You've won a Brit, a Booker and a Bafta. So why not a Bragg?

And here to present the Independent Weekend Award for Most All- Embracing Awards Shortlist Ever Ever is... David Benedict
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The Independent Culture
From tunnel-vision to television. Judges presiding over such parochial affairs as the Whitbread, Turner, Brit, Booker and Bafta awards have been put in their places. Melvyn Bragg and his jolly crew aboard the good ship South Bank Show are touching up their tarnished reputation - too many suspicious co-productions with record companies and the like - and polishing their profile by launching their very own awards scheme.

Their "unique selling point" is that they cover the entire arts world with 11 categories from opera to comedy via pop, literature and TV drama (the last two, of course, being entirely disconnected). It's the scheduler's dream. Post-modernists and media-studies types will probably faint dead away from sheer pleasure as high- and low-cultural icons rub shoulder- pads. Victoria Wood goes Trainspotting, Glyndebourne meets Oasis, and Rachel Whiteread can cast the entire cast.

At the 1983 Booker do, Selina Scott famously failed to recognise one of the judges, Angela Carter, asking her "Have you read any of the books?" What I want to know is: what have these judges read? The literature list is Norman Davies's historical analysis Europe, Seamus Heaney's collection The Spirit Level and Seamus Deane's first novel Reading in the Dark. Estimable choices, but scarcely startling. Rather than wade through an entire year of publishing (a terrifying prospect) I suspect a quick trawl through the Books of the Year and the Whitbread and Booker shortlists. If all the gongs end up on the same mantelpieces, what's the point?

The assessors' expenses alone for the Prudential Arts Awards would fund many an arts organisation, so unless Bragg and Co have come up with serious wads of cash to pay the live arts' judges to travel the country, how can they hope to be authoritative? They clearly managed an afternoon at Glyndebourne for Theodora but did Opera North get a look in? And can anyone explain the logic behind the classical music nominations: Ian Bostridge for his recording of Die Schone Mullerin, Bryn Terfel for an Edinburgh recital and a recording of operatic arias, and Harrison Birtwistle for a concert performance of his 10-year-old The Mask of Orpheus?

Bribery and corruption charges have been laid at the door of every hotly contested award with the possible exception of the Smarties Prize for Children's Books. In the fevered run-up to the Oscars, Variety virtually doubles in size as vested interests take full-colour double-page spreads to shove their favoured product under the noses of the 1,000-odd voting members of the academy. "For your consideration," they grovel, before listing every possible cast and crew member. Much to the star/ director's embarrassment, they've even proposed dane-ger man Kenneth Branagh for Best Adapted Screenplay for Hamlet, every word of which was by Shakespeare.

Even the Olivier awards are susceptible to jiggery-pokery. Cameron Mackintosh was so piqued when Miss Saigon lost out to Return to the Forbidden Planet, a Fifties movie staged with already existing songs, he persuaded the committee to reorganise the categories. He hasn't suffered since. Musicals have been sliced up differently yet again. Martin Guerre is up for Best New Musical (before or after the rewrite?) but the completely re-conceived By Jeeves is up for Outstanding Musical Production. You figure it out.

Then there's the fine print. The best in the West (End) or so we're led to believe. Yet only those using Society of London Theatre contracts are eligible. Out go the Lyric Hammersmith and the Almeida, while the Royal Court faces the absurdity of main-stage shows being eligible but not those from Upstairs: hence The Beauty Queen of Leenane is up for Best Comedy but the smash-hit East Is East is not.

Most acting awards are down to casting. Certain roles have honours written in, particularly the "brave" ones, ie playing ugly, stupid or gay: John Mills in Ryan's Daughter, Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man or William Hurt in Kiss of the Spiderwoman. Or what about the guilt prizes? Liz Taylor won not for her indifferent performance in Butterfield 8 but for being on her real-life deathbed.

Then again, where would we (and Ladbrokes) be without them? Screened ceremonies with the stars - who are they with, what are they wearing and why aren't they there? - offer the almost sensual pleasures of sofa- style schadenfreude that reach their giddy apogee with the Academy Awards. My American friend Matt's annual Oscar parties are the stuff of legend. Yes, I know they go out in the middle of the night over here but try telling him that.

The Oscars, you see, are the ones to which all others aspire. OK, they're a triumph of bad taste, but never mind the quality, feel the coverage. And despite all that sniffy "brings art down to the level of rank competitiveness", that's what they're about. I should know. A judge at this year's Verity Bargate Awards, I was also the inaugural winner of the Coombehurst Preparatory School Drama Cup for my unparalleled Widow Twankey. Eat your heart out, Diana Rigg.

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