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South Bank Sky Arts Awards: Stars including Martin Freeman and Paapa Essiedu address restrictions lifting on first red carpet out of lockdown

Written by on 20 July 2021

Stars of the arts world have spoken of their hopes and fears for the industry on the first day of most COVID-19 restrictions lifting in England.

Martin Freeman, Jacqueline Wilson and Paapa Essiedu were among the celebrities who spoke to Sky News on the red carpet at the South Bank Sky Arts Awards on Monday.

The ceremony, which was held at the Savoy Hotel in central London, celebrates achievements across the arts in categories including music, theatre, art, literature, comedy and opera.

Grayson Perry at the South Bank Sky Arts Awards in London on 19 July 2021 Image: Artist Grayson Perry was given the outstanding achievement award

Dua Lipa, Grayson Perry, Sir Sam Mendes and Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You were among the big winners at the event, which is now in its 25th year.

For performance venues around England, it is the week they have been waiting for – being able to legally fill their auditoriums after 17 months – and this was the UK’s first return to a red carpet following the legal limits being lifted.

While many in the industry are keen to return to “normal” as soon as possible, others are more cautious.

Before the awards were dished out, stars spoke to Sky News about the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on the industry, and what happens now that the majority of restrictions have been lifted.

Freeman, star of The Office, Sherlock and Breeders, said that even though restrictions have lifted now it is still difficult to predict what will happen in the coming months.

“I want to get back into the theatre,” he said. “I don’t know under what circumstances, and I don’t know what that’s going to mean about how close we all are together. But I think people are desperate to have a normal life again, or as close a thing to normal life. So I just really, really hope that is on the cards, but I don’t think any of us really know what that’s going to mean in more than six months.”

Essiedu, star of I May Destroy You and the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of Hamlet in 2016, said he felt “stressed” about restrictions lifting.

“It’s funny how quickly we kind of normalised it when we had our freedoms taken away from us so I’m sure that normalisation will happen as well,” he said. “But at this point, I’m not sure we’re ready for the level of restrictions being taken away that have happened. But only time will tell whether it is a good idea or not.”

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Actress Joanna Scanlan, who has appeared in films including Notes On A Scandal and Girl With A Pearl Earring, said the arts had been decimated by the pandemic.

“What industry? Where is our industry now?” she said. “We’ve had a year downing tools in all the art forms, particularly the performing arts. It’s been really tough for a huge number of people; I mean, catastrophically tough on a day-to-day basis. And those people are talented, exciting people who lots of audiences want to come and see and I’m hoping that this will re-establish our industry as much as it possibly can be.”

Author Wilson said she had been “quite careful and cautious” up to now but added: “I don’t really want to shut myself up in a cupboard. I mean, at my age, you just think let’s live each day that we’ve got and have a good time.”

Michaela Coel as Arabella in I May Destroy You.  Pic: BBC/Various Artists Ltd and FALKNA/Natalie Seery Image: Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You won the prize for best TV drama. Pic: BBC/Various Artists Ltd and FALKNA/Natalie Seery

The event saw Lipa take home the pop award for her chart-topping album Future Nostalgia – a “sensationally popular album which received critical acclaim across the board”, the awards organisers said in a statement.

Director and producer Sir Sam won the individual award for innovation in the arts during the pandemic for his work on a fund to help workers in the theatre industry, while artist and broadcaster Perry was given the outstanding achievement award.

I May Destroy You was named the winner in the TV drama category, while Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell won the literature prize and Rocks, which follows the story of a girl who is abandoned by her mother in east London, won the film prize.

The awards were presented by broadcaster Melvyn Bragg and will air on Sky Arts at 9pm on Thursday.