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5 March 1999

And the loser is enjoying her lunch

Brenda Maddoxreveals the jury-room secrets behind the glitter of the awards ceremony

By Brenda Maddox

“Judge not, that ye be not judged”? Rubbish. Judging is far worse than being judged. Serving on a jury for some of the awards now in high season is soured by the near-certainty that the winner will be a compromise candidate. Why do the television cameras always swing to the face of the loser? The real drama is written in the look of the judges as they watch someone whom none of them really wanted walk off with the coveted cup/statuette/fat cheque.

The winners always assume they’re the unanimous choice, with no idea of the horse-trading backstage. At the ceremonial lunch for some prize or other in technical journalism, a television producer whose work I had savaged in the jury room came up beaming. “Congratulations,” I said woodenly. “What are friends for?” was the knowing reply.

There are two kinds of award ceremony. The iconic Hollywood kind, in which the winners do not know their luck until the sacred envelope is opened. And the other, less fraught, in which they have been informed in advance. “What are you doing here?” I said to David McKittrick of the Independent before the What the Papers Say awards at the Savoy. McKittrick is a home-loving Ulsterman who does not lightly cross the water. He blushed under his beard. When he was named correspondent of the year, I wasn’t surprised. The question is: was he?

Twice I have been short-listed (or, as the Americans say, “nominated”) for a book prize in which no one, jury apart, was supposed to know who won until the entire ballroom had cleaned its plates. On both occasions, one in New York, one in London, the judging was done in that sudden-death manner which closets the jury for a scant hour or two before the award dinner. Both times, just before we sat down to eat, the news was leaked to me that the prize had gone to A N Other. I rank both leaks among the greatest favours ever done me. I was able to enjoy the lamb cutlets (in both cases) and roundly applaud the winning name when announced.

Friends anxiously scanned me for signs of held-back tears. Were they kidding? When tens of thousands of books are published every year, to have one of yours picked out from the pack is overwhelming good fortune for any author. Besides, I knew very well that the outcome of these contests is fortuitous.

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I learnt this on my first newspaper, the estimable Patriot Ledger of Quincy, Massachusetts, when I was a judge in the “Miss Quincy” contest. The contestants were dazzling, curvaceous local beauties. But the competition was played by Miss America rules, which require young females also to be graded on their hobbies, good works and the loftiness of their life-time goals.

When the crowning moment arrived, who should step forward to take the crown? A horse-faced, sensible kindergarten teacher. Her point-accumulating talents included having made the embroidered ballgown in which she had paraded the stage of the Quincy High School auditorium. That she was the daughter of the chairman of the school committee was irrelevant. But I could not persuade the irate reader who wrote to say it was clear that, in Quincy, who you were mattered more than what you were. He signed himself “Just Someone Who Likes Fair Play”.

I, too, am just someone who likes fair play. But I recognise regression to the mean. Time and again, on juries in media, in biography and in science-writing, I have seen the front-runners knock each other out and the prize go to an acceptable second-best. When the judging is in the hands of a no-nonsense chairman such as Sir David Attenborough, there is no room for horse-trading. He presided over a group of us who, having read a zillion books on science, sat down at the Science Museum and put forth our favourites. Quickly he noted there was no common ground. However, a mildly interesting book had turned up on almost every short list. He announced a consensus and we went into lunch.

More recently, I landed on a continental jury to award an international cultural prize. A wildly absurd (to me) name was proposed: I delivered a cadenza of denunciation. It worked. But when I put forth my own cherished, eminently suitable, favourite I was greeted by icy smiles. Each of my fellow jurors delivered a similarly impassioned laudation. Someone found a fatal flaw in every one. The chairman ventured a name. Any objections? “No? Then we can have lunch.”

How to get your way in the jury room? I have no tips. The front-runners are so consistently demolished that a shrewd tactic might be to hold back your true contender until the second or third round.

Henry Fonda has a lot to answer for. Everybody believes that one juror, by holding out and arguing well, can turn the other 11 round. Not only have I never managed it, I have never seen it done.

So why be a judge? Because, in that glorious Irish saying, “Where’s the harm?”. Prize-givings are a win-win situation: nice for the winner, harmless to the loser and good publicity for the craft in question. There is none of the heart-wrenching that must accompany decisions on university admissions or exam results.

Maybe Beryl Bainbridge has been deeply scarred by not having won the Booker after five nominations. But I doubt it. Any book jacket or cv is adorned by the words “short-listed for . . .”. And the heart of any writer, actor or producer is permanently warmed by knowing that they once were a contender.