Pictured above: Salman Rushdie (left) receives his Writers’ Guild Award from former WGGB Chair Allan Scott at the 1991 ceremony at the Dorchester. It was a rare appearance of the author at the height of the fatwa against him
The following is an edited extract from The Write Stuff: A History of the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain 1959-2009 by Nick Yapp (you can find a full list of winners by year in our Writers’ Guild Awards archive)
In 1960, it was decided that the Guild would present annual awards to the writers of the best works in a variety of categories, the awards to be made at a dinner held in a prestigious location.
On New Year’s Day 1961, 16 judges, drawn from “the most experienced and distinguished Guild Members”, began to view and shortlist films and television programmes produced in the previous year. Then, as now, it was an arduous task, at the end of which a shortlist was drawn up and circulated to every member of the Guild to enable them to cast their votes. The Awards were to be made, therefore, by writers, for writers.
The first dinner, christened ‘Night of the Golden Pens’, took place on 26 April 1961 at the Dorchester Hotel in London. It was a grand night, exceeding the hopes of those who had worked so hard to organise it. The Guild’s mammoth, brass-coated, fibre-glass logo, donated by the Props Department at Shepperton Studios, was on show. All 600 tickets had long been sold out, and the Ballroom at the Dorchester was packed.
Success breeds ambition, and less than a year later, on 13 March 1962 the Annual Awards Dinner was back, again at the Dorchester. These occasions were high-profile, prestigious, well-dressed affairs, aimed not only at honouring writers, but also at raising money for charity. The Guild’s own charity, the Screenwriters’ Benevolent Fund, had recently merged with the much larger Cinema and Television Benevolent Fund (CTBF), for which Zita Dundas set about raising funds through the sale of tickets for the Awards Dinner Annual Tombola. Lured by their love of being associated with the world of entertainment, Dundas’s contacts were generous in their donations. On the night, there were a thousand or more prizes, ranging from cases of wine to television sets (then still something of a rarity), from tickets to the theatre to hampers of luxury food.
It was hoped that the Guest of Honour for the 1964 Awards Dinner would be the Duke of Edinburgh, who accepted the Guild’s invitation, no doubt looking forward to another night of fun in the company of fellow writers, as he had enjoyed back in 1957 at the British Screen and Television Writers’ Association’s 21st Birthday Dinner. Denis Norden, (Joint Chair of the Guild in 1964) had the unenviable task of passing on to the Awards Committee the Palace equerry’s outline of the protocol to be observed while the Duke was the guest of the Guild’s hospitality. Royal requirements included a private room with bar, and the instruction that those members of the Guild introduced by Norden to His Royal Highness should take the hint when HRH shifted his gaze, and move smartly away. This did not impress all members of the Committee, and Norden had a hard time selling them the idea. Then, in Norden’s own words, “To my enormous relief, the King of Greece died. The Court was immediately plunged into official mourning and all royal engagements were cancelled. I received a charmingly regretful letter from the Duke’s secretary and the Committee promptly replaced him at the top table with the totally undemanding Richard Marsh MP.”
By 1969, the eighth year of the awards, serious rifts were developing between those members of the Guild who favoured the high profile, grande soirée, those who wanted something simpler and cheaper, and those who wanted no Guild Awards at all. Perhaps understandably, Gerald Kelsey (Guild Chair) recommended in the annual report for the year 1972-1973 an end to the series of Annual Awards. Part of the problem was not simply that the Guild could scarce afford to increase the budget set aside to stage the Awards, but that, given the parlous state of the nation’s economy, the “lush, expense-laden years of the 1960s” were unlikely to return to the industry. The result was that from 1975 to 1990 there were no Awards Dinners, and the only award that survived was the Laurel Award for ‘Distinguished Services to Writers’, presented at each AGM.
That the Awards Dinners were revived in 1991 is thanks to the efforts, energy and enthusiasm of many, and in particular thanks to the determination and dedication of Allan Scott, Jimmy Perry, Clive Exton, Gerald Deutsch, Mike Sharland, and the Guild’s General Secretary at the time, Walter Jeffrey. Happily, Exton and Perry agreed to be the Guild’s guarantors. Perry led the Committee that organised the first of a new series of Awards Dinners. For years he had run the Annual Ball of the Grand Order of the Water Rats, an event that raised £80,000 to £90,000 each year. Scott, too, was determined to make the event as glittering and glamorous as possible.
At Perry’s insistence, there was even to be a professional red-coated toastmaster to make sure the evening was efficiently run. And, for the publicity that attached to the first Awards Dinner in 1991, Scott also had one considerable slice of luck. On New Year’s Eve 1990, he met Salman Rushdie’s agent, Gillon Aitken. The fatwa against Rushdie was then at its height, and the writer had gone into hiding. However, in the following summer, Rushdie’s Haroun and the Sea of Stories was nominated for the Guild’s Children’s Book Award. Scott persuaded Aitken that it would be a “wonderful dramatic coup if Rushdie would turn up at the event…” It seemed highly unlikely. Weeks passed, during which nothing definite was said, but there were indirect indications that it might be possible. On 15 September 1991, the night of the Awards, Scott made his way to the Dorchester Ballroom. Here, a member of the Special Branch tapped him on the shoulder and led him away to have, in Scott’s words, “this very quiet little conversation”.
The remains of the Savarin aux fruits de la saison, the café and the friandises were cleared away. Marmaduke Hussey, then Chair of the BBC, proposed the health of the Guild. The Awards ceremony began, with each Award being presented by a celebrity. It fell to Denis Norden to read the list of nominees for the Children’s Book Award, and to announce the winner – Salman Rushdie. Allan Scott stepped up to the microphone, and said: “Ladies and Gentlemen, as you will understand, Mr Rushdie is not able to be with us tonight because…” At which point, the doors from the kitchens of the Dorchester to the ballroom crashed open, and in marched four large men in dark suits, shielding the small figure of Salman Rushdie. They crossed the dance floor and then separated, to allow Rushdie to mount the steps on to the platform and receive his Award. He spoke briefly and passionately, about the principle of freedom of speech in general and about his own preposterous dilemma in particular. When he had finished, he stepped down from the stage, the Special Branch officers once more closed around him, and the party exited into the kitchens to a standing ovation which lasted some time.
As people clapped and cheered, John Cleese clambered on to the stage to present the next Award. He waited patiently at the microphone while the cheers for Rushdie continued, and then the applause gradually turned to laughter. When all was quiet, Cleese took a deep breath and said: “Well, thank God for that! I thought I was going to have to follow Denis Norden”.
At the 1992 Awards Dinner the final presentation was to John Osborne, the Lifetime Achievement Award. It had been a long evening, and by the time Osborne arrived on the stage to receive the Award and make his speech, he was in a bad way. Many present assumed that he was ‘emotionally exhausted’, the nudge-nudge term of the time for being drunk. Osborne was certainly exhausted, and may well have had too much to drink, for he had steadily worked his way through an array of miniature bottles of Macallan. But he was also distressed and in considerable pain having suffered the sudden loss of some of his teeth. When he climbed on to the stage to respond to his award, Osborne stood by the microphone, swaying a little, and delivering sentences in instalments, many of which appeared to have escaped him. After one particular long pause, Osborne was gently helped from the stage and taken back to his table.
There were changes – of venue, of awards, of sponsors, of hosts and of Guests of Honour. The second series of Guild Awards concluded on 26 October 1997, at the Intercontinental Hotel, London. Jimmy Perry was not sorry to see the series of Awards Dinners come to an end. It had become harder each year to find celebrities who were prepared to give their time to make the presentations. He was also experiencing considerable trouble in raising sponsorship. It was time to call a halt.
Ten years were to pass before Guild Awards returned, thanks to the generosity of the BBC, the Fisher Organisation and Working Title, and to the resilience of the Guild itself. They returned in a slimmed-down format, perhaps a deliberate attempt not to be compared with other, brasher ceremonies.
The first of the new series was held at BAFTA in Piccadilly on 18 November 2007. In his Foreword to the Programme, David Edgar (then President of the Guild) gave reasons why the Awards were back: to celebrate the writing profession; to raise the profile of the Guild; to recognise the importance of the Guild’s work to preserve freedom of speech and language itself; and to regenerate the centrality of writing to national and international culture.
“In an age when people don’t join things anymore,” wrote Edgar, “the need for a healthy, active, interventionist Guild is ever more vital. We need to recruit new members, so that the Guild can have both the authority and the resources to do its job.”
Gone were dance bands, tombolas and glad rags. This was a business-like affair, about the business of writing.
Listen to a podcast of Nick Yapp talking about writing the history of WGGB in The Write Stuff.