a Best Song award for "Pray".

The Ivors are in the gift of Basca, the British Academy of Songwriters, Composers and Artists. The Academy was formed in 1947, specifically to lobby the BBC, whose programmes were then saturated with American music, to play some work by British composers. At this point the organisation was called the British Songwriters' Protective Association, which made it sound like a social service unit committed to the distribution of condoms. Sensibly, only a week into its life, it changed its name to the Songwriters' Guild of Great Britain and much later to Basca, by which time it had an annual awards ceremony as a kind of display cabinet for its work. Academy representatives sit on the boards of the major music industry bodies, liaise with the Department of Trade and Industry, establish contractual procedures and generally do their best to ensure that if you write a hit song you get paid for doing so - a quaint notion until surprisingly recently. There is substance in Basca's claim that it "chants from one of the few patches of moral high ground in the [music] business".

Additionally to its credit, the Ivor Novello Awards is probably the only prize-giving ceremony in the world where the trophy is a desirable item in itself. Not for the Ivors some kind of mad stalagmite on a plastic plinth or a partially melted vase in frosted glass. The Ivor winner gets to shelve an altogether covetable statuette representing the Greek muse Euterpe in rough-hewn bronze. An Ivor is, in more senses than one, a Brit with knobs on.

It may be no coincidence that you get a better class of acceptance speech at the Ivors. Reg Presley said it had been such a busy year that he had "only just got me runner beans in". Lonnie Donegan admitted that he had assumed his career was over; and then, looking ruefully at his Lifetime Achievement Award, added, "And I guess it is now." And Elvis Costello (movingly introduced by Alan Bleasdale) revealed that his general reluctance to attend awards ceremonies had its source in an incident early in his career when, under record company pressure, he attended a Grammy ceremony in Los Angeles, where the Attractions were nominees for Best New Act. The award that night went to A Taste of Honey, performers of the culturally enriching disco smash "Boogie Oogie Oogie", and Costello's faith in shiny ornaments altered for ever more. He would be justified in modifying his position slightly now.

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