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Dateline: 12th April, 2007

Helen Mirren at the Awards ceremony
Helen Mirren and, in the background, left to right, Nick Hytner, biographer Garry O'Connor and Michael Coveney
Photo by John Reiss

Critics' Award for Mirren

At a lively luncheon party in the National Theatre’s Terrace Restaurant, the Critics’ Circle presented its 2006 Award for Distinguished Service to the Arts to Dame Helen Mirren.

Guests included Nick Hytner, the NT’s artistic director, making a lunch break between rehearsals for his latest production.

The award, voted for by all members of the Circle, has been made annually since 1988: its recipients have included Sir Peter Hall, Dame Ninette de Valois, Dame Judi Dench, Sir Richard Eyre, Harold Pinter, Ian McKellen and Alan Bennett.

The occasion began when Marianne Gray as President toasted the Critics’ Circle in the precious Charles Dickens goblet — a gift from Sir Seymour Hicks with a request that it should be used by the president at all high occasions of the Circle — and “none higher than this.”

Welcoming Dame Helen — who lives in London, Wapping in fact, as she mentioned in an aside — the presentation was made by David Gritten, chairman of the Film Section, who said it seemed absolutely right for a whole number of reasons and her many personal achievements that Helen Mirren should be the recipient, and that in the last year she seemed to have swept all before her when it came to awards.

“We might even feel sheepish in visiting yet another award on her,” he said, “except that we had already decided to do so last November — which actually meant we stole a march on all those other awards!”

Recounting her long career on stage and screen, he recalled first seeing her in 1975 playing Maggie in David Hare’s Teeth ‘N Smiles at the Royal Court. But when he included Gertrude in her list of successes, Mirren broke in with a quip to say she had never played the part, although she had played Ophelia.

Gritten rallied, “Oh well, you will play Gertrude. It is almost demanded of you.” But later and in private she admitted she was once cast as Gertrude in a production of Hamlet she had quite forgotten.

In a witty acceptance speech Mirren said that among all the ridiculous number of awards she had won, this was by far the most decorative and useful — an engraved crystal rose bowl.

“I do think that awards should be useful.” she said. “And I especially love this one because it comes from you beady-eyed lot,” adding, in a poignant moment, ‘’I suspect it may be the last award I will win in my life. It has been a most incredible year, completely unexpected — you do the work and then.....”

Reading the Award citation she said she did not think of herself as a Dame. Nor did she regard herself as ‘distinguished’. And as for her ‘services to the arts’, she had just done her job and earned money to pay the central-heating bill and the mortgage.

“I am just an actress and every word that comes out of my mouth — except for naff speeches — has been given to me by great writers.

“The roles were given to me by dozens of great writers, so I thank those who have given me the work I have been able to do. And I thank you all for this lovely award — thank you guys.”

Report by Bill Russell and John Thaxter, with special thanks to Marianne Gray, and to John Reiss for the photograph of Helen Mirren making her acceptance speech.



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©Peter Lathan 2007