Epic passion and artistic vision earn Bafta glory

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Robert Hughes, the celebrated art critic, won one of the most coveted prizes at the Bafta awards last night, when he scooped the Richard Dimbleby Award for his art history series American Visions.

The series, shown on the BBC earlier this year, won Hughes the prize for the year's most important personal contribution on screen in factual television. It was the first time an arts presenter had won the award since Sir Kenneth Clark in the Sixties.

At the other end of the spectrum, EastEnders came of age artistically, when the BBC soap opera was among the nominees for a Bafta award. It was the first time that the British Academy of Film and Television Arts had shortlisted the programme in its best drama series category.

The subtle but significant shift in establishment perception of soap opera as legitimate drama was a notable aspect of a night which saw the British Academy shower predictable praise on the multi Oscar-winner The English Patient. Juliette Binoche, who was awarded an Oscar as Best Supporting Actress at the US Academy Awards, won in the same category at the Royal Albert Hall.

The event was attended by stars including Michael Caine, Diana Ross, William Hurt, Lauren Bacall and Ursula Andress.

Among the nominees were Ralph Fiennes, for The English Patient and his estranged wife, Alex Kingston, star of ITV's adaptation of Moll Flanders, competing for best actor and best actress. Fiennes was not at the ceremony.

EastEnders was nominated along with Ballykissangel, Hamish Macbeth and This Life. Though Coronation Street once won a special Bafta award, no soap opera had until last night competed for the coveted drama serial award, whose nominations are made by some of the most senior figures in television drama.

In recent months a number of commentators have praised the quality of the writing and acting in EastEnders. And Steve McFadden, who portrays alcoholic Phil Mitchell, revealed considerable resentment among sopa opera actors that their work was not properly valued.

He said in an interview: "The stigma reveals itself in subtle ways. It's not overt - it's so endemic that it's never questioned why it is seen as second-rate. Working-class culture is called 'popular culture' and middle-class culture is just called 'culture', with the assumption that one is better than the other."