No self-respecting award ceremony would want you to think it wasn’t the biggest, most exclusive gig in town – so it has to look like a sold out star-fest to the adoring TV audiences at home. But it’s all just smoke and mirrors... and seat fillers.
Say a star wins an award, presents part of the show or even pops to the toilet; they leave behind them an empty seat and a chink in the armour of celebrity. That’s where the humble seat filler comes in.
Teams of well dressed volunteers wait in the wings to temporarily fill any empty spots, so that when the camera turns round, you get a sea of smiling faces, not a spattering of lonely luvvies.
“You have to be pretty quick,” says Ed Toll, seat filler at the BAFTAs 2012 and this year too, “And if the seat’s in the middle of the row, get ready to climb over some celebs.”
Ed behind Tilda Swinton at last year's BAFTAs (Credit: BBC)
Ed Toll is the founder of London-based graphic design agency ‘OneFiftyNine’, but for a bit of a laugh, he also took on seat-filling duties.
“There were about 20 seat fillers for the evening,” says Ed. “Ten wait in the wings along both sides of the auditorium – it’s your classic pincer movement!”
Ed landed the gig through a friend in the production company, but there are specialised seat filler agencies out there that a quick web search will bring up. As expected though, the waiting list to sit with the stars can be pretty long.
If you do get selected, be prepared for a night of well-dressed running around. Men are expected to wear dinner suits, and for the ladies it’s black evening wear.
“The window of opportunity for seat changes is tight,” says Ed, “between the main presentations whilst they run the VT and introduce the award – you’ve got about three minutes. It’s not good to be caught scrambling into your seat when the lights come up and the camera pans back to the audience.”
It’s a staging operation of staggering efficiency, and all in the name of good PR.
“There are team leaders and support people running each group of seat fillers – they know exactly where everyone is sitting; from the presenters of the awards to the potential recipients. As soon as the winner is announced they direct you to their seat.”
“It’s like a military operation,” says Ed. “Very impressive.”
Spiting distance... Behind Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill (Credit: BBC)
But let’s be honest, the real reason anyone wants to be a seat filler is to sneak in with the Hollywood set and get caught on camera doing it. And why not? Who wouldn’t if they could?
“You do get pretty close,” says Ed. “Seats that I filled included [the one] behind Tilda Swinton, and one behind Brad Pitt that belonged to Jon Hamm from ‘Mad Men’, who was then presenting an award.”
“The stars were always courteous and friendly when you turned up out of nowhere to take their seat, and even grateful when you returned it to them. Still, their partners and friends looked a little confused when some stranger randomly sat themselves down amongst them.”
Ed caught with Rising Star Award winner Adam Deacon (Credit: BBC)
It all seems very bizarre, but Ed says they all took it in good humour. It can’t always go to plan though? Coordinating human-sized pieces in a game of on-air celebrity chess, something is bound to go wrong.
“To be honest it all went very smoothly, says Ed, “but there was some confusion with an unscheduled seat abandonment.”
“We weren’t sure exactly where the seat was or whose it was,” he continues, “but it was coming towards the end of the VT window. I ducked down and sprinted down the aisle past bewildered stars and cameramen only to find there was no sign of the mystery seat. I looked back up the aisle for some direction and then my heart started to beat really fast: I saw so many faces I recognised staring back at me, and none of them knew who I was or what I was doing.
“The VT stopped and people began to applaud. I had two options: leap into Daniel Radcliffe’s lap (who was right next to me), or drop to the floor and belly crawl back up the aisle. I went for the second. I did somehow manage to sneak out of a side exit without the cameras seeing me, but that moment still haunts my dreams. I’m convinced it was all still a false alarm.”
It didn’t put Ed off though: “Of course I'd do it again,” he says.