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She may be Britain’s best-connected woman, but as BAFTA boss Amanda Berry tells Lydia Slater, it’s important not to get starstruck…
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Amanda Berry’s name may not be familiar to most of us. But next Sunday she’ll be rubbing shoulders with the best of the A-list. Amanda, 53, is the chief executive of the British Academy of Film and Television Arts – and the person responsible for the glittering BAFTA awards ceremony (which always takes place a fortnight before the Oscars).
We meet just before Christmas at BAFTA HQ, which overlooks St James’s churchyard in London’s Piccadilly. Alas, Amanda, who is tall and slim, with thick chestnut hair and the nervous energy of a racing greyhound, doesn’t have much time to appreciate the festive season. She is already deep in the throes of organising the awards. ‘It doesn’t ever stop being manic, to be honest,’ she sighs. ‘A couple of weeks ago, all the films had to be entered. Then we checked every entry – all the names and spellings – and voting went live last week.’
While she was waiting for the 6,000 or so members of BAFTA to cast their votes (she doesn’t have a vote herself), she popped over to New York to organise eight meetings and attend a creative industries reception with the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. ‘As our president, the Duke is incredibly supportive,’ she says. ‘He loves film and video games too. And he’s very knowledgeable. When I’m sitting with him at the awards, he’s always saying, “Oh, I can see why this was nominated, it’s because of this…”’
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Amanda with George Clooney
The nominations were announced on 9 January, which means that Amanda has had less than a month to pull off one of the biggest events of the year: 2,000 guests, including some of the world’s biggest celebrities, must be cajoled to London from all corners of the globe. ‘Last year, Brad was filming in Australia, and we didn’t know until the Wednesday before the event that he was coming. Then we discovered Angelina was coming with him,’ she says. The BAFTAs are now shown in every major territory across the globe. ‘The eyes of the world are on us for that evening,’ she adds.
Her budget, which she estimates at around £2 million, is a fraction of what is spent on the Oscars. And while they have three weeks of rehearsals, the BAFTA crew only get into the ceremony’s Royal Opera House location after midnight the previous evening. The apparently effortless glamour of the night owes everything to Amanda’s talent for military-style organisation. ‘There are thousands of people working on the event. We have people running up and down the red carpet to make sure there are enough umbrellas, and a fleet of buses and Audis to get everyone from the Opera House to the dinner at Grosvenor House. We’re an academy that represents excellence, so everything has to be excellent,’ she says.
Is she a worrier? ‘I’d go further than that,’ she says. ‘I agonise. I want everything to be right. One year, one of the big screens started to pixelate during the ceremony and I was mortified. I’m quite superstitious about where I sit – it always has to be on the aisle on the right-hand side as you walk down, because the year I sat on the left was the year the screen broke down. Everyone laughs at me, but I feel if I’m in my seat with my fingers crossed, everything is going to be fine.’
But even Amanda cannot control the vagaries of the winter weather. ‘We only just got [host] Stephen Fry out of New York last year, because the weather was so bad that flights were cancelled.’ A protective structure built over the red carpet couldn’t be erected because the wind was so severe. ‘We had to measure the wind speed every day to see if the top panels could go on. At the nominees’ party, I remember saying to George Clooney, “I’m so sorry you’ve come all this way to this, from sunny California!” And he said, “Amanda, it’s London. I expect it to rain. Don’t worry!”’
Oh, to be on first-name terms with Swoony Clooney. But Amanda says she’s never starstruck: ‘If I went weak at the knees because Robert Pattinson had just walked up the red carpet, I wouldn’t be able to do my job.’ But surely there must be times when she has to pinch herself? ‘Yes of course,’ she concedes. ‘I’m a dry-cleaner’s daughter from Yorkshire. But I think that’s what keeps me grounded. I have friends from my teenage years who say I haven’t changed at all.’
That’s rather less surprising than the question of how a dry-cleaner’s daughter from Yorkshire ended up hobnobbing with the stars in the first place. And strangely, the answer would appear to have its roots in Amanda’s childhood asthma attacks. ‘I missed quite a lot of school, so I spent a lot of time watching films that I probably wasn’t grown-up enough for,’ she says. Going to the cinema in Richmond, North Yorkshire, was a rare treat. ‘It was one of those wonderful old cinemas where clouds of dust would rise up when you sat on the seat. I’d always come out wheezing and then be off school for days afterwards, because I’d had an asthma attack. But I think that was what made cinema special to me – because it was something I wanted to do and my mum didn’t want me to do.’
The eldest of three children, Amanda also had to contend with hayfever, eczema, a potentially fatal allergy to fish, and allergies to nuts, dairy and most meats except lamb. Some mothers would have cossetted such a fragile child, but Amanda’s mother Anita was different. ‘She would pack me off to school, even if she knew they’d send me home again after the first lesson. That made me quite determined.’
Even so, Amanda missed so much school that she has almost no qualifications – ‘four O-levels, and that took me two goes!’ What she has instead is a formidable work ethic. From 13, she was working on a fruit and veg stall at the local market, and in the summer holidays she worked at her father Tom’s dry-cleaning shop. As soon as she was old enough to drive she did his van rounds across the Dales.
But she had no idea what she wanted to do as a career. After taking a course in business studies and photography at York College of Art, she got a place at Newcastle Poly to read business studies and graphic design. ‘But it was the extracurricular stuff that interested me. I was booking bands and editing the student union newspaper.’
In her second year, she did a work placement in television PR. ‘Thames TV took me on and I never looked back,’ she says simply. Then she applied for a job as a junior assistant at a theatrical agency, Duncan Heath Associates, which, within a year, was acquired by ICM, one of the biggest talent agencies in the world. ‘Suddenly, I was spending half my time in the States, and I became a director of the company.’
She admits she has been ‘really lucky’ in her career. ‘Each job has been a stepping stone.’ Her next move was to become a TV producer and she ended up producing the BAFTAs for Scottish Television. Finally, BAFTA approached her to see if she was interested in becoming their director of development and events. She jumped at the chance.
BAFTA’s roots are extremely glamorous. It started out in 1947 as the British Film Academy, founded by a group of eminent directors including David Lean, Alexander Korda, Carol Reed, Emeric Pressburger and Laurence Olivier, before merging with the Guild of Television Producers and Directors 11 years later. As a charity, its aims are to ‘support, develop and promote the art forms of the moving image, by identifying and rewarding excellence, inspiring practitioners and benefiting the public’.
But by the time Amanda joined in 1998, the organisation needed a revamp. The TV awards had just separated from the film awards and many predicted that the latter would not survive alone. Money was tight. ‘My office was a converted loo, the roof had leaks and you couldn’t sit in certain seats in the cinema.’ The awards, meanwhile, were considered almost irrelevant – partly because the ceremony was held in April, at the end of the awards season, and partly because they weren’t that glamorous (in 1999, for instance, the ceremony was held at the Business Design Centre in Islington).
Amanda’s simple but brilliant solution was to move the awards from April to February, before the Oscars, so that the BAFTAs could be their thrilling precursor, rather than an afterthought. This was not as easy as it sounds. ‘Film releases in the UK were still so much later than they were in the States, so initially, we allowed films that released as late as April to qualify. Interest in the awards dropped initially,’ she admits. ‘But it was so important to us that we represented the same films as the other major awards ceremonies, otherwise we wouldn’t be relevant.’
At the same time, she started building relationships with sponsors, including mobile phone network EE (then Orange), Audi, Taittinger and Lancôme. Today, BAFTA manages a year-round programme of educational events and initiatives including film screenings and Q&As, interviews, lectures and debates with major industry figures. It also runs scholarships for film and TV students.
When did she realise she had achieved her goals? ‘The day I think that is the day I’ll have to leave. I’ve been here 16 years, and I still have dreams for BAFTA. I think we can always do a bit better.’
This sort of driven perfectionism doesn’t leave Amanda much of a personal life. ‘At home, I’m always catching up with TV programmes, news, emails and press cuttings.’ The problem is made worse by her need for sleep. ‘I could sleep for nine hours a night and if I don’t get enough, I’m just not 100 per cent. I see people who only need three hours and I think of all the things I could get done!’
Amanda is single and lives in Kennington, South London. She doesn’t have children, and says she couldn’t have achieved what she has done if she’d been a mother. ‘That’s down to me, rather than because my work wouldn’t have allowed it,’ she explains. ‘Because I’m someone who likes to give my all to whatever I do, I think it would have been a personal struggle, trying to do everything for my children and everything for work.’
She also worries, she says, that her own ailments, which she has carried into adulthood, would have been passed on to her child. ‘I’m not sure that I would have been as strong as my mum was with me. I think I’d have been more: “Stay in bed darling, don’t worry.” And it’s also partly that I never really felt ready to have children.’
But she’s never lonely. ‘I’ve probably lived on my own longer than is healthy,’ she says, ‘but I do have a job that is all-consuming and incredibly social. Every night of the week, I could be involved in work events from breakfast through to after-dinner cocktails.’ And hanging out with Brangelina and Clooney into the bargain? It doesn’t sound like a bad deal to me.
The EE British Academy Film Awards will take place next Sunday evening on BBC One. Amanda wears jewellery from Yoko London and was styled by Charles Worthington and Lancôme, all of whom are official partners of the EE British Academy Film Awards
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Really interesting article Nicky. Tough childhood for Berry but she certainly has accomplished so much in her career. I would be at my wits end if I did was she does everyday and was responsible for putting on the BAFTAS but she seems to thrive on it. And she gets to hang with the likes of Clooney.
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