David Lister: The award for most grotesque acceptance speech goes to...

The Week in Arts

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I once witnessed the ultimate awards speech by an actress.

It occurred at a theatre awards ceremony in London, when Vanessa Redgrave broke down in tears as she thanked the stage carpenter. They don't make them like that any more. But they almost do. Several times a year, in fact. I was also present when a theatre director tried to thank his mother, but in the excitement of the moment couldn't remember her name.

The latest in the great tradition of grotesque thespian acceptance speeches awards came from Kate Winslet at the Emmys in New York this week. Here it is in all, or most of, its glory:

"Oh look, I really did win it. Oh gosh, OK. Thank you so much! ... I didn't think we were going to win anything ... It doesn't matter how old you are, or what you do in your life, you never stop needing your mum. And I will never stop needing mine. So thanks, mum. Thank you so much."

I'm actually with the theatre director Trevor Nunn, who rails against people using the lazy and rather insulting word "luvvie" to describe actors. But Kate doesn't always help the cause. Paying tribute to one's mum is fair enough, and a little bit of gushing goes with the territory. But the faux surprise has to stop. She was a short-priced favourite to win, after all. Besides, as one who has fidgeted through so many boring awards ceremonies and so many "speeches" made up of faux surprise followed by endless lists of thank yous (why can't the organisers ban these?), I constantly wonder why actors can't ever, ever prepare a speech. If they don't win, they can always use it another day. And could they not, like every other after-dinner speaker in the land, put in the odd joke? They're serious, intense people, I know, but one gag isn't a lot to ask.

As actors, award winners must know that these ceremonies are occasions when they are on show, not just their faces and their clothes, but their words and their wit. Why are the speeches always either embarrassingly gushing or mind-numbingly boring? The film and theatre worlds are full of coaches, voice coaches, movement coaches and the like. Has no one thought of setting up as an awards ceremony acceptance-speech coach? They could make a killing.

We can certainly learn from the French. When the beautiful and brilliant French playwright Yasmina Reza won a best comedy award here for her West End play Art, she mounted the stage, walked, seemingly serenely, to the microphone and said: "It is interesting to win an award for best comedy, as I thought I was writing a tragedy." She then left the stage. That acceptance speech had it all: wit, anger, brevity, shock value, general allure – and the accent as a bonus. It was pure class.

Kate has a way to go.

Have you heard the one about Harold?

Next month, the late Harold Pinter will be remembered when London's Comedy Theatre is renamed after him. The decision is a good one. Pinter staged a number of his plays there, and it is right that a great British playwright should be commemorated in this way. Actually, more theatres should be doing it. Names like the "Duchess", "Lyric" and "Fortune" are not hugely inspiring. But this name-change does bring to an end one of the more diverting theatrical stories of recent years.

It was common gossip in the green rooms and the stalls that Pinter had once mentioned to his friend and fellow playwright Tom Stoppard that he would love the Comedy Theatre to be renamed the Harold Pinter theatre. Stoppard is said to have replied that this was unlikely, adding acerbically: "It might be easier to change your name to Harold Comedy."

Sir Tom Stoppard has since denied the story. But it continued to do the rounds. Now we must formally say goodbye to one of the better theatrical anecdotes.

When Mary met Joseph and Larry

The most memorable phrase at The Independent Woodstock Literary festival must have come from Lady Soames, daughter of Sir Winston Churchill. She remarked in her talk that she had met Stalin and recalled: "He was much smaller than I expected. He wore the most beautiful uniform in cream sage. And he had very twinkly eyes." Ah, those twinkly eyes.

I met the estimable Mary Soames when she chaired the National Theatre board, and I asked her if she had ever met the NT's founder, Laurence Olivier. "Oh, yes," she answered, "he used to come round to see Papa."

Laurence Olivier one day, Stalin the next. It must have been hard for a young girl not to have her head turned.

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