Honours? What a performance…

Antony Thorncroft on how oddly gongs seem to hang in the arts

 well know that Dame Barbara Windsor featured in the New Year Honour’s list for her services to charity but I would not have been too surprised if it was really a reward for her eye catching performance in Carry on Camping. Actors, unlike writers and artists, seem to have a hot line to the gongs. This may well be because they earn their money being noisy – all that emoting and me, me, me. You just have to think of those frequent occasions, like the BAFTAs, at which the acting world rewards itself: I can’t imagine writers or artists being so screechy and tearful; indeed the Turner and Mann Booker ceremonies are boring in comparison.

But for actors, hang around long enough and you stand a good chance of becoming a theatrical knight – any honour less than a “Sir” or a “Dame” hardly deserves star billing. Think of Sir Kenneth Branagh, Sir Tom Courtney, Sir Ian McKellen, Sir Derek Jacobi, Sir Ben Kingsley, Sir Patrick Stewart (continue ad infinitum). Some, such as Sir Donald Sinden, acted like a knight long before the honour descended. The awards shower down perhaps even more freely on the ladies – Dame Penelope Keith, Dame Diana Rigg, Dame Maggie Smith, Dame Helen Mirren, Dame Eileen Atkins. Dame Joan Collins and on and on to the latest, Dame Sian Phillips.

For a group that often pretends to be anti-establishment, very few actors can resist the dub of a sword, although Albert Finney, Simon Russell Beale and Mark Rylance reportedly said no, as did Vanessa Redgrave and, rather more surprisingly, Robert Morley, and all praise to them.

In recent years the net has been widened to include entertainers – step forward Sir Bruce Forsyth, Sir Norman Wisdom - and even pop singers. Sir Elton can justifiably be rewarded for his charity work, but Sir Tom Jones? Sir Mick Jagger? (unless they keep their giving commendably quiet). The late lamented David Bowie rejected one in 2003: it hardly suited his image. Of course you can’t blame the recipients. These particular knighthoods are handed out by Governments for party political reasons: it helps them to look in touch with popular taste. Arise Sir Ant and Sir Dec.

While those wearing make up seem richly rewarded there is less enthusiasm among the playwrights. George Bernard Shaw politely refused all honours, and in our own day Alan Bennett, Michael Frayn and John Osborne declined knighthoods, as did Harold Pinter, which makes it strange that perhaps the most left wing of the lot, David Hare, knelt for the Queen. Noel Coward received recognition surprisingly late in life (perhaps departing to live in Jamaica slowed the process).

If the stage has been showered with recognition in recent years, in earlier centuries it was rather different, with Sir Henry Irving one of the rare Victorian actors to earn a trip to the Palace. This is in contrast to the experiences of painters who were much more appreciated in the past: think of Sir Peter Paul Rubens, Sir Anthony Van Dyck, Sir Joshua Reynolds, Sir Thomas Lawrence, on to Sir Lawrence Alma Tadema, Sir Henry Holman Hunt and Frederic Leighton, who rose even higher, to a peerage.

Today’s artists go largely unrecognised, no Sir Damien or Dame Tracey, but even the previous generation should feel hard done by. Of course the most internationally successful – Henry Moore, David Hockney and Lucian Freud – kept to their principles, let their reputations speak for them, and waited for the Big One: they were all given the Order of Merit, bestowed by the Queen on the 24 most distinguished Britons of the day. Francis Bacon, of course, never entered the frame: he thought all honours “were so ageing”, while L.S.Lowry just said no to everything.

Novelists also have done less well in recent years. We have Sir Salman Rushdie, but Martin Amis, Julian Barnes, Ian McEwan, Kazuo Ishiguro and their co-frères are still waiting. It looks like something of a tradition.

There was nothing for one of the greatest writers of the 20th century, Evelyn Waugh, who was apparently offered a CBE but held out for the knighthood that never came. Ian Fleming was also ignored. Perhaps the governments of the day were wary of rejection: Aldous Huxley, Roald Dahl and C.S. Lewis were among the writers who declined the honour. The other great literary Titan of the past century, P.G.Wodehouse, had to wait until his death bed to receive a belated acknowledgement.

Of course writers can be tricky fellows, inclined to bite the hands that feed them. Graham Greene, hardly an Establishment figure, took the high wire route and waited for his Order of Merit as did Henry James and Thomas Hardy before him. Among the poets there seems to be a weird inconsistency. No knighthood for Philip Larkin while Ted Hughes managed an OM. Sir John Betjeman was doubtless happy to become a knight: he looked the part.

Although classical musicians can rightly feel peeved that they do not get the same attention as pop artistes (although we now have Sir Andras Schiff) the arts generally are over flattered with honours, especially actors, compared with useful people such as engineers.

Indeed knighthoods have become so commonplace that we should reserve our admiration for the OMs, where once again the arts push above their weight. As well as Hockney, there is Sir Simon Rattle, Sir Tom Stoppard, and most fittingly, Neil MacGregor, now seeking to conquer Germany after making a success of the National Gallery and the British Museum. The quality of this quartet is justification if it was ever needed for an honours system.

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