Sarah Carson, deputy arts editor
All those years I wondered what it might be like to lock myself away and hide with only books, music, and TV for company. When the time suddenly came, I had no idea where to start. The soundtrack and salvation of my hibernation came in the triumphant return of The Chicks with Gaslighter, Taylor Swift’s dazzling sister LPs folklore and evermore and Phoebe Bridgers’ stunning Punisher. These albums would marvel in any year; in this one, they were my salvation.
On TV, it will be some time before anything manages to usurp the originality and power of Michaela Coel’s blistering rape drama I May Destroy You, which so gymnastically challenged notions of right and wrong that each episode – cutting, devastating, tender, funny – left you reeling. Rather less unsettling – but a total joy – was the conclusion of Canadian sitcom Schitt’s Creek: warmth, comfort, farce and family absurdity when I was so far from my own.
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Alice Jones, arts editor
I spent most of 2020 on maternity leave, so while I managed the odd streamed theatre show, one particularly lovely virtual evening at the Royal Ballet and a gluttonous amount of television, I also spent a lot of my vaguely lucid waking hours staring at my phone. Thank goodness, then, for the Instagram pages of Daisy May Cooper and Tim Key, which fed my comedy habit in new and inventive ways, making me laugh on a daily basis.
Cooper, better known as Kerry Mucklowe in This Country, posts unfiltered and lightly deranged snapshots from home, often in her pyjamas, wrangling her toddler daughter, dancing to the Countdown theme, and so on. Her weary take on Sondheim’s Losing My Mind, replacing the refrain with “I tidy the house” spoke deeply to me.
Meanwhile, Key became the voice of lockdown, posting daily poems, both about the Government’s bungled response to Covid – disturbing vignettes from the imagined flatshare of “Bohnson” and “Moggeth” – and uncanny dispatches from the new world of social distancing, weekly clapping and bubbles. Taken together they form a surreal picture of the last nine months and you can now buy a book of them, too, should you want to remember this year (He Used Thought As a Wife, available from utterandpress.co.uk).
Emily Baker, TV editor
Normal People came a month into lockdown, when millennials around the world were feeling equal parts horny and sad. Of course, we channelled all that energy into a tangible object – a silver chain hanging from Connell’s (played by the wonderful Paul Mescal) neck. If you’re wondering how a necklace worn by a fictional character helped anyone get through 2020, then I suggest episode six.
Unlike many of my smug friends, I have not yet seen Lin Manuel Miranda’s supposedly spectacular musical Hamilton on stage and eschewed it until the moment it arrived on Disney+ in July. The cast recording is now my most listened to album of 2020 and in the week I was confined to my bed after catching Covid-19, I watched the entire two hours and 40 minutes show every single day.
Cardi B’s continuing outrageousness arrived in her single with Megan Thee Stallion, WAP. Its overtly sexual lyrics and pop culture funhouse video reminded everyone the rapper is still top of her game.
Kasia Delgado, deputy opinion editor and feature writer
Who needed TV thrillers this year when you had Nigella Lawson opening jars of Korean pickle in her fairy-lit larder? In her latest series Cook, Eat, Repeat, Lawson mesmerised the nation when she stepped into her pantry as if it were a luxury hotel room. It was impossible to look away, especially when she brought out her toolbox of liquorice, containing compartments of the divisive stuff from every corner of Europe.
In Helen McCrory’s Desert Island Discs, the actress, in her deep velvety tone, described her marriage to actor Damien Lewis in a way so wonderfully luvvie I have replayed it several times since. “Damian’s naughty and I’ve always loved my naughty boys,” she told host Lauren Laverne, before recounting how when they’re at a party, she only has to ask the DJ to play a certain song and wherever he is, Damien will find her and they’ll dance to it. Like a sexy actor’s mating call. A brilliantly fun episode full of, as McCrory loves to say, naughtiness.
Barbara Speed, opinion editor
This year’s Great British Bake Off was quite tame – lots of lovely bakers, lots of nice bakes. The glaring exception, however, was the series of disembodied celebrity cake busts concocted for an early “Showstopper” challenge. A creepy, squat David Attenborough head divebombed off the bench; Freddie Mercury’s eye drooped down on to his moustache and single bucktooth; and David Bowie’s entire head seemed to be one large chin.
Louis Theroux’s Grounded podcast series has shown that his interviewing chops are just as strong on Zoom as in a full BBC production. I most enjoyed his conversation with I May Destroy You creator Michaela Coel, where they talked about a common interest: the blurriness of moral lines, whether regarding sexual consent or the Nazis and homophobes Theroux has interviewed for his documentaries.
Fiona Sturges, music critic
The return of the queen of the Nineties YBAs brought with it the distressing news of Tracey Emin’s cancer diagnosis and subsequent surgery. Nonetheless, her brilliance as an artist is undimmed in her powerful Royal Academy exhibition The Loneliness of the Soul, in which her paintings are shown alongside Edvard Munch’s.
Lucy Prebble’s humdinger of a series I Hate Suzie depicts Billie Piper’s ex-teen star falling apart after her phone is hacked, prompting photos of her cheating on her husband being leaked online. The show reached it’s, er, peak in the fourth episode when, in a smart meditation on female desire, Suzie spends the day trying to decide who or what to think about while masturbating.
Sarah Hughes, TV and books critic
What made chess drama The Queen’s Gambit such entertaining viewing was a female protagonist – Anya Taylor-Joy’s Beth Harmon – unapologetically determined to win. Where a lesser series might have softened the novel’s spiky heroine, this kept all her prickly edges in place.
There were many things to love about The Last Dance, Netflix’s deep dive into Michael Jordan’s time at the Chicago Bulls, but the most enjoyable was the basketball icon’s ability to hold a grudge decades after his career had concluded. Scene after scene showed him showed him stating: “And after that it was personal”, a phrase that so tickled our family that we still use it on my equally grudge-loving daughter.
Rob Epstein, Friday arts sub-editor
ITV4’s coverage of the Tour de France was a highlight of the year. The racing – Alaphillipe’s boom and bust, Pogacar’s brilliance, Roglic’s meltdown – was fantastic. Ned Boulting and David Millar continued to be the best commentating duo in sport. And then there was the journey around France itself – a truly transportive experience.
Buddi, the Netflix animation for preschoolers from the man behind Paw Patrol, transfixed me almost as much as it did my two-year-old. We must have watched each wildly imaginative episode 20 times. Cute, full of emotional intelligence, and its theme tune is one of the great earworms.
Fiona Mountford, theatre critic
It was more glorious than ever this summer to sit in the gathering darkness of Regent’s Park at the Open Air Theatre. Jesus Christ Superstar was the first top-quality show to open after lockdown and offered wonderful assurance that theatre was going to bounce back.
Mark Rylance has already won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar (for Bridge of Spies) and deserves to be in awards contention again in 2021 for a standout turn, among a notably strong ensemble cast, as lawyer William Kunstler in The Trial of the Chicago 7. A performance laden with moral conviction is interwoven with welcome flecks of Rylance’s customary wry humour.
Gwendolyn Smith, books and TV critic
Appropriately given its title, everything about Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Céline Sciamma’s study of a doomed love affair in 18th-century Brittany is red-hot, from the exquisite camera work to the blazing performances. Héloïse is a haughty, beautiful noblewoman; Marianne is an artist who has been hired to paint her in secret. Cue electric tension as Héloïse begins to return Marianne’s searching glances. Thanks to the sexy face coverings the characters don for windswept walks, it also made mask-wearing look aspirational. Deceptively modern in more ways than one.
Marianka Swain, theatre and dance critic
Three Kings, Old Vic: In Camera was the gem of this year’s live theatre-digital film hybrids. Matthew Warchus’s split-screen shots supported the miraculously quicksilver Andrew Scott in evoking numerous characters – and starkly emotional confrontations. Scott also conveyed the open wound of loneliness.
As Black Lives Matter spotlit systemic racism, Our Bodies Back, a Sadler’s Wells/Breakin’ Convention film explored the violence meted out to black women. Jonzi D’s movement was in powerful conversation with Jessica Care Moore’s poem: beautiful, brutal, and above all unflinching.
Elisa Bray, music critic
Nu-metal and sugar-coated vocals, glossy R&B, country, stadium-reaching pop-rock, gospel-laden electropop: Rina Sawayama’s debut LP Sawayama veers thrillingly – and somehow successfully – from genre to genre. With this distinctive and audacious concoction of bubblegum pop and a far fiercer sound, it was exciting to discover one of the boldest and brightest voices in pop today.
Gerard Gilbert, TV critic
Office employees brandishing baseball bats are probably not covered in HR manuals, and anyway investment banker Eric, Ken Leung’s character in the BBC/HBO addictive sex-and-stocks drama Industry, might argue that he was only caressing it. Industry, the offspring of Billions and This Life (with Succession and Girls as godparents) has been rightly feted for its young cast, but Eric is the lynchpin.
A 15-year-old British-Nigerian girl and her young brother go on the run to avoid going into care after their single mother vanishes – the British movie Rocks sounds like a slice of Loachian miserabilism instead of a joyous and moving paean to friendship in the multicultural capital. The first-timers’ performances are miraculous – the girls’ input into the script paying off handsomely, and their infectious laughter the perfect antidote to 2020.
Gabriel Tate, TV critic
An anomaly in Steve McQueen’s stunning anthology, Small Axe: Lovers Rock was mood piece rather than polemic, drifting through a West Indian house party as its revellers ground through the gears. An intoxicating illustration of the erotic and spiritual power of music and dance – the final moments of Janet Baker’s Silly Games hit the highest notes of any TV this year.
The title of Bob Dylan’s Murder Most Foul quotes Hamlet, the content… Who knows? As a dispatch from Dealey Plaza dissolved into the death of the American Dream and a ramble through US pop culture, Dylan’s entirely unexpected and epic return – his first original song for eight years – proved as ripe for interpretation as anything from his quicksilver 1960s peak. All that, plus Fiona Apple on piano.
Emily Watkins, books critic
November, evil Hugh Grant and ethereal Nicole Kidman – plus her ridiculous coat – brought us The Undoing. I owe my sanity to squabbling with my mum during Lockdown 2.0 about whether it’s more like a bathrobe or a fairy queen’s cloak.
Sam Davies, music critic
Host is a shit-scary, Zoom-based horror that makes loads of to-the-minute references, like when friends Haley and Emma meet irl, feel impelled to hug, then remember themselves and touch elbows instead.
In the year Headie One broke through to worldwide mainstream attention, the rapper towered over a deserted Times Square on a billboard advertising his debut album EDNA, confirming UK drill’s insidious world domination.
James Rampton, feature writer
My wife, three daughters and I were delighted to get lost each week in the magnetic Race Across the World, following five British couples on their journeys from Chapultepec Castle in Mexico City to Ushuaia in Argentina. The final moments were more thrilling than anything Jason Bourne has ever done.
Thank goodness Van Morrison left his tiresome anti-lockdown ranting at home for his socially-distanced concert and focused on his haunting, timeless songs. As he delivered blues-inflected, semi-improvised, scat-flecked versions of such old classics as Gloria, Moondance and St Dominic’s Preview, they sounded fresh enough to have been written that morning. The moment that lingered longest in my mind was when he launched into a cover of Bob Dylan’s mesmeric classic, It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue. For those five intoxicating minutes, Morrison transported us from the grim reality of the pandemic to an otherworldly, spiritual place. He took us Into the Mystic.
Alexandra Coghlan, classical and opera critic
Translated before Covid, Conor McPherson’s adaptation of Uncle Vanya took on new meaning in its wake. The radiant certainty of Sonya’s final monologue, delivered with such simplicity by Aimee Lou Wood, is the mantra we all need.
Soprano Louise Alder crowned a stunning recital at the Wigmore Hall by releasing two balloon “breasts” from her top and letting them float gently up to the ceiling of London’s most elegant concert hall. The stage direction may have been Poulenc’s, but the gesture was pure insouciant, defiant 2020.
Geoffrey Macnab, film critic
In the wondrous Uncut Gems, the sleazy jewellery salesman anti-hero (Adam Sandler giving the performance of his career) dutifully turns up at his daughter’s school play. He’s naked, in the boot of a car and has just been roughed up by hoodlums but that doesn’t faze this dedicated dad in the slightest. Who knew Sandler was capable of such Method-style brilliance?
The mention of bodily functions used to be forbidden in Hollywood movies. In Chloe Zhao’s superb new drama, Nomadland, dealing with chuntering bowels is just another of the many challenges the dogged traveller Fern (Frances McDormand) faces in her life on the road.
“I am being burned at the stake and I am dying for a ciggie-boo,” Hollywood star Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried) tells alcoholic Citizen Kane screenwriter Herman J Mankiewicz early on in David Fincher’s Mank. He climbs up on the bonfire and lights her one, thereby beginning a beautiful friendship. It’s one full of a crackle and wit that reminds you of Bogart and Bacall at their best.
Shaun Curran, music critic
In a perilous year for live music, Laura Marling’s beautiful, emotive Union Chapel gig was a genuine gamechanger. The first event to show the creative possibilities of livestreamed concerts, it inspired an entire industry.
Mae Martin’s semi-autobiographical comedy Feel Good was a 2020 highlight: among its masterstrokes was casting Lisa Kudrow as her hilariously disapproving mother. The sight of the Friends star hanging around on Blackpool Pleasure Beach during one episode was a surreal, uplifting treat.
James Mottram, film critic
Sacha Baron Cohen’s welcome return as his Kazakhstani reporter in Borat Subsequent Moviefilm brought the most screamingly funny moment of 2020: Borat and daughter Tutar (the brilliant Maria Bakalova) performing the “traditional fertility dance” at a real debutante ball in Georgia. With Tutar lifting her skirt, revealing she’s having her period, the looks on the unsuspecting crowd are priceless. True shock and awe.
Amid a brain-frying plot that had most scratching their heads, Christopher Nolan’s time-bending spy thriller Tenet delivered the year’s most remarkable action scene: the on-the-motorway heist in Tallin as John David Washington’s agent encounters “inverted” cars running backwards at high speed. Where else can you see an upturned vehicle flipping itself back on its wheels? A genuine big-screen “wow”.
Marianne Levy, books critic
A man’s journey to rediscover a vanished pop song – podcast Reply All’s The Case of The Missing Hit is the purest of joys. All together now, “Better than the cherry on a whip cream sundae…”
Netflix’s The Speed Cubers gave us a glimpse into the strange world of Rubik’s cubing. But, really, this documentary was about the relationship between Max and Feliks, arch rivals, yet the best of friends.
Nick Duerden, feature writer
It’s never easy for a writer to admit a picture tells a thousand words, but the photograph of Patrick Hutchinson rescuing a “patriotic Brit, England through and through” in the middle of a Black Lives Matter march in June speaks volumes about good versus evil, rational thought over ignorance.
A slow-motion, staccato drama about big tech sounds like a TV turnoff, but Alex Garland’s magisterial epic Devs was riveting, its every shot drenched in sumptuous colour and ominous shadow. A show to lose yourself in, and be creeped out by.
If it requires some kind of elaborate trick to turn 400 pages of literary misery, poverty and alcoholism into the most beautiful, life-enhancing novel, then Douglas Stuart is a master magician. His debut Shuggie Bain rightly won the Booker this year.
Sam Marlowe, theatre critic
Bringing the National’s biggest space back to life, Roy Williams and Clint Dyer’s Death of England: Delroy, with an incendiary solo performance from Michael Balogun, dazzlingly articulated the mood of a divided country. The second lockdown meant opening night was also closing night – but no one who was there will soon forget it.
Blazingly eloquent and impassioned, Janelle Monáe’s single Turntables, written as Black Lives Matter protests surged globally, was a funky call to arms to American voters, with a profoundly moving and brilliantly witty video evoking Black history and a hopeful vision of the future. Easily the most exhilarating three minutes of the year.
Veronica Lee, comedy critic
A year without the Edinburgh Fringe and other festivals felt distinctly weird, but it was a real pleasure to discover the joys of comedy in the great outdoors, from drive-ins to gigs held in the grounds of stately homes and historic castles.
Ed Cumming, books critic
Yes, Parasite was released in the UK this year. Makes you feel like you’ve been holed up in a secret bunker, doesn’t it? The film was made of dozens of unforgettable scenes, but the noodle dish stood out. On her way home Mrs Park calls her maid, Mrs Kim, and asks her to prepare jjapaguri, translated as “ram-don”, a cheap noodle dish, with high-quality Hanu beef. Mrs Kim panics but somehow gets away with it, in a scene that perfectly encapsulates Parasite’s furious class envy.
Dave was the stand-out new comedy of the year: a sharp and smart sitcom with a sensitive soul, based on the life of the rapper Lil Dicky, real name Dave Burd. In episode 7, Dave and his friend Els are babysitting Trippie Redd’s nephew when they come across a local craftsman selling wooden shirts. A surreal and stupid concept that the characters take at face value, the wooden shirt is a good example of what makes Dave so charming. “Are these splinter-free?” Els asks. “Splinter-free,” confirms the stallholder. “Took a year to figure that out.”
Humans can put men on the moon and create a coronavirus vaccine in less than a year, but they still don’t know exactly how the European eel reproduces. In his wonderful The Gospel of Eels, a bestseller in his homeland of Sweden translated into English this year, the journalist Patrik Svensson charted the enduring mystery of these slippery customers, whose practices have eluded understanding since Aristotle. Perhaps some mysteries are best left unsolved.
The latest instalment of Paradox Games’ Crusader Kings series, in which you play as a Medieval European ruling dynasty, recreates the religious and courtly politics of the Middle Ages in staggering detail. It might not sound like much fun on paper, but then you read about Zak7062, the user who, by defeating Christian armies and reforming his ruler’s Norse religion to include cannibalism, managed to eat the Pope. If ever there was a way of getting kids interested in laws of succession, this is it.
Florence Hallett, art critic
Titian’s Death of Actaeon (1559-75), painted when he was a very old man, is an endlessly unfolding mystery. Seeing it at the National Gallery, reunited after 400 years with the other paintings in Titian’s mythological cycle, was momentous.
I can’t forget the sheer exhilaration of the Seventh and Eighth symphonies, played with almost unnerving energy by Lars Vogt and the Royal Northern Sinfonia at the Barbican’s Beethoven Weekender in February.
Max Liu, books critic
In March, I bounded along the banks of an Amsterdam canal, en route to interview somebody for this paper, listening to Home, the gorgeous centre-piece of Caribou’s album Suddenly. Today, I still feel uplifted by its soulful refrain.
Homeland Elegies is the best novel I’ve read about race, finance and creativity in 21st-century America. The audiobook – brilliantly performed by its author Ayad Akhtar – is essential listening too.
John Aizlewood, books critic
How to play Margaret Thatcher? The Meryl Streep method, where every meticulously researched nuance rings true? Or the hamtastic route of Gillian Anderson in The Crown: the missing link between the Honey Monster, a Lord of the Rings wraith and a batty but sinister grandmother? There’s only one answer.
Dolly Parton didn’t actually cure Covid-19, of course, but she did contribute $1 million to Nashville’s Vanderbilt University Medical Center’s Covid-19 vaccine research. The result? The 94.5% effective Moderna vaccine, vaccine, vaccine, as her song almost had it.
Liz Thomson, music critic
Mrs America was a well-written drama about the hijacking of the Equal Rights Amendment by Catholic-conservative grotesque Phyllis Schlafly. Gloria Steinem’s role in the fight is downplayed, but the series neatly connects the 1970s feminist movement with today’s Trump psychodrama.
Trump’s on the way out, but that doesn’t diminish the importance of Rage by Bob Woodward (Simon & Schuster). More will be written on the four years that stress-tested American democracy but this is a chilling insight into what happens when corrupt narcissists are elected to high office.
Recorded in England just before lockdown, Mary Chapin Carpenter’s The Dirt and the Stars is a beautiful album from a singular singer-songwriter whose solo musicianship has been demonstrated these past nine months in her Songs from Home series and in the livestream One Night Lonely. A balm for troubled souls.
Francesca Steele, film critic
Emma is the period drama I didn’t know I needed. Yes, the costumes are dreamy and the comedy’s spot-on, but the real beauty of this adaptation is just how unlikable Emma is. She’s petty, snobbish and occasionally downright mean, a true anti-heroine, just the way Jane Austen intended.
Susie Mesure, books critic
In London’s Marlborough Gallery, Maggi Hambling’s latest exhibition features tragic beasts: a chained dancing bear, a tuskless elephant and a rhino missing a horn. Fitting and devastating. Hambling makes me think deeper about things, even her much-maligned tribute for (not statue of) Mary Wollstonecraft, pert nudity and all.
The thought of David Gentleman drawing, and redrawing, the view from his desk and his endless garden pots, images that he shares in My Town, his delightful glimpse back at 90 years of life, has kept me going as I stare endlessly at the same scenes from my own windows. What could be more poignant than a painting of the last animal in the world?
Nick Levine, music critic
If any musical genre can supply glitzy escapism, it’s disco, so it’s fitting that 2020 gave us a wave of great albums informed by the classic sound of Studio 54. Dua Lipa, Kylie Minogue, Róisín Murphy and Jessie Ware all had us dancing around the living room in our trackies.
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