British theatre’s most sought-after awards have been a mark of theatrical greatness since they were inaugurated in 1976 as the Society of West End Theatre Awards. The society is now known as Society of London Theatre (SOLT) and its glittering awards are now the Olivier Awards in honour of a theatrical legend.
That first 1976 awards ceremony was held at the Café Royal on a wintry Sunday in December. The winners - who included Alan Howard, Peggy Ashcroft, Penelope Keith and Jonathan Miller - did not receive the iconic bronze statuette we know today. Instead the prize was a specially commissioned blue Wedgwood urn.
The first ceremony featured just 12 awards, a tally which has grown through the years as the awards have become increasingly more prominent. The following year - in which Judi Dench and Ian McKellen were among the winners - included 16 categories and introduced awards for ballet and opera for the first time.
In 1979, Lord Olivier was given the Society’s Special Award in celebration of his contribution to London theatre, but it was not until 1984 that the hugely acclaimed theatrical peer agreed to his name being associated with the awards and they became the Olivier Awards.
A quick glance at the winners of the Special Award through the years reads as a Who’s Who of British theatrical history, with Olivier joined by Ralph Richardson, Joan Littlewood, John Gielgud, Alec Guinness, Peggy Ashcroft, Harold Pinter, Peter Hall, Judi Dench, Alan Bennett, Andrew Lloyd Webber, Alan Ayckbourn, Maggie Smith, Gillian Lynne and Michael Frayn.
The Olivier Awards ceremony has had a nomadic existence being presented both in theatres and ballrooms across London.
On 28 April 2013, it brought a host of specially created performances and all the glamour of the West End to the Royal Opera House with former Olivier Award winner Sheridan Smith and Hugh Bonneville overseeing proceedings.