In late november, letters from the Cabinet Office arrived in homes across the country with news of honours in the New Year’s list. The recipients were told to keep it confidential until the awards were made public on 30 December. When the list is published, the odds are high that an actor or actress will receive a knighthood, become a dame, or at the very least get a CBE.
Such gongs are handed out by the Arts and Media Honours Committee, which also deals with other cultural and media roles and jobs. It is one of 11 such committees — including sport, health, science and education — overseen by the Cabinet Office, which, along with Downing Street, has the final say.
Acting is, of course, a noble profession, but it is extraordinary how many of its practitioners have a KBE (Knight Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire or DBE (Dame). More than 40 living actors — divided pretty equally between male and female — are knights or dames, a far higher figure than, say, for writers, the people who put the words into their mouths. They include Michael Caine, Sean Connery, Ian McKellen, Anthony Hopkins and Daniel Day-Lewis, while Dames number Judi Dench, Helen Mirren, Julie Andrews and Kristin Scott Thomas.
In recent decades, no actor has been known to turn down becoming a knight or a dame, though Jim Broadbent declined the OBE. “It appeals to their vanity,” said one nameless member of the arts honours committee.
Another former member, Liz Forgan, herself a Dame, accepts that KBEs and DBEs for actors are not exactly uncommon. “It’s important that honours are seen sometimes, well, as exciting,” says Forgan, who in her own distinguished career has been director of programmes at Channel Four, head of BBC Radio, and chair of the Heritage lottery fund, Arts Council and the Scott Trust, which owns the Guardian.
The committee is also well aware that gongs for actors “play well” in the media. So arm-twisting is not usually needed to get actors to accept them although Mark Rylance, well-known for his “right-on” views, needed some persuasion to accept his knighthood in 2017. Back in the 1960s, Laurence Olivier, probably the most noted British actor of the twentieth century and already knighted in the 1940s, needed a push to agree to a peerage.
When prime minister Harold Wilson personally wrote to Olivier in 1967 (this was well before the specialist committees were set up) offering him a seat in the Lords, the actor initially replied that he could not accept. “I fear some strange loss of face with my fellow artists and the man in the street,” he wrote. He caved in three years later after more egging-on and accepted a life peerage.
The arts and media committee is made up of seven people, all with specialist knowledge of particular art forms; they will usually serve for between three and six years. Its current chair is
Rupert Gavin, who, interestingly, has no gong of any sort himself. A senior BBC executive before becoming CEO of Odeon cinemas until three years ago, he is also a theatre producer and is now chair of the Historic Royal Palaces.
Other members include Sir Peter Bazalgette, another former chair of the Arts Council and current chairman of ITV, and Sir Nicholas Kenyon, who once ran the BBC Proms and for the past dozen years has headed the Barbican arts centre. Kanya King, head of Mobo, the music organisation, and Kenneth Olumuyiwa Tharp, until recently CEO of dance organisation The Place, are also members, along with literary agent Caroline Michel and design critic and author Alice Rawsthorn.
“We’ve changed our approach in recent times,” says Gavin. “This means encouraging new ways of seeking out honours, in particular among the bme community and in the regions. We have also sought more clarity about what public service and charitable work people are doing.”
the arts and media committee has also expanded its remit and now considers awards in the areas of fashion, libraries and even Cooking. “Well, there’s an art in what chefs Cook up,” says Gavin. “Oh, and we had our first award for a glassblower recently.”
The committee meets formally four times a year. The first meeting for the New Year’s List was in May. “It’s a preliminary sifting meeting,” explains Gavin. Names may have been put forward by the public via the Cabinet Office website. The members of the committee will also have used their own contacts or knowledge to suggest candidates.
A longish list is then drawn up before the decision-taking meeting in early autumn. The final list, which goes from the top honour of Companion of Honour to knights and dames, and “down to” MBEs, is then sent to the Cabinet Office and finally to Downing Street for approval. Some might have just missed out, so there is a sort of reserve list which is carried over.
Forgan has few doubts about the honours system: “It’s a wonderful thing — a cheap and democratic way of giving people a pat on the back. It also brings pride and happiness.”
Her only doubts are about some of the political honours, which are still in the gift of party leaders. “The trouble is that the system of honours is, I suspect, affected by the political ones, which can themselves be influenced by donors and cronies.”
The arts and media committee has its own ways of checking candidates, “just to make sure that nobody we are recommending is dodgy,” says Forgan. She admits that one tricky area is where an individual has done a lot for an arts organisation, particularly in donating money. “You have to weigh up here very carefully, to check that we are not handing out an award for just offering cash.”
actors may love receiving honours but writers are far more wary. Some do of course accept them: playwrights Sir Tom Stoppard, Sir David Hare and Sir Alan Ayckbourn, and novelists Sir Salman Rushdie, Sir Kazuo Ishiguro and Dames Hilary Mantel, Margaret Drabble and her sister, Antonia Byatt. But there are quite a number of writers who have refused. Some are known, like Alan Bennett, who was initially offered a CBE and then a knighthood. “It just wouldn’t suit me, that’s all,” he said. “It would be like wearing a suit every day of your life.”
I understand that Julian Barnes, Michael Frayn and his wife Claire Tomalin, and the leading television dramatist Andrew Davies have all refused honours of differing ranks. “There is a sort of groupthink here that honours given by a government are not for them,” says one committee member. Booker Prize winner Barnes did, however, accept the French award of Commandeur de L’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres.
No surprise, however, that film director Ken Loach rejected an OBE in 1977 on the grounds that “it was a club which you would not want to join when you look at some of the villains who’ve got them.” No honours committee has bothered to knock on his door again. Other refuseniks include film director Danny Boyle, who was offered an award for creating the opening ceremony of the London Olympics, David Bowie, who turned down an OBE in 2000 (“I don’t know what it’s for. It’s not what I spent my life working for”) and Benjamin Zephaniah, also for an OBE, in 2003. The poet gave his reason as “being profoundly anti-empire”. Another black British poet, George the Poet (real name George Mpanga), recently revealed he had rejected an MBE “because of the colonial trauma inflicted on the children of Africa”. Several other people have rejected a gong because of the association with empire.
The black historian and broadcaster David Olusoga accepted his OBE in the last New Year’s Honours list though he did admit to “some agonising” over it. But, on balance, he thought it was right to accept mainly because it would be wrong for honours lists not to include black people.
“We don’t like it when people turn down honours,” says Forgan. “Though I know the word ‘empire’ is a problem for some. But history should be history. Maybe the association of the honour with ‘British Empire’ needs to be looked at.”
The artist Lucian Freud and Neil McGregor, former director of the National Gallery and British Museum, rejected KBEs but later accepted the Order of Merit, a very exclusive club, membership of which is in the gift of the monarch.
The arts and media committee and the other ten are all keen to let the public know how to put forward names. Go to the Cabinet Office Honours website and scroll down to the section “How to Nominate”. You can do this by email or letter, proposing your nominee and explaining why they deserve an honour. You will also need two other people to back up your proposal. You never know: the person you suggest might get an award in 2020 or 2021.
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