Oliviers are for sharing

But Matilda waltzes off with a record haul of Larrys.

When asked how it felt to hold her very own Olivier award, Eleanor Cox-Worthington (aged 10) said, “very heavy.” She was one of the quartet of tiny actresses in Matilda: The Musical who share the title role of the miracle Miss with a serious Dickens habit and a poltergeist streak. They could have been - but weren’t - precious nightmares of child-star awfulness. They made history at last night’s Oliviers as the youngest ever winners.

Oliviers are for sharing: not only was Best Actress in a Musical split four ways, but Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller divvied up the Best Actor’s award for alternating the roles of Frankenstein and his monster at the National Theatre. The night I saw the show, a primal, supercharged Cumberbatch played the Creature, leaving Lee Miller to do little more than act the stuffed shirt. Out of the production’s epic scale (you could almost smell the foundry and the charnel house in the scientific age of steam and gas) Cumberbatch scored a thrilling, visceral intimacy.

It was quite the record-breaking night for the RSC: Matilda waltzed off with an embarrassment of Larrys (seven altogether), beating the previous record, also set by the RSC, for The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby in 1980.

Adapted from Roald Dahl’s twisted story with a dappled wit and warmth by Dennis Kelly, and set to lyrical, satirical music from Tim Minchin, this fizzing sherbert-dip of a show bagged the award for Best New Musical. The magnificent Bertie Carvel, as Matilda’s frigidly upholstered headmistress Miss Trunchbull, took home Best Actor in a Musical, and Matthew Warchus nabbed Best Director. Peter Darling picked up another award for the show’s crisp choreography, pipping both the rippled smoothness of Andrew Wright’s hommage to 1950’s MGM, Singin in the Rain, and Javier de Frutos’s clean and clever ensemble work in London Road. There were further accolades for Simon Baker’s sound and Rob Howell’s set - an enchanted Aladdin’s cave with letters and words for treasure.

I could have wished that the innovatory zest of London Road, the National’s sung-through documentary musical, was better recognised. But at least Nigel Harman, my guilty pleasure, picked up Best Supporting Performance in a Musical. His Lilliputian Lord Farquaad in Shrek was a diminutive, crowd-pleasing cracker.

Pleasing, also, to see Bruno Poet pick up the lighting award for Frankenstein. His onstage bruised and Blakean tints were counterweighed by a mighty glacier of bulbs, raked over the auditorium, and alternatively strobed with lightening, electricity and starlight. Blazingly good.

Bizarrely, the mandarins at SOLT (Society of West End Theatres), gave the porcineophile Betty Blue Eyes three nominations, including Best New Musical. Betty rather failed to bring home the bacon for Cameron Mackintosh, and closed after six months. Surely this demonstrates a critical bubble that’s gaily disengaged from actual audiences on the ground. Betty came home empty-handed, however.

As did the National’s big bucks piñata One Man Two Guvnors. In an underweight category, which also included the wryly observant Jumpy at the Royal Court, the Mastercard Best New Play went to John Hodge’s The Collaborators.

Ruth Wilson got Best Actress for Anna Christie, ahead of Marcia Warren, the “wraith in a pinny” from The Ladykillers, and Kristen Scott Thomas’s pinched and porcelain turn in Betrayal.  And a big footnote to Sheridan Smith, who now has a brace of Oliviers for the mantlepiece. This year’s was for Performance in a Supporting Role in the otherwise damp squib Flarepath.  She was the magnetic north of the show, and the very best exponent of the Rattigan restrained but heroic British resilience in the face of trauma. Her amiable chat as ex-barmaid Doris, her squawks of "dears" and "ducks," scarcely papered over the well of feeling for her Polish airman husband.

Smith has the art of appearing artless. The mini Matildas - who have had to give up ice-cream for the sake of their voices - may well walk in her footsteps. When they grow up.

The four Matildas receive their Olivier awards for best actress. Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

The Last Wolf: Robert Winder's book examines the elusive concept of Englishness

If English national character is so hard to pin down, could this mean there is no such thing any more?

Is there anything more tiresome than debating the essence of “Englishness” – or any other national identity, come to that? Millions of words must have been spilt on this fruitless quest over the past century, generating gigatonnes of wind that could have been usefully harvested for energy. Each time, no “essence” is to be found, and everyone goes back to the beginning and starts again.

That’s how it used to be, anyway. More recently, in the wake of the Brexit vote and the divisions it has laid bare, the debate about who “we” are has become fraught and urgent. England, and Britain more widely, is hardly alone in its soul-searching. Arguments about belonging, culture, nationhood and identity are flooding across the Western world – and beyond – because people are increasingly unsure about who or where they are. The sweeping changes unleashed by hypercapitalism, technological change and unprecedented levels of migration are making rootlessness the norm, and the more people feel rootless the more they want to know where they belong and where they come from.

British politicians often respond to this by attempting to formulate some notion of our collective “values”. Here’s who we are, all 65 million of us, they say, and then proceed to read out a list of uniquely “British” things that only “British” people do, like valuing democracy, being tolerant with each other and standing in queues politely. These attempts at top-down unity are always failures, largely because, with the possible exception of the queuing, all the “values” asserted are pretty much universal. There’s nothing uniquely “British” about valuing the rule of law or freedom of speech (regularly clamping down on freedom of speech is a more reliably British virtue, if history is anything to go by). The failure of anyone to produce a list of “values” that are uniquely British – or English, or Welsh, or Scottish – suggests that they don’t exist. The island is just too teeming, diverse and disconnected now for much to be held in common at all.

So what, if anything, might define that elusive “Englishness”, the subject of Robert Winder’s new book? Cultural quirks, perhaps? I can confidently assert that the English know how to make a good cup of strong tea better than anyone else on earth (with the possible exception of the Irish), and we’re also world champions at dog shows, proper beer and indie guitar bands. But I’m not sure that these are things I would encourage my children to die patriotically in a trench for.

Winder offers a better answer, and it’s one that anyone brave or suicidal enough to pitch in to the contemporary European identity debate should consider. It offers a path through the horrible, thorny maze of arguments about race, ethnicity, migration and the like, towards something that, potentially, could unite people rather than divide them. What makes and forms a “people”, says Winder, in England as elsewhere, is the one thing they all share: the place itself. If there is an “Englishness” it is formed from the nature, literally, of England:

If we really wanted to search for the national identity, I thought, the real place to look was in the natural heritage of hills, valleys, rivers, stones and mists – the raw materials that had, over time, moulded the way we were. Landscape and history – the past and the elemental backdrop – were the only things we could truly claim as our own. Just as some plants thrive in sand and others in clay, so a national character is fed by nutrients it cannot alter.

Early on in the book, Winder quotes the novelist Lawrence Durrell, who makes the same case more provocatively:

I believe you could exterminate the French at a blow and resettle the land with Tartars, and within two generations discover… that the national characteristics were back at norm – the relentless metaphysical curiosity, the tenderness for good living and passionate individualism.

Durrell goes on to suggest that “a Cypriot who settled in London would in time become English, simply because human customs owe just as much to the local environment as to trees and flowers”. I’m in a position to test this hypothesis, because my grandmother was a Cypriot who settled in London. Did she become English? Well, she wore English clothes, lived in a bungalow, cooked roast dinners, won endless rosettes in endless dog shows and had her English friends call her Doris, because they had trouble pronouncing Demetra. On the other hand, she never lost her accent, her language or her connections to her homeland, and until the end of her life she made a mean baklava. I don’t know what any of that means, other than that labels can get confusing pretty quickly.

And that is Winder’s point: forget the labels, look at the land below your feet. That’s where your “identity” comes from. Take the last wolf in England, which gives the book its title. Allegedly killed in the 1290s by a Shropshire knight named Peter Corbet (the king had tasked this “mighty hunter” and other nobles with ridding the land of predators), the wolf’s end freed up the English to transform their landscape – in a way not available to many other European countries, whose wolf populations were too large and interlinked to kill off – into “the biggest sheep farm in the world”. This turned England, in the Middle Ages, into a wealthy wool economy. It was an agricultural revolution, shaping everything from land ownership to diet to class structures to the architecture of the Cotswolds, and it happened not just because the landscape was now wolfless, but because “the country was made for grass”.

The same soil and climate that made growing grass so easy did the same for wheat – which, mainly in the form of bread, has been the staple of the English diet from the rise of agriculture to the present day, when we eat more wheat than ever. Add in the later discovery of coal, which was found in rich seams across the country, and which gave rise to the Industrial Revolution and the British Empire, and Winder suggests, only slightly playfully, that the English national character can be summed up by way of an algebraic equation: e = cw4: “Englishness equals coal x wool, wheat and wet weather.”

The book’s central case – that “natural history might be a branch of political science” – is a necessary corrective to a public debate in which we are increasingly instructed to believe that virtually every aspect of our character is a “social construct”. Winder wants us to understand that much of it is actually a natural construct, which means in turn that our development is not entirely under our control. It’s not a message that many people want to hear in an age of selfies and consumer choice: “Just as each vineyard (or terroir) produces its own unique wine, so human beings are conditioned by their local landscape. We move around more now, so the lines are blurred, but the underlying skeleton of English culture – the bare bones of the national psyche – may have changed less than we think.”

I couldn’t help, as I read, wanting more detail on this “underlying skeleton”. Where are the folk songs, the rhymes and ballads? Where is the mythology? Where are the grainy details of the lives of the people who, throughout English history, were probably shaped by the landscape most of all, and who shaped it in turn – the peasantry? There are glimpses of all this, but there is also too much school-textbooky history of inventors and their inventions, of revolutions and wars. A book like this ought to start at the bottom – in the mud, in the mulch on the forest floor. I wanted an earthier, messier story.

Despite this, there is plenty to chew on here. The question that remained when it was over though, for this reviewer at least, was: is any of it true any more? It may once have been the case that human customs were formed by places, but is it now?

When people in England, or anywhere in the modern world, have more connection, via their handheld screens, with the mill race of global consumer “culture” than they do with the landscape around them, and when only a handful of us work on or really know that landscape, what chance does it have of forming the basis of our cultural life?

If English national character is so hard to pin down, could the reason simply be that there is no such thing any more; that the English, like other denizens of techno-post-modernity, are shaped not by their natural environment, but by the artificial one that is rising to enclose them like a silicon cocoon? When the heavy metals in your smartphone are mined in Indonesia, not Cornwall, what equation defines you – and do you even care? 

Paul Kingsnorth’s books include “Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist ” (Faber & Faber)

The Last Wolf: the Hidden Springs of Englishness
Robert Winder
Little, Brown, 480pp, £20

This article first appeared in the 10 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, France’s new Napoleon