Katy Birchall announces the winners of Country Life’s 2017 Gentleman of the Year Awards.
First place: Colin Firth
Charming, self-effacing and unfailingly polite, our 2017 Gentleman of the Year continues to navigate fame and success with modesty, good humour and courtesy. Often hailed as the quintessential on-screen gentleman – his name is synonymous with Mr Darcy’s and there is no one better suited for the role of a stylish, authoritative Kingsman spy – it is his off-screen reputation that has caught our attention.
The recipient of glowing reviews from fellow cast members, make-up artists and set runners, he’s never been a fan of talking about himself and, thanks to a certain wet-shirt-in-the-lake scene, he’s spent the past 22 years sheepishly brushing aside his global heartthrob status.
He’s devoted to his family (earlier this year, he applied for and was granted dual citizenship, so that he could have the same passports as his Italian wife and children) and he shows a level of commitment to charitable projects that is rare in the glitzy world of celebrity endorsement. As well as his dedication to Oxfam and Amnesty International, he also helped to launch Progreso, the world’s first chain of fair-trade coffee shops, and was consequently awarded several philanthropy and humanitarian awards – not that he’d ever mention any of those, of course.
As if all that wasn’t enough to convince us he’s a worthy winner, when asked by a journalist to describe the modern gentleman, he replied that he doesn’t consider himself to have any authority on the matter, but that he thinks it’s something to do with kindness. Mr Darcy, who?
Second place : John Timpson
A remarkable, no-nonsense businessman, this cobbler knows exactly what it means to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. Our judges were bowled over by his extraordinary generosity and empathetic nature, qualities that have gained the Timpson chief executive a reputation as a paternalistic employer. His ‘Dreams Come True’ programme rewards an employee each month and has paid for operations and weddings, as well as recently flying a staff member out to Barbados, where she was reunited with her father after 13 years apart.
A pioneer of giving people that crucial second chance, his policy of hiring directly from prisons means former offenders make up 10% of his workforce and, along with his late wife, Alex, he has fostered more than 90 children and adopted two. An immensely charming man who never loses his temper, he may be in the business of mending broken soles, but he won’t give up on lost souls, either, landing him firmly in our runner-up spot.
Third place: Jonathan Agnew
As comforting and familiar as your favourite armchair on a lazy Sunday afternoon, the BBC cricket correspondent has been so successful at charming the nation from the commentary box that it’s easy to forget he once played for England himself.
Through his warmth, wit and extensive knowledge, Aggers has become a source of national pride, scoring legions of fans that loyally tune in to Test Match Special (TMS) whether they’re interested in cricket or not – his humorous digressions about sunsets, spongecakes and kippers are like listening to an old friend rambling on in the pub.
His endearing sense of fun and fondness for pranks often has listeners in stitches – the famous 1991 broadcast in which he and Brian Johnston dissolved into infectious laughter, following his comment that Ian Botham hit the stumps because he ‘didn’t quite get his leg over’, gave all of Britain the giggles. TMS would be lost without him and, quite frankly, so would we.
The runners up
‘A gentleman should be able to laugh at himself,’ says judge Andrew Love and, in the new world of clean-cut YouTube popstars droning on about the benefits of steamed kale and organic hair gel, this rock icon injects a much-needed sense of fun. Notoriously cheerful and kind at heart, he puts journalists at ease and is a devoted father to eight children. If in doubt, just ask his exes – he’s on good terms with all of them.
Whether he’s talking to his enraptured audience from a stack of hay bales in muddied wellies or from a green studio sofa in a crisply ironed shirt, there is no denying the Countryfile and The One Show host’s good nature and captivating passion for what he does – his soaring ratings speak for themselves. To put it simply, he’s terribly nice.
He’s never missed an episode of Just a Minute and, at 94 years old, the charismatic presenter is still a class-act entertainer. He’s a stickler for manners and refuses to say a bad word about anyone, even his stalker – ‘it may be old-school, but I think everyone deserves respect,’ he has said.
Model, fashion designer, columnist, entrepreneur and philanthropist: is there anything he can’t do? Even if there is, he wouldn’t be afraid to try – a gentleman, he once said, understands that more is achieved through failure than success. Shy, well-mannered and hard-working, he sealed his place on our shortlist when he admitted that he likes cats, but dogs will always have the edge.
Coming out tops in our inaugural 2014 Gentleman of the Year Awards, the Question Time host and General Election presenter is a model of courtesy and a fountain of knowledge. Earlier this year, he proved a gentleman can be full of surprises when he enthusiastically performed an Eminem-inspired rap about Brexit.
Despite a hectic schedule, the chairman of Condé Nast Britain and the V&A will make time for everyone, from editors to interns – there’s no whiff of pretentiousness here. Charismatic and mischievous, his thoughtful and amusing thank-you letters are second to none and pride won’t stop him from giving credit where it’s due – he loves Country Life and isn’t afraid to say so.
Sir David Tang
He was due to take a place at the judging table for these awards, so the Country Life team and fellow judges were left bereft at the news of Sir David’s death this summer. The prominent entrepreneur was well known for his lively spirit, intelligence, generosity and extensive charitable work. The chief executive officer of Fortnum & Mason, Ewan Venters, spoke for everyone when he said that, without Sir David, the ‘world is a little duller’. A gentleman to the last.
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