Baftas 2021 review: canned laughter fails to save this cheerfully flaky ceremony

Ed Power
·4 min read
Edith Bowman, with the huge lettering behind her that made it seem as if guests were in a room full of lightsabers - Reuters
Edith Bowman, with the huge lettering behind her that made it seem as if guests were in a room full of lightsabers - Reuters

Last year’s Baftas were held a little over a month prior to the first lockdown – that mysterious and dimly-remembered time before facemasks or Zoom calls. The 2021 event (BBC One) was, by contrast, late to the scary new world of socially-distanced award ceremonies.

So late in fact, that the lack of an audience didn’t feel any weirder than the absence of any tangible chemistry between hosts Edith Bowman and Dermot O’Leary. This is how things are now. What’s going to be strange is reverting to the flesh-and-blood Baftas of olden times, when jetted-in Hollywood celebs pretend to know who Dermot O’Leary is and are caught on camera not laughing as hard as they should at the jokes.

Creaky gags were in ample supply in 2021, throughout an efficient but generally ho-hum ceremony (most of the humour revolved around how much Bowman is looking forward to going back to the pub). The comedy obviously needed help – but the producers may have gone too far in including canned laughter. This had seemingly been set to “shuffle”. You never knew quite what sort of laugh was going to come out. It made a weird evening that bit stranger.

There were few bombshells among the winners. Promising Young Woman bagged Outstanding British Film while Best Film went to Oscar-frontrunner Nomadland. Best actor and actress awards meanwhile went to Anthony Hopkins and Frances McDormand, each presumably too busy participating in Zoom quizzes to accept their accolade on camera.

The lack of an audience didn’t feel any weirder than the absence of any tangible chemistry between hosts Edith Bowman and Dermot O’Leary - Reuters
The lack of an audience didn’t feel any weirder than the absence of any tangible chemistry between hosts Edith Bowman and Dermot O’Leary - Reuters

But in other respects the ceremony was cheerfully flaky. One Direction’s Liam Payne opened the evening by duetting with a hologram double. Both had apparently come dressed as Russell Crowe circa Proof Of Life which made about as much sense as Hologram Liam’s powderpuff blue suit. But he also scooped the Bafta for Best Lockdown Hair and will have gone home happy.

The actual gong-giving at the Royal Albert Hall took place beneath huge lettering spelling “Film”. This was visually appealing whenever the camera panned in from above. However, when the focus was dead straight on the presenters, and on enveloping-opening guests including Pedro Pascal, Tom Hiddleston, Hugh Grant and Bridgeton’s Phoebe Dynevor, it was as if they were in a room full of lightsabers.

Perhaps it was sly tribute to late Star Wars actor David Prowse. He was one of the very many figures associated with British cinema to have passed away in the past year (including Prince Philip, first president of Bafta). An extended tribute to those who had died – among them Sean Connery, Christopher Plummer and Barbara Windsor – provided a rare moment of calm and reflection during a broadcast that otherwise sometimes felt it was about to trip over itself.

Baftas 2021
Baftas 2021

A running time of almost two hours was made to seem a bit of a squeeze, as Bowman and O’Leary introduced individually the nominees for Best Film and Outstanding British Film and the Baftas Rising Star Award. It was a lot to take in – and it didn’t help that they were surrounded by lightsabers and subjected to the whims of the canned laughter machine.

Still, there were a few moments to warm the heart. Accepting the prize for Best Score for Soul, Atticus Ross persuaded one of his mortified kids to wave to the camera with him. Promising Young Woman director Emerald Fennell, for her part, waggled a melting chocolate “Bafta” at the screen.

Later, when My Octopus Teacher won Best Documentary director Pippa Ehrlich thanked the octopus. This is presumably a Bafta first. Another Round director Thomas Vinterberg meanwhile dedicated the Best Film Not In The English Language award to his late daughter, a moment both sweet and devastating.

Twelve months ago, it would have been reasonable to excuse an underwhelming awards broadcast on the fact we were all fumbling through the New Normal together. However, in spring 2021 the New Normal is slightly old hat and the ceremony could have done with extra showbiz sparkle or, failing that, better jokes from O’Leary and Bowman. It was fine – but when we look back on the year we’ve all just been through, nobody is going to remember the Baftas.