diamond geezer

 Monday, November 09, 2015

You'll know it best from the film and television awards held every spring. But there's a lot more to BAFTA than meets the eye, both in its range of charitable activities and in its physical presence. The British Academy of Film and Television Arts is a post-war creation, initially the British Film Academy, and merged with the upstart gogglebox in 1958. The BAFTA moniker came about in 1976, by royal appointment, with a mission to "support, develop and promote the art forms of the moving image". And it was at precisely this point that they moved into their current headquarters at 195 Piccadilly, a few doors down from Fortnum and Mason.

The building once belonged to the Royal Institute of Painters in Water Colours, indeed the name's still chiselled across the top, hence the appearance across the façade of busts of JMW Turner and William Henry Hunt rather than Sir Laurence Olivier. It used to contain a series of art galleries, these since remodelled to create an administrative, screening and social space much larger than the basic address would suggest. From street level number 195 looks like little more than a doorway, admittedly quite grand, and with the academy's abbreviation embedded in golden letters where a welcome mat might be. But step inside and there's a lot more than initially meets the eye. You're just very unlikely to be able to get past the doorman and step inside. [7 photos]

Except this weekend anybody could, within a very limited time frame, so long as you knew in advance that this was allowed. BAFTA hadn't gone out of their way to advertise this to the wider public - there was no poster outside to tempt in random riffraff, nor any confirmatory notice on the counter beside the doorman. But when I mentioned the photography Open Weekend I was allowed to pass, and up the hallowed staircase of the Academy itself. It's very swish. The walls are faced with two types of marble, with a large bronze mask dominating the top of the first flight of steps. This is the face of the famous BAFTA trophy designed by Mitzi Cunliffe in 1955, and further golden replicas await around each bend to give the ascent a suitably portentous vibe.

Main reception negotiated, a second marble-coated staircase leads to the heart of the complex. Off to one side is BAFTA's main screening space, the Princess Anne Theatre, a sloping deck of red plush velvet seating in a digital surround sound auditorium. This isn't where the main awards take place, it's much too small to hold a nation's thespian egos, but members screenings and certain less well known ceremonies are hosted within. The first film to be shown here was Jaws, apparently, while this weekend a trio of photography-related talks were available to paying guests. By carefully arriving after one of these events had emptied out I cunningly, if briefly, got inside for nothing.

The members bar is rather nice, a high-ceilinged twin-level foyer with seats along one window looking down across Piccadilly. I felt too out of place to ask the barman for a cocktail, or a tea, plus the pastries were advertised at £2.50 each so I didn't fancy asking the price of a drink. But several charming folk were sat around sipping and socialising or reading the papers, I suspected proper members rather than the handful of us Open Weekend interlopers. Our job was to look at 78 photographic portraits, these the reason for the limited opening, hung around the walls of the bar and certain other rooms and passageways. Top snappers had been given access to top actors at various Academy events during the year, from Jack O'Donnell to Judi Dench, and the results were rather splendid. Posed against spotlights and on sofas, Hoffman, Cumberbatch & Co were only to be expected, whereas the appearance of Mary Berry and Angela Rippon was more of a pleasant surprise. Prints were available at prices considerably higher than the pastries. I admired and moved on.

Climbing further to the third floor, a glass cabinet contains examples of diverse Academy trophies, revealing the breadth of art forms supported by the charity. They even do a Young Game Designers award ceremony these days, who knew, as the definition of moving image art spreads into new globally profitable forms. I learned this from a looping film in the Run Run Shaw Theatre - a small room with a giant 20-part screen, named after the centenarian martial arts producer who died last year. Another replica bronze mask, this time of red carpet proportions, stood on the mezzanine creating a golden selfie opportunity for visitors. And, golly, the photography trail even led to BAFTA's boardroom, accessed along the balcony above the bar. I wondered what decisions had been made here ("shall we give it to EastEnders or Coronation Street this year?"), and whether the faces of Bagpuss and newsreader Jon Snow usually stared down from the walls.

I spent a fascinating time poking around inside what's normally the private retreat of the upper artistic elite. I always think it's great to get inside a building you're normally not allowed into, and if nothing else it means I can now watch BAFTA's main award ceremonies with greater knowledge of what's been happening behind the scenes. And if you're interested too, my programme notes hint that they'll be opening up again for photographic appreciation on the weekend on 30-31st January next year. Just get here before they close the front doors at 1pm sharp, and the upper rooms revert to a members-only enclave once more.

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