Dame Barbara steals the George and Martha show

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Dame Diana Rigg and David Suchet's vintage performances as the warring husband and wife, George and Martha, in the West End production of Edward Albee's play Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf won them top honours in the first South Bank Show Awards for artistic excellence yesterday.

In a ceremony at the Savoy Hotel, marked by frequent attacks on the Government's policies on the arts, Dame Diana joined a chorus of protest against the lack of funding for regional theatre. She recalled that she started in the regions more than 30 years ago, applying for a drama-school grant from Leeds Council, where she was asked: "Do you think you're going to be able to make money from it?"

However, her contribution was upstaged by another Dame - Barbara Cartland - in a moment of pure theatre bordering on the surreal, if not the absurd. Presenting rather than receiving an award, and dressed in her trademark pink hat and frock, the grande dame praised the South Bank Show so lavishly - observing that it was the "one thing that made people abroad admire England" - that Melvyn Bragg, its presenter, put his head in his hands in what could only be described as acute embarrassment. Then, when he whispered to her that the award she was presenting was for the television comedy Father Ted, she replied sternly and audibly: "Of course I know it's for Father Fred..."

Leading the political attacks was Sir Peter Hall, the former Royal Shakespeare Company and National Theatre director who described the financial state of regional theatre as the worst he had known. Actors were working for practically nothing, he said, and he warned that the seed corn that should be feeding the West End and the main subsidised theatres would dry up if funding was not increased.

Among the other awards presented on behalf of the long-running LWT arts show, the painter Howard Hodgkin won the visual arts category, and the tenor Ian Bostridge won the classical music section. Bernard Haitink won the opera award for his conducting of Wagner's Ring cycle.

Jimmy McGovern accepted the best television drama award for Hillsborough, his controversial dramatisation of the 1989 football tragedy. Presenting that award, the playwright Harold Pinter said: "I took the thought away from that programme that the victims of a disaster are inevitably blamed for it and become guilty."

In the popular music category the hot favourites, Oasis, embroiled in controversy over Noel Gallagher's remarks on drugs, were beaten by Tricky. Neither act attended the awards ceremony.

The literature award to Seamus Deane, for Reading in the Dark, was accepted on his behalf by Neil Jordan, film director and friend.

But the recurring theme of the day was government arts funding. The Booker Prize-winner Salman Rushdie and the Palme d'Or-winning film director Mike Leigh slated 18 years of "disastrous arts policies". Leigh said: "I hope that the new government to which we look forward will not hide behind the quasi-support for the cinema which we have seen happening recently."

The event was rounded off by an informal speech by Tony Blair, the Labour leader, who will outline his party's arts policies in a speech at the Mansion House in London on Monday.