I’m not going to have a go at anyone who has posted a list of their favourite things from 2020, or what they consider to be the best; we’re all dealing with the current situation in our own way, and for some people it’s easiest to carry on with as many ‘normal’ things as possible – I can certainly understand that, even if I don’t quite have the energy to follow that route myself. I just wish that others could see that too… It’s not an attack (it certainly doesn’t warrant the “be kind” response, FFS), it’s just part of what critics/reviewers/bloggers/whoever do for a living (if they’re lucky) or as their passion.
Taking the spectre that is the pandemic (& its wide-ranging knock-on effects) out of consideration, 2020 wasn’t necessarily that bad – and it definitely wasn’t the cultural black hole that some seem to think it was. I mean, theatres were open properly for 10 weeks, and had a further few months in the summer & autumn with some kind of activity. Not anywhere near the ideal (obviously), but not 100% shit either. I certainly had a relatively enjoyable time! And it was largely thanks to some of the following things…
Of the 34 different shows I managed to see (only one of which was post-March), there were some really outstanding pieces of work. Obviously the return of Romantics Anonymous was a big thing for me, and took up three excellent weekends in January/February – plus Kneehigh’s UBU! touring gave me an excellent excuse to return to Leeds for a Saturday. I even managed to squeeze in an early (‘proper’) challenge week, seeing some magnificent musicals in #MindTheMusicals 2020 (my first trip to see Mary Poppins was a definite highlight), before getting a few trips to the VAULT Festival sorted – Out Of The Forest Theatre’s The Brief Life & Mysterious Death of Boris III, King of Bulgaria: Part The First sticks in the memory from those few weeks.
However, what instantly said to me ‘potential show of the year’ from its very first preview was Death of England – so much so, I did a rare spontaneous booking to see it again a few days later! Rafe Spall was phenomenal, and I’m still gutted theatres closed before I got the chance to see its spin-off later in the year (though thankfully #NTAtHome helped me out a bit there).
There was plenty of this as soon as everything shut down! I don’t need to go a lot further than The Show Must Go Online, to be honest; I would have been sustained by just their weekly Shakespeare readings, Ian Doescher treats (Pop Shakespeare and a version of A Christmas Carol), and a one-off showcase Evening for Mental Wellbeing. Not only did it allow me to see the entire Shakespeare First Folio within about eight months, it created a wholesome community from across the globe. CtrlAltRepeat were also pioneers in Zoom theatre – their interactive Viper Squad was possibly my favourite of their output.
Thursday nights were also taken care of, thanks to the National Theatre – I particularly enjoyed getting to see This House and the Bridge Theatre’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream again. Blackeyed Theatre, too, got in on the action (I was so thrilled to see The Sign of Four again), plus some companies opted for recorded readings/makeshift productions/radio plays: Original Theatre Company’s Apollo 13: The Dark Side of the Moon was a terrific way to end the year, and a better example of this kind of production.
As time went on, thankfully a few more theatres made the sensible choice to stream shows from their auditoriums (with & without socially distanced audiences). I was really pleased that the Old Vic could keep up their A Christmas Carol tradition, plus a re-run of Lungs was much appreciated; Bristol Old Vic also came out to play, enabling Wise Children to create bubbles and mount ‘real’ productions of both Romantics Anonymous and The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk.
2020 was supposed to be my year of no less than a gig a month; I’d got off to a great start (and was actually ahead of the game in March – Stereophonics‘ Kind show in Nottingham was the best of them all) but it obviously wasn’t to be. I made up for it slightly with some online gigs – a monthly fix of The Wind + The Wave was a real highlight, plus I enjoyed Kaiser Chiefs‘ industry throughout the year (playing a session for #RoyalAlbertHome as well as a gig in an empty Brixton Academy), and Embrace playing Out of Nothing in its entirety was a lovely bonus.
Music-wise, however, 2020 undisputedly belonged to the phenomenon that is #TimsTwitterListeningParty. I quickly got addicted to them, to the extent that a summer Saturday night wasn’t complete without one! Highlights for me included a series of enlightening David Bowie albums (with commentary from keyboardist Mike Garson), Night Network by The Cribs (also one of my favourite releases of 2020), A Certain Trigger by Maxïmo Park, Since I Left You by The Avalanches, and We’ll Live and Die in These Towns by The Enemy.
These album parties really opened my eyes (or should that be ears?) to the art of the album, so I took to going through my own collection to listen to properly while I worked – plus I started buying some more (mostly CDs, but I now also have the beginnings of a vinyl collection as a selection of special editions fell into my online shopping baskets). Top new releases included Bruce Springsteen’s Letter to You, Travis’ 10 Songs (that gig in May is on a cliff-edge), and Kelly Jones’ Don’t Let The Devil Take Another Day. I didn’t listen to it until 2 January this year, but I also recommend The Killers’ Imploding the Mirage.
Yes, I’ve become one of those wankers who goes on about podcasts all the time. It started out with the newfound freedom of being able to listen to something while I work, and continued when I realised I could download episodes on Spotify to listen to on my commute (massively extended once I started going into the office again from August-December, as I was only happy going on the bus)… I’d very casually listened to some podcasts before, but was so behind that I never thought I’d catch up – but I’d never anticipated all this free ear time!
My two favourites are definitely Tailenders (almost completely up-to-date) and Off Menu with Ed Gamble and James Acaster (I finished the back catalogue a short while before series 4 ended). One unexpected benefit of compulsory mask-wearing on public transport (other than the fact that I haven’t had a cold since the end of February 2020) is that it hides your mouth, so when you can’t help but grin or snigger at something funny you don’t look like a complete maniac! Absolutely essential for me when I’m listening to either of these.
In my typical fashion, however, I can’t just stick to two. Greg Jenner’s You’re Dead To Me history podcast is entertaining as well as educational, and I’ve also enjoyed Killing Time with Rebecca Rideal (looking at the darker moments in history). Caroline Crampton’s Shedunnit is great at opening up classic detective fiction (I’m getting some great book recommendations off the back of that), Taskmaster The Podcast was a great accompaniment for the recent series (and has given me an excellent excuse for rewatching from the very start), and Middle Please, Umpire has scratched another cricketing itch. Finally, if you’re a Queen fan then In The Lap of the Pods (Queen Podcast) and The Queen Podcast are essential discussions of the band’s back catalogue and more.
Like most people, I thought enforced time at home with no going out for theatre would mean I’d rattle through my book list in no time… Wrong! Though, in the end, my tally wasn’t too shabby at all – and I did meet my Goodreads target of 45 books by the skin of my teeth. As well as podcasts, I’ve also fully embraced audiobooks – I still regard reading it yourself as the ultimate form, but sometimes listening to a book is ideal (common reasons for me include people being noisy on the National Express but not wanting to listen to music, and the choice of narrator).
My favourite audiobooks (not necessarily released in 2020) include Tom Allen’s No Shame, Greenlights by Matthew McConaughey, Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race by Renni Eddo-Lodge, and Stephen Fry’s Greek mythology trilogy of Mythos, Heroes & Troy (all read by the author), as well as Madeline Miller’s Circe and Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams. After joining Audible only intending on listening to my free trial book and then cancelling, I’ve definitely come a long way – and have so many audiobooks lined up for 2021.
As far as ‘real’ books go, Sex Power Money by Sara Pascoe, Perfect Sound Whatever by James Acaster, Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez, and How To Argue With A Racist by Adam Rutherford all immediately spring to mind as great reads. Jason Diakité’s A Drop of Midnight, Adam Kay’s Twas The Nightshift Before Christmas, and Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity are also recommended reads. Neal Preston‘s Queen coffee table book is also something I’m glad to have had a flick through – it may not have taken much actual reading, but it was definitely worth it for photos like those. I stuck with the Robert Galbraith ‘Strike’ series (despite J.K. Rowling not reading the room in 2020) and enjoyed Troubled Blood; I completely understand people not wanting to engage with her, however I had to read it myself to make my own judgement – and it wasn’t as bad as review headlines had suggested. Undoubtedly some aspects of the central serial killer would have been motivated by her well-voiced views – they were more subtle than pre-release reactions had made me expect, though it’s not for me to say what is & isn’t triggering to other people.
One thing I did go big on was films. My first cinema trip of the year was to see Jojo Rabbit (instant favourite), and I managed to fit a few more in before the closure: The Personal History of David Copperfield was not only entertaining but also a great sign of the direction in which period dramas might be heading (in TV land see Bridgerton and The Great), plus I felt very lucky to make it to an International Women’s Day screening of Misbehaviour at the BFI. Once I had to start travelling to the office for work I knew I couldn’t miss out on TENET – and I did not regret it!
Once everything closed, I decided an easy thing I could do every day was watch a ‘new’ film – not necessarily a new release, just one that I hadn’t ever seen before. It started on 20 March with the brilliant Can You Ever Forgive Me?, reached its 100th edition on 16 June with The Hateful Eight, and ended its regular presence on 31 July with Old Boys; I’d generally have one double bill each week (usually weekends), and completed several film series while I was at it. #TarantinoTuesday was a definite highlight (I think Reservoir Dogs was my favourite), and I even managed a #Bondathon towards the end of the year – I have some others I’d like to get round to this year…
Some other recommendations from my streaming exploits: Summerland, Mank, Mogul Mowgli, Control, Parasite, Marriage Story, Dr Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, First Man, The Rise and Rise of Michael Rimmer, Just Mercy, Blue Story, The Peanut Butter Falcon, BlacKkKlansman, What We Do In The Shadows, Coco, The Farewell, Bombshell, Wayne’s World, Pride, The Princess Bride… I could go on and on and on. (I hadn’t intended on listing that many, but considering I managed to watch at least 164 films from March until December (plus 24 Bonds) I think this is still rather restrained.
And that was that. My usual end of year lists in one humongous post, in no particular order, and a few weeks late. Please use this information to make your 2021 a teeny bit better.