Baftas 2019 review: Joanna Lumley flops in a shambolic, squirm-inducing luvvie-fest

Michael Hogan
Awkward silences: Baftas host Joanna Lumley

Forget dear old Thelma Schoonmaker. It was TV viewers who deserved an Achievement Award by the end of The British Academy Film Awards (BBC One) because this abysmal flop of a luvvie-fest felt like it lasted a lifetime. 

The Baftas – as it’s called by anyone who isn’t responsible for po-faced programme titles – came not-quite-live from the Royal Albert Hall and was one of the dullest gong-distributing ceremonies in years. To add insult to injury, those who waded through it missed what was, by some accounts, a cracking episode of Endeavour over on ITV. 

Host Joanna Lumley was the night’s first misfire. When the Absolutely Fabulous star took over last year from Stephen Fry, her turn at the podium met a mixed reaction. The choice of a female host was applauded but many felt her script could have done with more polish. Well, Lumley’s second stab was even worse. 

Tumbleweed and squirmingly awkward silences greeted most of her – and I use this term advisedly – ‘jokes’. “That’s another fine dress you got me into,” she said to Steve Coogan after suggesting the Stan & Ollie star had helped her get into her frock. Coogan’s wince-cum-grimace spoke for the nation.

Quips about Christian Bale’s method acting to play Dick Cheney in Vice (“he actually instigated an illegal war – now that’s commitment”) and Spike Lee’s BlackkKlansman (“I’m surprised it did so well at the Klan film festival”) fell similarly flat.

According to the closing credits, it took four writers to pen Lumley’s script. One can only assume this was mainly to spread the blame. She made a quip about the Oscars not having a host this year but on this evidence, the Academy Award organisers will be happy with their decision. 

Once the prize-giving began, painful gags gave way to thespy gushing and endless screeds of thank-yous to people we hadn’t heard of. For an auditorium full of “brilliant, clever, talented artists”, according to Lumley, very few of them could ad lib a remotely entertaining speech.

Thank goodness, then, for actress Olivia Colman and film editor Thelma Schoonmaker, who saved this two-hour broadcast from being a total snooze-inducer. 

On home soil, Colman bagged another Best Leading Actress gong for The Favourite to join her Golden Globe. Fittingly, Colman’s hilarious acceptance speech couldn’t have been much more British, including a very un-Hollywood reference to “getting p----d later”, some bumbling with her cue cards and much modest, self-deprecating charm.

Gloriously potty period drama The Favourite swept the board in a predictable piece of nominative determinism. Wins seemed to alternate between it and Alfonso Cuarón’s critically fawned-over Roma

Martin Scorsese’s longtime editor Schoonmaker receiving the Bafta Fellowship was one of the night’s loveliest moments. “The queen of the cutting room” looked back on her 50-year career during her gracious speech, paying warm tribute not only to Scorsese but to her late husband, filmmaker Michael Powell, and his collaborative partner Emeric Pressburger.

Awards presenters Andy Serkis and Eddie Marsan both managed to crowbar Brexit references into their remarks. Jamie Bell’s accent seemed to have strayed from County Durham to somewhere over the mid-Atlantic. 

June Whitfield was a notable omission from the In Memoriam section – which was drained of much pathos anyway by the copious cutaways to Brit Award-winning Jess Gillam honking away on an saxophone. 

Proceedings had opened with a ponderous fancy-dressed skit from Lumley, which found her donning costumes from The Favourite, Stan & Ollie, Mary Poppins Returns and First Man. The latter’s spacesuit segued into a astronaut-themed performance from Cirque du Soleil, whose schtick is surely wowing nobody anymore.

It wasn’t a completely random link, since this year’s Baftas were apparently “celebrating the 50-year anniversary of the Moon Landings”. Presumably when planning this, organisers assumed First Man would win big. It lost in all seven categories in which it was nominated.

That was by no means the only misstep in a shambolic production. Echoey sound hardly helped the lack of atmosphere. Audience applause and walk-on music kept ending too early, meaning acceptance speeches began with winners faffing around the microphone in near-silence. What made such glitches even worse is they could surely could have been edited out in the two-hour gap between the early evening ceremony and its 9pm screening.

Just when viewers thought the agony was over, even the closing sequence was fluffed. A recap was meant to wrap up the categories not covered by the main broadcast, but ended up repeating some we’d seen earlier. The Favourite’s flame-haired costume designer Sandy Powell was one of the more popular winners but we didn’t need to hear her speech twice within an hour. 

A serious rethink is required by Bafta next year because this bland backslapping session simply didn’t justify taking up two hours of BBC One prime time. The show needs a new host (is Olivia Colman free?) with new scriptwriters, plus a production team prepared to shake it out of its pompous complacency. 

It should be broadcast live, rather than on that preposterous two-hour delay, to keep up with news reporting and social media. Perhaps it should be also shunted to BBC Two. In its current format, the winner certainly isn’t us viewers.

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