The Virgin Mary takes a much-deserved gong. Photo: Getty
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Bad theatre, BoJo and Bingate: Mark Lawson’s culture awards 2014

Handing out the gongs.

The Cultural Controversy Prize
(sponsored by Twitter)

A strong case was made for the forcing off air of a radio broadcaster by the overreaction of witless BBC management. But the story of David Lowe – expelled from Radio Devon after accidentally playing a 1932 record that included the N-word – eventually shared third place with Jeremy Clarkson, who mumbled the same taboo. Runner-up was “Bingate”, which involved days of speculation about whether one contestant on The Great British Bake Off had deliberately defrosted the baked Alaska of another. But whereas many heads of great cultural institutions have lost their marbles without knowing it, Neil MacGregor of the British Museum knew what he was doing when, while continuing to deny the Greek claim to the Elgins, he lent one to Vladimir Putin.

Send Them Back Prize
(sponsored by Ukip)

Calls for a UK trade embargo of American Equity were prompted by three appalling theatrical imports to London. Bakersfield Mist by Stephen Sachs wasted the talent of Kathleen Turner in an execrable squib about the attribution of Jackson Pollocks that forced critics to stoop for a low rhyme with the artist’s surname. Theresa Rebeck’s Seminar had lessons in creative writing as both its subject and its urgent requirement. And, in a revival of David Mamet’s Speed-the-Plow, Richard Schiff (Toby from The West Wing) played a supposedly demonic Hollywood producer on such a low-voiced single note that his co-star Lindsay Lohan could act him off the stage just by turning up, which, despite bitchy predictions of unreliability, she did.

No Publicity Required Award
(presented by Thomas Pynchon)

Although methods of publicity and advertising became ever more sophisticated, two of the biggest British events of 2014 would still have succeeded if their marketing had consisted of a single scribbled Post-it note stuck to a tree. This prize goes to Monty Python – the first release of tickets for the “One Down, Five to Go” reunion selling out in 43.5 seconds – with Kate Bush getting the silver for taking 15 minutes to shift every seat for her 22-night comeback.

Disguised Leadership Bid Prize
(presented by Rt Hon Theresa May)

In a pre-election period, “campaign autobiographies” are commonplace. But this year was notable for political authors who spent their entire publicity tour denying that they were making a bid for power. Voted into joint third place were Alan Johnson – forced to deny that his second memoir, Please, Mister Postman, was attempting to deliver a farewell letter to Ed Miliband – and Hillary Clinton, whose Hard Choices infuriatingly but ingeniously spent 635 pages failing to rule in or rule out another White House run. Second was Russell Brand with Revolution, a curious attempt to incite an uprising with no coherent aims. But, for sheer chutzpah, the panel acclaimed Boris Johnson, whose The Churchill Factor explored the public appeal of burly, controversial hedonists with a lucrative sideline in writing.

Unlikely Dramatic Appearances Award
(sponsored by Godot)

For remaining a go-to protagonist after more than 2,000 years, the panel found it inconceivable to look beyond the Virgin Mary. She was portrayed on stage by Fiona Shaw in The Testament of Mary and, in his one-man play The Man Jesus, by Simon Callow, who also impersonated Mary Magdalene – a character (mixed up with at least three other biblical Marys) in John Adams’s oratorio The Gospel According to the Other Mary at ENO.

The Prize for Popularising Art
(presented by that man who won the Turner)

Strong competition came from J M W Turner himself – who had a revelatory show of late work at Tate Britain and was played by Timothy Spall in a Mike Leigh movie – and the critic John Ruskin, a character in both Leigh’s film and Emma Thompson’s Effie Gray. Runner-up was Grayson Perry, for guest-editing a leading left-wing magazine and creating in his tremendous Channel 4 series Who Are You? a portrait pot of Chris Huhne that featured a line of penises. But the year’s most visible artist, an impressive feat as he was confined under house arrest in China, was Ai Weiwei, who created thrilling interventions within the buildings and landscape of Yorkshire Sculpture Park and Blenheim Palace.

The Hidden Portrait Award
(presented by Wally from Where’s Wally?)

A crowded fictional genre was literary satire, with the lit sat sometimes also containing a lit spat. Hanif Kureishi’s The Last Word, Edward St Aubyn’s Lost for Words, Robert Galbraith’s The Silkworm, David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks and Mal Peet’s The Murdstone Trilogy all contained scurrilous portraits of writers who felt oddly familiar. But only transatlantic yacht crews have sailed closer to the wind than Kureishi, whose fictional authorial monster, Mamoon Azam, shared with Sir V S Naipaul physical appearance, anti-post-colonial attitudes, sneers at his peers, a goatee beard and a Nobel Prize in literature. The judges gave extra marks for reports that Naipaul had attended the book launch.

Mark Lawson is a journalist and broadcaster, best known for presenting Front Row on Radio 4 for 16 years. He writes a weekly column in the critics section of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 19 December 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Issue 2014

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How Dame Vera Lynn was told to “posh her accent up”

Radio 2’s 100th-birthday tribute reveals how Lynn was forced to change her voice.

“I remember seeing her near an elephant, and this elephant rolled over a bit and she had to get out of the way . . .” Vic Knibb, the vice-chairman of the veterans’ group the Burma Star Association, was one of the thousands of British soldiers serving in the Far East during the Second World War who came across Vera Lynn in the jungle, singing from the back of a Jeep, accompanied by an out-of-tune piano.

Speaking in Radio 2’s celebration of the singer’s 100th birthday, Vera Lynn: the Sweetheart of the United Kingdom (Sunday 19 March, 8pm), Knibb and others recalled what it meant to them that Lynn travelled so far to perform for the so-called Forgotten Army in Burma. Unlike other entertainers, who stayed in Europe or visited only military hospitals in the UK, she deliberately went where few others did – where she felt she was needed by “the boys”.

The programme, which featured a rare interview with Lynn herself, was dominated by clips of her recordings from the Thirties and Forties. We heard frequent extracts from “The White Cliffs of Dover”, “We’ll Meet Again” and “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square”. The contrast between these two voices, separated by more than six decades, was the most arresting thing this otherwise pedestrian documentary had to offer. The now gravelly-voiced centenarian sang, in her youth, with a smooth, effortless-sounding tone and crystal-clear diction. But how did the cockney daughter of a plumber from East Ham end up singing with received pronunciation?

The answer, as ever in Britain, is class. Lynn had no formal musical training, and as she had been performing in working men’s clubs from the age of seven, she was considered closer to a musical-hall crooner than a “proper” singer. But with her small vocal range and flawless self-taught technique, she chose her own songs to suit her voice. The BBC, for which she made her hugely popular radio show Sincerely Yours, requested that she take elocution lessons to “posh her accent up” and even at one point took her show off air for 18 months. “Every­body’s Sweetheart” wasn’t immune from snobbishness, it seems. 

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution