After hosting the BAFTA Awards in London for the past six years, British actor-writer-director-comedian Stephen Fry travels to Los Angeles to emcee the org’s American show. In light of his experience, Variety invited Fry to reflect on the key differences between British and American kudofests:
In Britain, the national emotion is embarrassment. The national expression of that emotion is apology. They’re both subsets of a chronic English condition, which is self-consciousness. For some reason, Britain gets blamed for Empire and spreading Victorian religiosity around the world, so we’ve spent the last 50 years just going around apologizing: “I’m awfully sorry. Won’t you forgive me?” When British people bump into each other in the street, they both say, “Sorry.”
In America, because you believe in the future, you believe in yourself, if you win an award, you believe it’s your achievement. You hold up the award, and you shake it and go, “I’m king of the world!” — all kinds of embarrassing moments you can look back on where Americans have made disgraceful exhibits of themselves by sobbing too much or boasting too much. With the British, generally speaking, it’s, “Oh, God, I don’t know what I’ve done to deserve this. I’ll try to be worthy of it.”
One truth that I think we’ve understood better in Britain than you do in America is that never in the history of awards shows — and I’m going back now to Exodus and Deuteronomy: “And the winner of the Golden Cow is … Aaron!” — has anyone ever walked away and said, “It was a good evening, but I thought it was a bit too short.” This extraordinary idea that anybody appreciates a song-and-dance show, it’s bewildering to me. Not even the mothers of the people who are onstage enjoy it. At the BAFTAs, you just grit your teeth and get through it with no song-and-dance, no people coming on dressed as cartoon characters from the latest animated feature.
The other thing I insist on is that only individuals come on to present awards — it’s a very bad idea to have pairs do it. You know that strange, unfocused look that happens in a minor star’s face when they stare at the teleprompter, which is about 700 yards away at the back of the hall, and pretend to be talking to the person who’s standing next to them: “That’s right, Francine, it’s certainly true that …” It’s terribly embarrassing.
All this is making me sound as if I think the BAFTAs is a better show. It really isn’t that at all. We have the advantage of it being less important, and therefore we can set our rules.
The fact of the matter is that we can do things for each other. I think Americans like to see that the British — for all our own ancient glamour, our royal family and our Shakespeare — quite genuinely genuflect in front of the phenomenon that is Hollywood, that we’re excited to meet Tom Hanks or Leonardo DiCaprio. And we are touched by the fact that Americans come over and say, “Oh, God, can you introduce me to Judi Dench? Can I say hello to Helen Mirren?” There’s a reciprocity there, and I think that’s the basis of a happy marriage, if you like.