A weaponised hell-run of selfie-taking: my journey into the heart of the Baftas | Stuart Heritage

Surely the Baftas couldn’t be as bad as they look on TV? The Guardian’s intrepid reporter hit the red carpet to find out

Not so long ago, I made plans to attend the Oscars. Whenever I mentioned this to people, you could measure their excitement in decibels. They’d scream. They’d shake. They’d generally behave like the extended family of an X Factor contestant who’d just been informed that they had qualified for bootcamp. It was terrifying.

I never made it to the Oscars in the end. But this year I got another chance to experience the same sort of starstruck hysteria by attending the Baftas. Except things didn’t quite work out that way. “I’m going to the Baftas,” I’d tell people, and without fail they’d sort of screw up their nose in disappointment. If you’ve ever seen a child open a birthday card to discover that there isn’t any money in it, you’ll understand.

It doesn’t make sense, because on paper the Baftas and the Oscars are basically the same thing. The same films are nominated. The same films win. The same people attend, for crying out loud. Attend the Baftas and you’re mixing with the same mix of A-list talent that attends the Oscars, albeit here they’re scared and freezing because they didn’t do a good job of figuring out what to wear in London in February. But still, in the eyes of many, the Baftas still feel a little bit like a booby prize.

The reason for this, I think, is a simple one. The Baftas are a little bit rubbish. They’re dismal to watch on television. They’re slung out half-arsed on BBC One without any sort of televised red carpet coverage. And because they’re not shown live, the ceremony ends up occupying an unpleasant hinterland. If you care about awards season, you won’t watch the Baftas because you’ve already got the winners off Twitter. And if you don’t care about awards season, you won’t watch the Baftas because you don’t care about awards season.

Not everyone’s a winner … Al Pacino poses next to a logo for mobile phone company EE.
Not everyone’s a winner … Al Pacino poses next to a logo for internet and mobile phone company EE. Photograph: Tolga Akmen/AFP via Getty Images

The ceremony itself can be hard to love, too. Last year’s show, for instance, was preposterously stupid. Whatever enthusiasm anyone had remaining after the bizarre Nasa-themed interpretive dance opener – presumably booked back when people thought First Man would be a contender – was roundly kicked to death by Joanna Lumley’s aggressively terrible rapid fire anti-joke rat-a-tat. (Of BlacKkKlansman she said: “I’m surprised that it did so well at the Klan film festival.”) As a result, viewers are shedding the Baftas like fleas from a dead dog. Last year’s show was watched by half a million fewer people than the year before, which would have been a shock had it not tracked against an overall longterm decline.

But maybe we’ve all been missing something. Maybe the televised Baftas only tell half the story. Maybe there’s a whole world of excitement happening offscreen. Maybe you really have to be there in the flesh, in your best clothes, absorbing all the star wattage, to truly understand what they’re about.

From my visit on Sunday, I’d argue that you do. Sort of. Going to the Baftas reveals an awful lot about the Baftas that you don’t get from the television coverage. The red carpet, for instance, looks incredibly glamorous on TV; a long, slow procession of the most beautiful people on Earth at their most beautiful, being adored by a legion of screaming fans. And in reality there really is lots of screaming on the red carpet. It just doesn’t necessarily come from the fans.

Because here’s what happens as soon as anyone sets foot on any red carpet in 2020. They stop walking. They turn around. They grab their phones. And they take, conservatively, several billion selfies. Everyone does this. An entire Albert Hall’s worth of people, all stopping and turning around and taking selfies for the internet. The entire Baftas red carpet is now just a weaponised hell-run of constant selfie-taking. And the people who bear the brunt of this narcissism are the security guards, who spend their entire evenings yelling things like “That’s enough selfies now ladies and gentlemen”, and “If we could all just start to make our way up the red carpet”, and “PLEASE STOP TAKING SELFIES” to tuxedo duckface adult humans who have chosen to become their own paparazzi. “Try this at Cannes and you’d be rugby tackled to the ground,” a friend whispered as we attempted to navigate the mess.

Margot Robbie outside the afterparty … the red carpet is not as glamorous as it looks on TV.
Margot Robbie outside the afterparty … the red carpet is not as glamorous as it looks on TV. Photograph: Carlo Paloni/Bafta/Rex/Shutterstock

Inside the Albert Hall, though, things are different. When it starts to fill up, and when the stars take their seats in little clusters by the aisles, it’s hard to deny that there’s an energy you cannot hope to replicate on TV. You see little glimpses of personality sneak out from behind the personas. While on television you only got to see cutaway shots of dour-faced Quentin Tarantino, in the flesh you saw him happily chatting to friends before the show started. You could see nervous gulps, stifled yawns, distracted phone-checking. When Bombshell won for best makeup, and Anne Morgan’s dress briefly became tangled up in her chair, the first person in the entire auditorium to offer help was Laura Dern. That’s the glimpse of personality that I got from Laura Dern, the sense that Laura Dern is a saint among us and deserves nothing but good things from the world.

But god, in their unedited form the Baftas are long. And god, your bottom really does start to get numb. The two standing ovations given to talent on Sunday – one for Andy Serkis and one for Kathleen Kennedy – felt to me less like spontaneous demonstrations of professional respect and more like a strategic opportunity for people to allow blood back into the lower half of their bodies for the first time in 90 minutes.

Also, I couldn’t help but feel that the royal family came out of it especially badly. After three hours of being presented with beautiful, funny, talented winners and presenters, it felt like a horrible thud when Prince William charisma-sponged all the air out of the room by repeating a toothless version of Joaquin Phoenix’s speech in a flat monotone. Now that Harry has bolted for a lifetime of conventional celebrity, it’s probably time to start asking what the royals are actually for. On the basis of the Baftas, that question might not have an answer.

What the royals are actually for? … Prince William speaks to Bafta winner Joaquin Phoenix.
What the royals are actually for? … Prince William speaks to Bafta winner Joaquin Phoenix. Photograph: Getty Images

Once the ceremony ended, and the winners were invited back on stage for one final photograph, the best part of the entire evening happened. Everyone was shoved outside to be bundled into a standing row of gussied-up National Express-style coaches, waiting to transport us all to the aftershow dinner. Seriously: take that, the Oscars. You might have glitz and glamour and perfect weather and global attention, but ask yourself this: do you have a rail replacement bus service for the nominees? No, you do not. One-nil to the Baftas.

Also, I don’t know if this was standard across the entire Bafta fleet, but our bus driver treated us to a 20-minute deadpan standup set during our trip, that bordered on outright abuse. One joke he told was this: “Are you stars? You’re not stars. Whoever told you that you were stars was lying.” If that wasn’t the case – if I was on the only bus to actively heckle its passengers – then I would strongly suggest rolling it out as standard next year.

And then it was dinner, which I have chosen to interpret as a reminder on behalf of the universe that I am not nearly as special as I think I am. Imagine, if you will, a table plan that resembles the solar system. In the middle you have the sun, a cluster of all the biggest names whose gravitational pull holds the whole thing together. Then, orbiting that, you have the supplementary players; the presenters and winners and guests whose appearance was counted as a highlight by the powers that be. And then on the outskirts of that, you have sponsors and their guests, along with other monied well-wishers. And then there’s a flight of stairs, and more tables, and then another bunch of stairs that mark the frozen outer edges of the solar system. And then, beyond that, there was me. On table 177. In short, I was Pluto. Yes, I was wearing a bow-tie. Yes, I was technically eating food in the same room as Charlize Theron. But nevertheless, scientists will spend decades arguing whether or not I qualified as actually taking part in the Baftas dinner. Genuinely, the only people sitting further away from the action than me were the people who wrote Graham Norton’s monologue. “Someone hates you,” a friend told me when she saw where I was sitting. She had been sitting on table 47. Imagine.

Bradley Cooper, Robert De Niro and Laura Dern at the Netflix Bafta afterparty.
Exhausting and not in the least bit fun … Bradley Cooper, Robert De Niro and Laura Dern at the Netflix Bafta afterparty. Photograph: David M Benett/Getty Images for Netflix

By the time our food was served, the stars had already upped and left for the afterparty. By the time I got to the afterparty, the stars had bounced on to the Netflix party, because that’s where Rihanna was. And, quite honestly, who could blame them? If the Baftas taught me one thing above anything else, it’s that being famous looks quite pants. Not only were the stars screamed at and scrutinised for the entire duration of the evening, but it’s easy to forget that the Baftas were just another stop-off on a rolling thunder revue of an awards season for them. Sunday was the Baftas. Saturday was the WGA awards. Thursday was the Artios awards, Wednesday the visual effects awards, Tuesday the Costume Designers Guild awards, Monday the Oscars luncheon. All these events come with their own set of expectations; red carpets, monologues, polite applause, dinners that have been designed to feed a thousand people at once. It looks exhausting, and not in the least bit fun. And the feeding frenzy that follows them around is absurd.

As I left the dinner, all the selfie-takers from earlier were tearing apart the table displays so that they could go home with a trinket. One man almost lost his balance yanking a plastic peach from a table that Scarlett Johansson may or may not have touched. It was like watching people trying to rescue their loved ones from a burning house. It looked like looting. And that’s the moral I’m taking from the Baftas. Make something good and you have to dedicate three months of your life to this sort of idiocy. Here’s to a lifetime of mediocrity.


Stuart Heritage

The GuardianTramp

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