The actors Penelope Keith and Angela Lansbury are both to become dames in a New Year honours list that, for the first time since the Order of the British Empire was founded in 1917, has recognised more women than men.
Keith, 73, who became a household name as social climber Margot Leadbetter in the 1970s sitcom The Good Life, and as Audrey fforbes-Hamilton in To The Manor Born, is honoured for services to the arts and to charity, in a list that includes 16 damehoods and 39 women awarded CBEs.
“You know I sort of feel elated, exhausted and thrilled. It’s the big one,” Keith said. “I had already got an OBE and then a CBE, so I don’t know what is better than the icing on the cake, but this is.”
Keith said she had managed to successfully avoid telling anyone other than her husband about her new title. “I found out six weeks ago, but the way it works is that they send you a letter and then you have to eat it and keep quiet on pain of death,” she joked. “And I must admit that when the electricity went off, I rather forgot about it.”
British-born Lansbury, 88, who starred in the Murder, She Wrote series, receives her damehood in the diplomatic and overseas list for drama, charitable work and philanthropy.
Of the 1,195 people honoured, 611 – 51% – are female. Sir Bob Kerslake, head of the civil service, said it represented “quite a significant shift” and “deep-rooted change” over the past 40 years, with the previous highest proportion of women being 47%. In the 2004 New Year honours list, 34% of recipients were women, in 1994 the percentage was 28%, and in 1974 it was just 17%.
While women have received more honours overall, they are still less well represented in the highest echelons of the honours system. Just 40% of awards at CBE and above are to women, though that proportion has almost doubled in 10 years.
Recipients also include Apprentice star Karren Brady, vice-chair of West Ham Football Club, who gets a CBE for services to entrepreneurship and women in business. Lady Onora O’Neill, moral and political philosopher, is made a Companion of Honour, as is Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, influential contemporary composer and influential composer and master of the Queen’s music.
Angel of the North sculptor Antony Gormley has accepted a knighthood as “a recognition” for the art form.
Knighthoods also go to veteran film and theatre producer Michael Codron, known for his productions of early works of Harold Pinter, Tom Stoppard and others, the former director of public prosecutions Keir Starmer, QC, for services to law and criminal justice, and to former Bank of England deputy governor Paul Tucker.
The Order of Merit (OM) awarded to individuals of greatest achievement in the fields of the arts, learning, literature and science, goes to the conductor Sir Simon Rattle, and to the heart surgeon Professor Sir Magdi Yacoub. With only 24 OMs at any one time, they join an exclusive collection of members, with previous recipients including Florence Nightingale and Sir Winston Churchill.
Five per cent of successful honours candidates come from ethnic minority communities. Kerslake said it was a “key priority” to push up representation from black and minority ethnic communities. In total, 74% of awards go to people who are actively engaged in charitable or voluntary work within their local community.
The actor and writer Ruth Jones, co-creator of the award-winning comedy Gavin & Stacey, in which she played the outspoken Nessa, summed up her MBE as “proper tidy”.
Jones, 47, honoured for services to entertainment, said: “This isn’t just tidy, it’s proper tidy. I had no idea it was coming. I just came home one night, opened the post and there it was: this letter telling me I was being put forward for it and being really strict about not telling anyone. And I’m quite obedient. So I didn’t. Except my husband, who’s really proud. And my dad, who’s beside himself with excitement.
“Apparently Great Uncle Leslie got an OBE in the 40s and Uncle Jack the fireman got one in the 60s. So I’m keeping up with the Joneses, ha ha. Anyway, I’m thrilled.”
Veteran TV and radio personality Nicholas Parsons, creator and host of Radio 4’s Just a Minute, said he was “flattered and delighted” to receive a CBE for his charitable work. Parsons, 90, actor, comedian and erstwhile questionmaster of the TV quiz Sale of the Century, receives an OBE for services to drama and broadcasting a decade ago. He said: “I think honours are a wonderful thing to receive if you have worked hard and that is recognised.
“I received the letter two months ago and was told to keep quiet about it or it might be taken away, so my wife and I kept quiet about it. We won’t be celebrating until the day we go to the palace – I’ve done so much celebrating for my 90th birthday this year.”
Though entering his 10th decade, Parsons lags behind artist Derek Clarke, member of the Royal Scottish Academy of Arts, who on Tuesday celebrates his 101st birthday with an MBE to mark a career that has spanned more than 70 years.
Sandi Toksvig, 55, comedian and presenter of BBC Radio 4’s The News Quiz, said she was honoured to receive an OBE for services to broadcasting. During a career spanning three decades, she has been a regular on shows such as Whose Line Is It Anyway?, Call My Bluff, and QI, as well as fronting the travel programme Excess Baggage. “Broadcasting is a team effort and I would like to pay tribute to all the writers, production and technical staff I’ve worked with,” she said.
Mezzosoprano Katherine Jenkins, 33, who receives an OBE for her contribution to music and her services to charity, said she was “incredibly humbled to receive this great honour”. The Neath-born singer, who in 2013 ran the London Marathon to raise more than £25,000 for charity, added: “I share this award with the charitable bodies I am so privileged to work with, especially to those brave servicemen and women who risk so much for us all on a daily basis.”
Carlos Acosta, 40, the internationally acclaimed Cuban ballet dancer and choreographer, said he was “excited and thrilled” at his CBE. “It was a huge surprise,” said the dancer, who grew up in poverty as the youngest of 11 children in Havana. His lorry-driver father feared he would fall into trouble and decided that dance training would instil discipline and provide him with a skill, and he won a place at the Cuban national ballet school.
Michael Crawford, 71, who became a household name playing hapless Frank Spencer in the 1970s sitcom Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em and who has enjoyed a successful West End theatre career, also receives a CBE. He said his recognition, for services to children’s charities, was “the most wonderful surprise”.
Elsewhere in the arts, composer and conductor Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, who is master of the Queen’s music, becomes a Companion of Honour. Choreographer Gillian Lynne, 87, whose credits include Cats and Phantom of the Opera, is made a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire for services to dance and musical theatre. “Passion for my art has been the motivating factor throughout my career, but for Her Majesty the Queen and the Cabinet Office to see what I have done to be worthy of this accolade is an honour,” she said.
Grand Designs presenter Kevin McCloud, 54, a designer, is honoured with an MBE for his work on sustainable buildings, and BBC Radio 1 DJ Pete Tong, 53, also receives an MBE.
Writer Anthony Horowitz, 58, author of more than 40 books including the Alex Rider spy books and the creator of the TV series Foyle’s War, is awarded an OBE for services to literature. As well as being a board member of the Old Vic theatre, he is patron of East Anglia Children’s Hospices and the anti-bullying charity Kidscape.
The actor Lynda Bellingham, best known for her long-running role in the Oxo TV adverts, said that being awarded an OBE for her charity work was “a fantastic way to move forward” following a “tough year”. The 65-year-old Loose Women panellist, who has enjoyed a career in acting and presenting spanning 40 years, announced earlier this year that she had been diagnosed with cancer.
She said of her inclusion in the New Year honours list: “I am absolutely delighted and proud to receive this OBE. It has been a long and tough year, but this award is just a fantastic way to move forward. I feel honoured and inspired and very grateful.”