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Arise, Sir Van, Sir Lenny and Sir Kevin Dame who? | reviews, news & interviews

Arise, Sir Van, Sir Lenny and Sir Kevin. Dame who?

Arise, Sir Van, Sir Lenny and Sir Kevin. Dame who?

Posh actors do well in the Queen's birthday honours, but women in the arts fare less well

Put up your bright sword: Lenny Henry as Othello in 2009

If the honours system is used to award deserving individuals, its other job is to provide an aspirational marker for the country as a whole. This, it tells us twice a year, is who we want to be: inclusive, non-sexist, colour-blind. From the look of the awards dished out in the arts for the Queen’s birthday honours list, in the summer of 2015 it looks very much as if we want to be a society which favours male privilege. Don’t hold the front page.

So arise, then, Sir Van, Sir Lenny and, even if it’s only an honorary knighthood, Sir Kevin. There’s no arguing with any of these gongs. The great British success story Lenny Henry is a national institution. So in a way is Van Morrison, though who’d have thought the old curmudgeon would say yes? And Kevin Spacey has put another national institution, the Old Vic, back on the map after a grim period when it was between owners and rumoured to be turning into a lapdance joint.

All three knighthoods are thoroughly merited, but where are all the dames? The highest award in the arts for a woman – in fact the only award for a woman above an MBE – is Lesley Manville’s OBE, which has come after many years appearing in the films of Mike Leigh and her Olivier-winning performances in Ibsen’s Ghosts at the Almeida and beyond (pictured, Manville in Another Year).

The other thing the awards reflect is the worrying change in the demographic of the acting profession. In recent years there’s been much discussion of the difficulties faced by aspiring working-class actors put off by the steep hoik in tuition fees. The dominance of privately educated actors is highlighted in top-up awards for Benedict Cumberbatch and Chiwetel Ejiofor, both raised from OBE to CBE, and an OBE for Eddie Redmayne. Those CBEs look a bit premature for actors only halfway into their careers, while the late knighthood for Michael Bond, 89, argues for the clout of cinema: the first Paddington story was published in 1958, but his much-loved creation had his profile boosted by elevation to the big screen last Christmas. A nonagenarian gets the late nod: Sir Neville Marriner becomes a Companion of Honour at the age of 92.

Other performers patted on the back include actors Michael Ball and Martin Clunes, scriptwriter Steven Moffat and broadcaster Nicky Campbell, all OBEs. Maybe all the women and the working-class actors turned the Queen down. Or maybe the world of the arts is not quite the British beacon of equality it needs to be.

@JasperRees

The awards reflect is the change in the demographic of the acting profession

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