Yesterday I wrote on my other, critical blog about an article in the Observer by Jason Cowley on our current era of winners-past-the post cultural prizes. Afterwards I fell to thinking about the time I didn't actually win a glitzy prize but may as well have done, and got to experience how it felt.
The occasion was the Sony Radio awards. I had just had my first radio play, Rhyme or Reason, produced. One morning Robert Cooper, my producer, rang up and said that something wonderful had happened: my play had been nominated for the Best Production category, and Harriet Walter, who had played my protagonist, for Best Actress. I was invited to the dinner and ceremony at the Grosvenor Hotel, and since Harriet was in LA and wouldn't make it, would I collect her award if she won?
Crikey. Help. But yes!!! Yes!!
So off I went on the train, worrying about what I was wearing, worrying about getting up on that stage, rehearsing the speech I might have to make, almost shaking with nerves the whole way in fact, in through the doors of the hotel, down the stairs (behind Ned Sherrin, in fact) and into that vast ballroom filled with glittering tables. I'm not sure why I didn't actually faint.
And I couldn't sit with Robert, the only person there I knew; as a nominee (nominated for Best Production for two plays) he'd been placed at a table near the front, and I was stuck right at the back with a table of unnominated BBC employees. They had no idea of course who I was, and I was so small and black in my dress and my nervousness, so removed and silent in my agony (what if Harriet won?) that they clearly decided to leave me alone. I listened a little, understood that some of them were producers whose names I knew, but most of the time I blanked out. Needless to say, I hardly ate a thing.
Then the ceremony. I followed the programme, my heart going like a goose in a bag. 'Best Production.' Robert Cooper! 'Best Actress.' My heart flapped up my throat. 'Harriet Walter. Unfortunately, Harriet can't be here this afternoon, but the writer of the play, Elizabeth Baines, is here to collect her award for her.'
Funny things happen at moments like this. Not for nothing are they done in slow motion in films. That's exactly how they seem to happen. I stood, and in the space of what must have been only seconds - I had to get across that vast floor, between all those staggered tables - I saw in minute and leisurely detail the way the people at my table turned and looked at me in astonishment, the changing of their expressions to realisation and then delight.
In his article, Jason Cowley writes of how winning a prize can change someone's life as a writer, and it's true: even though I hadn't actually won a prize - it was Robert and Harriet who had won - in that moment I went like Alice through a hole into another dimension, out of literary anonymity into recognition, out from 'struggling' into 'established' and 'successful.'
That whole vast room clapping and cheering as somehow, remembering my performance skills, I got quickly across it. Jane Asher kissing me (she was presenting the prizes), then down off the stage to a barrage of flash bulbs. And back to the table and everyone there waiting to hug and kiss me. 'Congratulations!' they kept saying. 'But it's not me who's won!' I said. 'Rubbish!' said the woman with the long hair who had turned out to be the producer Enyd Williams. 'No one gets nominated for a play that isn't great!' 'It's your win too,' they kept telling me. 'Make sure you put it on your CV!'
And then they called me to go with them in their taxi for a celebration at the BBC.
And afterwards? Well, as a radio writer I was made. One unfortunate result was that Robert - Sony-award-winning radio producer - quickly moved off to TV and Dublin, but the prize made it easy for me to get another radio producer. 'Anything you write, I'll produce it!' said Sue Hogg, who did indeed produce my next play. (Though there came a time of course when BBC Radio embraced Marketing, and no producer could say such a thing.)
But you can't help thinking how much luck is involved. What if that play hadn't fallen into Robert's hands? I had entered it in a Radio Times competition, and it hadn't won that - wasn't even a runner-up - and it could have fallen into oblivion if someone running the competition hadn't made the decision to pass it to Robert. I could have taken it as a message that I couldn't do radio plays and abandoned the whole idea... What if Robert had been less ambitious, and hadn't bothered getting a well-known and respected actress to play the part (bound to get more serious attention then)? What if he'd been less good at marketing and hadn't created a series of linked plays of which my play was one (an innovation at the time, that got a lot of attention)? What if, what if... As various people have commented, not least Grumpy Old Bookman, people take prizes as serious measures, but there's much about them that's random and not a lot of rhyme or reason.