I get stage fright, June Whitfield gets laughs and Terry Wogan gets a fitting send-off at the BBC Audio Drama Awards

Jane Anderson was backstage - and on stage - at a funny and moving celebration of radio

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It may have been an overcast evening but the stars were out, bright and shining at the radio theatre in London’s Broadcasting House for the fifth annual BBC Audio Drama Awards.

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I’d arrived horribly early, not by hapless mistake or a phobia of being late for appointments (which I do have), but because I had been asked, as one of three judges, to present the award for Best Use of Sound. And I needed to go to the pre-Awards rehearsal. 

I work in an office. I am a journalist. I don’t do public speaking. I was delighted to have been asked but I was, I must confess, terribly nervous about climbing upon a stage and talking into a microphone in front of the great and good of the radio world. 

I knew that Sir Lenny Henry was the host but that was all. It’s OK, I thought. I’ve interviewed him several times. He’s charming and easy to speak to. As I sat waiting for his rehearsal to wrap up the room was increasingly filled with acting gold — Ruth Jones, Fenella Woolgar, Don Gilet, Annette Badland, Adjoa Andoh, Nicky Henson, Paul Copley, Neil Stuke. Thespians one and all, perfectly comfortable with delivering the goods on stage. 

Don’t worry, said the tiny part of my brain that was not in total meltdown at this point. They’re all famous and all in their comfort zone on stage but don’t let that faze you.

Then I was shown to my seat and given my citation speech. My fellow thesps  took a cursory look at theirs, handed them back within seconds and headed off for a glass of Prosecco (take note, BBC nay-sayers, the Beeb does not offer unlimited Champagne these days). 

I, on the other hand, borrowed a pen and wrote my citation speech out in full. One of the actors, who shall remain nameless, suggested I cure my nerves by standing outside Broadcasting House and shouting “Cock”, repeatedly. This is, apparently, a well-known aid to avoiding outbursts of Tourette’s on stage, which I had expressed as one of my many fears by now, along with spitting while talking, tripping over my skirt and the mic picking up my Moby-Dick-level of stomach rumbling. 

My speech written out in full, my “Cock” advice taken on board and a handy cheese straw seeming to calm my raging intestines, I casually strolled over to the stage manager to hand back my speech – he’d pointed out that none of us could be trusted with our winners’ envelopes (we might leave them in the ladies’ toilets, which, bizarrely, seemed to include the male talent).

And then, on my casual stroll, I saw two names taped to the front row seats along with mine: June Whitfield and John Hurt. JOHN HURT. JOHN BLOODY HURT.

All faux confidence drained away as fast as a hare with chronic diarrhea. I was going to have to give a citation on front of not just the best living actor in the country, but my personal favourite. 

I laughed, in the way that I imagine people about to be exposed for an undeniable misdemeanor may do — a hopeless but inevitable acceptance of one’s fate. I went outside, smoked several cigarettes (apologies for my appalling addictive habits) and shouted “Cock” several times, which is probably now recorded for posterity on Broadcasting House’s CCTV cameras. 

The strange thing was that when I went back in to the radio theatre, I realised that there was no point in worrying any more. The highlights of the evening were going to be June Whitfield and John Hurt. Even if I vomited on stage and announced the wrong winner, no one would care. It was not all about me. In fact, apart from my own cerebral concerns, I was nothing but a small cog in a massive Michael Kors timepiece. 

I didn’t fall over. I didn’t spit. I didn’t even say “Cock”. And, afterwards, the very empathetic Lenny Henry thanked me for my measured and eloquent delivery. He probably said that to everyone, but it meant a lot.

And so, what of the real stars of the night? John Hurt, who has zillions of Oscar and Bafta ceremonies under his belt, confessed that this was his first BBC Audio Drama event (winning the Outstanding Contribution to Radio Drama Award) and that he was taken aback by how “unbelievable friendly and really jolly” they were. “Of course there is competition, but you don’t seem to feel it.” Watch this space – he may return again…

He hit the nail squarely on the head. This ceremony is a celebration of radio, for people who work in radio, for people who love radio, which was so clearly displayed in the moving tributes to Sir Terry Wogan, whose death was announced on the morning of the Awards. Both Lenny Henry and Helen Boaden, director of BBC Radio, made moving tributes to his consummate skill as a broadcaster and pointed out that he, of all people, would want this evening’s events to have been an enjoyable one, despite the flat Prosecco.

And then June Whitfield came on to accept the Lifetime Achievement Award. Who would want to follow John Hurt? But June was on fire. She confessed to having “forgotten” much of Helen Boaden’s speech about her career, but went on to reveal that her first radio appearance was in 1944 in a programme called Focus on Nursing. She had one spoken line to deliver but was also asked to play a crying baby. “Now they have real babies, but perhaps they squeeze them a bit [to make them cry]?

The audience burst out laughing and she knew we were all hers. She went on to talk about Take It from Here, the comedy series written by Frank Muir and Denis Norden where she played Eth Glum.

June brought the entire audience to their feet with a reaction to of one of Eth’s finest double entendre scenes, pointing out that when she was recording Take It from Here, they were “not allowed to talk about sex, religion or swear.” “Comedians these days would not be able to talk!”, at which point Lenny Henry nodded his head, in ironic agreement. 

And so, here is frustrated Eth’s conversation with her long-term financé, Ron Glum:

ETH: “You don’t know how much I yearn . . .”

RON: “I do, Eth, and it’s not enough for us to live off.”

The audience were on their feet, laughing, joyous and celebrating. And there really could not have been a better send off to Terry Wogan.

AND THE WINNERS WERE:

Best Scripted Comedy (Studio Audience)

Reluctant Persuaders

Best Debut Performance

Karen Bartke (My Name Is . . .)

Best Online or Non-Broadcast Drama

The Kindness of Time

Best Series or Serial

Children in Need: D for Dexter

Best Actor

Alfred Molina (A View from a Bridge)

Imison Award for Best Radio Drama Script by a New Writer

Eoin O’Connor (30 Eggs)

Tinniswood Award for Best Radio Drama Script

Fugue State (by Julian Simpson)

Best Supporting Performance

Susan Wokoma (Reading Europe: Three Strong Women)

Best Scripted Comedy

In and Out of the Kitchen

Best Actress

Monica Dolan (Vincent in Brixton)

Best Use of Sound

Fugue State

Best Single Drama

Cuttin’ It 

Outstanding Contribution to Radio Drama

John Hurt

Best Adaptation

The Master and Margarita 

Lifetime Achievement Award

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June Whitfield