Bennett's 'Art' not habit-forming for Olivier judges

“It’s a disgrace they’re not televised.”

Nica Burns, president of the Society of London Theaters, is less than pleased at the attitude of Brit TV execs who won’t even countenance screening the Laurence Olivier Awards.

The ceremony used to be broadcast annually, a tradition that died after the 2003 awards. In the final years, however, the telecast was stage-managed into a dreary slimline option, with nothing but an absurdly brief “thank you” from the winners. So nobody was entirely surprised when it was axed.

“Theater is one of U.K.’s greatest exports and there isn’t a TV program about it,” fumes Burns. “Look at the attendance figures — there’s a real demand.” (Annual totals rose for the seventh consecutive year in 2009, this time by more than 5%.)

“The nearest we have are the talent shows that have cast leads in ‘The Sound of Music,’ ‘Joseph and His Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat’ and ‘Oliver!’,” adds Burns. “They’re Saturday night primetime and have huge audiences.”

Burns concedes that most awards ceremonies need perking up for TV. “As an industry we’re prepared to be quite open about filming to make a program more interesting,” she says. “We’ve been pitching the idea of something to be screened around the time of the Oliviers which would use filmed highlights, a celebration of a year of London theater.”

The nominees list for this year’s awards (to be presented March 21) runs from Gillian Anderson (“A Doll’s House”) and James Earl Jones (“Cat on a Hot Tin Roof”), via Samuel West (“Enron”) and James McAvoy (“Three Days of Rain”), to Keira Knightley (“The Misanthrope”) and Rachel Weisz (“A Streetcar Named Desire”).

“That’s a pretty fantastic cast,” Burns says. “On any other program, paying commercial rates for people of that caliber would cost an arm and a leg.”

Amid all the justified lauding of the Royal Court Theater and its 15 nominations (the majority split between “Enron” and “Jerusalem”), this year’s Oliviers shortlist has a few notable omissions.

The starry revival of “Waiting for Godot” was entirely snubbed by the nine judges (five of whom are legit pros, four are members of the public). Not that the stars are likely to care: Patrick Stewart already has three Oliviers, while Ian McKellen has six.

Also excluded were productions from Kevin Spacey’s Old Vic, with not even Anna Mackmin’s exquisite “Dancing at Lughnasa” revival yielding a mention.

Meantime, over at the National, Helen Mirren’s powerhouse turn in “Phedre” went unrewarded as did Alan Bennett’s “The Habit of Art.” That play’s predecessor, “The History Boys,” was nominated for four Oliviers and won three (play, director and actor), a fact that eased its passage to Gotham’s Broadhurst Theater and six Tony Awards.

“The Habit of Art” is in the National repertoire until mid-May, returning in mid-July with possible cast changes ahead of a U.K. tour. But given that it also came up empty-handed at the Critics’ Circle Awards, will the lack of prizes have a bearing on any New York future?

A rep for the NT says not.

“Initially, there were exploratory discussions about a possible 2011 New York run. We’re still hoping for that but it’s early days and there’s been no new comment about it.”

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