It’s been the most difficult year for the arts in memory, with countless events cancelled and many performers left out of work. And yet, in the face of these setbacks, there have still been reasons to be cheerful: gripping TV dramas, blockbuster art exhibitions and brilliant new albums. Radio brought millions of locked-down listeners together, and even resolutely stage-based art forms such as opera and ballet found ways to succeed online.
The Telegraph’s specialist critics – as well as writing personal guides to the year in film, theatre, comedy and other fields – have each put forward their own list of the year’s best events. Compiled from those lists, this is our run-down of 50 things in the world of arts and entertainment that brightened our year. But what would be on your list? Please use the comments section to recommend your own highlights of 2020.
50. COMEDY Unlikely Darlings, Vault Festival
Eggs, horse heads and nudity all featured in Helen Duff and Elf Lyons’s fittingly bonkers tribute to surrealist artist Leonora Carrington.
49. POP Fontaines DC: A Hero’s Death
Dublin’s punk poets are a band to restore your faith in rock. Their second album is a dizzying, sad and inspiring storm of furious guitars.
48. THEATRE Birdsong
The Original Theatre Company’s stylish and stirring version of the Sebastian Faulks First World War tear-jerker was arguably the finest of this year’s many Zoom dramas. Read the full review
47. FILM Soul
Pixar’s boldest film to date (on Disney+ from Christmas Day) finds beauty and wonder in life’s meaninglessness. Oh, and there’s also some hilarious stuff with a cat. Read the full review
46. TV The Crown, Netflix
Is it fact? Is it fiction? The reaction to the return of TV’s most upmarket soap proves that writer Peter Morgan’s royal drama is hitting very close to home. Read the full review
45. RADIO Simon Mayo, Scala
Broadcasting from his home during lockdown, Simon Mayo’s midmorning show kept Scala Radio listeners entertained with his signature light and warmth.
44. DANCE Lazuli Sky, Sadler’s Wells
Birmingham Royal Ballet boss Carlos Acosta speedily commissioned this marvellous lockdown-inspired piece by Will Tuckett. Read the full review
43. ART Picasso and Paper, RA
This colossal exhibition of 350 works, exploring Picasso’s original, imaginative use of paper, contained a host of surprises and delightful moments of frivolity and mischief. Read the full review
42. CLASSICAL Lockdown Commissions, Edinburgh Festival
Brilliant violist Lawrence Power invited 10 composers to write solo pieces. Among them was Esa-Pekka Salonen’s perfectly formed Objets trouvés.
41. OPERA La voix humaine, Grange Park Opera
In a streamed staging, Claire Booth gave a devastating interpretation of Poulenc’s monodrama about an anguished telephone call. Read the full review
40. COMEDY London Hughes, Bloomsbury Theatre
Hughes’s bawdy To Catch a D*ck was the first great gig of the year. The show later transferred to LA, where it was filmed for a Netflix special. Read the full review
39. POP Nick Cave: Idiot Prayer
Playing alone at a grand piano for a stream from Alexandra Palace (and then a live album), the dramatic wordsmith reinvented his fiery oeuvre with a sombre air of spiritual intimacy. Read the full review
38. THEATRE What a Carve Up!
Full marks to this superlative, starry online response to Jonathan Coe’s satirical novel about Thatcherite Britain, updated to indict the power players of 2020. Read the full review
37. FILM Lovers Rock, BBC One
In a year of social distancing, the shortest, sweetest entry in Steve McQueen’s landmark Small Axe anthology gave us the euphoric house party we desperately needed. Read the full review
36. TV All Creatures Great and Small, Channel 5
This James Herriot adaptation was a perfect slice of nostalgia from the Yorkshire Dales, which proved that the best stories don’t need updating. Read the full review
35. RADIO The NHS Front Line: 10 Weeks on the Covid Wards, Radio 4
Simply astonishing, evocative radio reporting from medical professionals battling the pandemic as it unfolded.
34. DANCE Draw from Within
Rambert’s enterprising online show was a mercilessly up-to-the-minute musing on the mess that is 2020, by inveterate Belgian mischief-maker Wim Vandekeybus. Read the full review
33. ART Bruce Nauman, Tate Modern
With its surveillance cameras, cages and disembodied heads, this live-wire retrospective for the US conceptual artist offered a real adrenalin rush. Read the full review
32. CLASSICAL Snape Maltings
Snape’s bold series of weekend concerts for live audiences ranged from the London Philharmonic to folk singer Kathryn Tickell and jazz pianist Julian Joseph.
31. OPERA Natalya Romaniw
Her moving performances in La bohème and Madame Butterfly make this wonderful Welsh-Ukrainian soprano the young singer of the year.
30. COMEDY The Last Post
Indefatigable Australian comic Alice Fraser has released new episodes of her surreal spoof news podcast every day this year. It’s a much-needed dose of escapism.
29. POP Sault
Responding to the Black Lives Matter movement, this mysterious collective made two magnificent albums of atmospheric, angry, inspirational British sci-fi soul.
28. THEATRE Uncle Vanya, Harold Pinter Theatre
Ian Rickson’s staging of Chekhov’s masterpiece offered an evening of tonal subtleties and ensemble pleasures. As Vanya, Toby Jones was a rumpled delight. Read the full review
27. FILM Portrait of a Lady on Fire
This achingly intimate French period piece, about a same-sex relationship between a painter and her subject, was a milestone in female desire on screen. Read the full review
26. TV Once Upon A Time In Iraq, BBC Two
This devastating documentary told the story of the Iraq War and its aftermath through the voices of the people who lived through it. Read the full review
25. RADIO Sara Cox, Radio 2
In Simon Mayo’s old drivetime slot, Sara Cox appealed to a huge age range with her pop tunes and upbeat chat, keeping grandparents and grandchildren connected.
24. DANCE The Cellist, Royal Opera House
Cathy Marston’s classy, exquisitely danced Royal Ballet production was a paean to Jacqueline du Pré, Daniel Barenboim, and music full-stop. Read the full review
23. ART Titian: Love, Desire, Death, National Gallery
In a single knock-out room, the National Gallery reunited all six of Titian’s sophisticated and sexy mythological scenes known as his “poesie”. Read the full review
22. CLASSICAL Igor Levit’s Corona House Concerts
Trust this hugely gifted pianist to offer the most ambitious streamed home-concerts of them all, a nightly series of epic scope including one 24-hour marathon.
21. OPERA 4/4, Royal Opera House
A contrasting quartet of chamber works, beautifully staged at Covent Garden and magnificently sung by Christine Rice, Allan Clayton and Masabane Cecilia Rangwanasha. Read the full review
20. COMEDY No More Jockeys
Tim Key, Alex Horne and Mark Watson have perfect comic chemistry in this addictive, zero-budget YouTube panel show. The titular parlour game is one for the ages.
19. POP Dua Lipa: Future Nostalgia
Superpowered glitterball pop from the slickest, sleekest, sassiest British star of the year. The perfect soundtrack to 2020s kitchen disco explosion. Read the full review
18. THEATRE Jesus Christ Superstar, Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre
Timothy Sheader directed Andrew Lloyd Webber’s golden oldie: this socially distanced Superstar was a late-summer miracle. Read the full review
17. FILM Mank
Sublime murk and intrigue from the Golden Age of Hollywood, as Gary Oldman’s jaded screenwriter is cajoled into writing the greatest movie ever made. Read the full review
16. TV Normal People, BBC Three
For all the talk about sex scenes, this adaptation of Sally Rooney’s novel was really a sweet romance. It turned Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal into stars. Read the full review
15. RADIO The Socially Distant Sports Bar podcast
Elis James, Mike Bubbins and Steff Garrero provided unreasonably hilarious lockdown comedy sport chat in their weekly podcast.
14. OPERA Nixon in China, touring
John Adams and Alice Goodman’s subtle political comedy enthralled audiences in John Fulljames’s new staging for Scottish Opera, starring Eric Greene as Tricky Dicky. Read the full review
13. DANCE Richard Alston Dance Company: Final Edition, touring
The world-class choreographer wound down his company with typical poetry and grace after the Arts Council slashed its funding. Read the full review
12. CLASSICAL London Symphony Orchestra
Conducted by Simon Rattle, the LSO and pianist Mitsuko Uchida gave a moving Prom that used the huge space of the Albert Hall to brilliant effect. Read the full review
11. ART Van Eyck, Museum of Fine Arts, Ghent
With 13 – more than half – of his surviving paintings, this stunning exhibition affirmed the genius of the Belgian master, who pioneered working in oils. Read the full review
10. COMEDY The Covid Arms
Kiri Pritchard-McLean’s virtual pub gigs drew huge online audiences, proving comedy can succeed on Zoom – and raised more than £100,000 to feed the hungry.
9. OPERA Denis and Katya
Philip Venables and Ted Huffman produced a laser-sharp new opera of startling psychological power and dramatic clarity – a triumph for Music Theatre Wales. Read the full review
8. RADIO The Lockdown Theatre Festival
Radio drama innovation allowed cancelled or postponed stage shows to find a new audience on Radio 3 and Radio 4 when theatres were closed.
7. THEATRE Three Kings, Old Vic
Andrew Scott mesmerised audiences as a man haunted by paternal abandonment in the premiere of Stephen Beresford’s one-man play, streamed from an empty theatre. Read the full review
6. CLASSICAL Philharmonia Orchestra, Royal Festival Hall
This recreation of Beethoven’s “monster” concert of 1808 was a burst of optimism and joy, the day before the first lockdown began. Read the full review
5. FILM Uncut Gems
Only in 2020 could the best film of the year star Adam Sandler (left). But what a film it was: less a thriller than a neutron bomb of nervous energy, and an instant, barefaced classic. Read the full review
4. DANCE Revisor, Sadler’s Wells
That mild-mannered genius Crystal Pite took Gogol’s farce The Government Inspector and transformed it into a trippily astonishing masterpiece of dance theatre. Read the full review
3. TV I May Destroy You, BBC One
The exceptionally talented Michaela Coel wrote, directed, produced and starred in this drama which addressed traumatic subjects with humour. Read the full review
2. POP Bob Dylan: Rough and Rowdy Ways
The old troubadour returned with a late period masterpiece. Still stranger, deeper, wiser and more mysteriously dazzling than the rest. Read the full review
1. ART Artemisia, National Gallery
A scintillating historical exhibition with its finger on the pulse of now, showing the powerful art and turbulent life of Artemisia Gentileschi. Read the full review