Natalie Haynes: Must British modesty also be false?

The problem for Brits at the Emmys is that our finest speech-givers either didn't win or didn't turn up
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The Independent Online

The cold is starting to bite in the mornings and the leaves are beginning to fall, which can only mean one thing: the awards season is truly upon us. And as Sunday night's Emmys revealed, even when the Brits are coming, we tend to catch a heel in our hem and trip on to the red carpet.

Kate Winslet looked as radiant as ever, but her affecting performance in Mildred Pierce wasn't enough to save her excruciating speech, in which she denied all claim to her Best Actress in a Mini-series Award, saying it had nothing to do with her, and was all down to Todd Haynes, her director, apart from the bits that were down to HBO and the rest of the cast. Then she said she should share it with her mum, because Mildred Pierce was an extraordinary multitasker.

And Julian Fellowes, who won the award for Outstanding Writing for a Mini-series, also played the self-deprecating card. His wife, he explained, had said earlier that she didn't think Downton Abbey would win, so they should just plan to have a nice evening anyway. Then he reminded them they gave him an Oscar ten years ago, in case they'd forgotten and were wondering who the random British geezer was, why he was mentioning his son, Peregrine, and indeed, why he had named his son Peregrine.

Perhaps the reason this luvvie modesty tends to go down like a lead tiara at awards ceremonies is because it seems intrinsically false. When you turn up in a beautiful frock which cost more than a new car and walk down a red carpet being photographed by the world's media, and particularly when you are no stranger to winning, as neither Winslet nor Fellowes is, it is just perverse to affect a who-me cutesiness when you, surprise, win.

Modest acceptance of something as intrinsically immodest as an award for being best at anything is incredibly hard to do well. Helena Bonham Carter aced it at the Baftas this year, when she showed real delight at having won, before remembering her children were watching, and correcting herself to tell them it wasn't about the winning. And in 1996, Kenneth Branagh conceded that he didn't deserve an award for Hamlet, before pointing out that he had piles and didn't deserve those either.

It's a particularly English problem, since American actors regularly manage to be self-deprecating and funny, thus winning the respect of the audience for both the victory and the charm. Ty Burrell, who took Best Actor in a Comedy at this year's Emmys for his glorious performance as Phil Dunphy in Modern Family, illustrated it perfectly. He thanked everyone for the award, namechecked the entire cast of the sitcom, and talked about his dead father, all of which could easily have been appalling. But he cleverly wove through a strand about how horrified his dad would be that he went to work every day wearing make-up.

Even the most horrendous speech-makers can still make a comeback: Halle Berry gave one of the more ghastly tear-fuelled me-fests at the 2002 Oscars, but she then gave a pitch-perfect parody of it when she won a Razzie for Worst Actress (as Catwoman) in 2005.

Maybe the problem for Brits at the Emmys is that our finest speech-givers either didn't win or didn't turn up. Maggie Smith, who would not have spouted any false modesty, won a Best Actress Emmy this year, but didn't make it to the awards ceremony. And Hugh Laurie is nominated every year for his role in House, but has yet to win.

This is infuriating on two counts: the first is that he does most with least, making a fairly pedestrian medical drama genuinely compelling, by pure force of will. The second is that he would clearly give the funniest speech in the history of awards shows, and we're still waiting to see it.

www.nataliehaynes.com

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