"Maybe it's not quite the Oscars," said Peter Davies, principal of City Lit college, to the actor beside him.
Kevin Spacey, the Academy Award winner who now runs the Old Vic Theatre in London, might well have agreed about a ceremony featuring actresses singing the inaugural speech made by former South African president Nelson Mandela.
Mr Spacey was handing out the City Lit's adult students awards as part of Adult Learners' Week. He praised the winners for their achievements.
He said: "It's amazing that we have the kind of programmes here that we do.
I am an adult learner. I am learning every day and I want to learn throughout my life.
"What's great here is there is no age limit. I personally am thinking of signing up for your maths-for-the-terrified courses.
"I've never run a theatre before. There are no classes for that, unfortunately. I would encourage you next year to create one.
"It takes courage to return to the classroom as an adult, and I know that you will have been an inspiration to those around you."
The National Institute of Adult Continuing Education, which runs Adult Learners' Week, has expressed some concerns that its awards were sometimes stuck on the note of triumph over tragedy.
It was not quite the case at City Lit in central London. Nominations also went to a woman who fulfilled her life's ambition of learning the cello in retirement, and to an elderly woman whose new skills in digital video won her a place in film school.
But many had overcome great difficulties, including two of the college's students, Peter O'Dowd and Andrew Campbell, who won national awards from Niace.
Mr O'Dowd had a stroke at 20 which left his right side paralysed and robbed him of speech. He completed an art and design foundation course and won a place at Central St Martin's college to study graphic design.
Mr Campbell, a former security supervisor, lost his job after an 11-year addiction to crack cocaine took its toll. He took part in City Lit's Inside Knowledge scheme, which helps long-term homeless people and ex-offenders to gain vocational qualifications.