Stars of 2020
Stars of 2020

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

Pixar's Soul - Pixar
Pixar’s Soul – Pixar
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

'Women at Their Toilette' featured in Picasso and Paper - Succession Picasso/DACS 2019
‘Women at Their Toilette’ featured in Picasso and Paper – Succession Picasso/DACS 2019
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

Lovers Rock - McQueen Limited
Lovers Rock – McQueen Limited
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.

Natalya Romaniw in La bohème - Lloyd Winters/ENO
Natalya Romaniw in La bohème – Lloyd Winters/ENO
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

The Cellist at the Royal Opera House - Alastair Muir
The Cellist at the Royal Opera House – Alastair Muir
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

Pepe Nufrio as Jesus in Jesus Christ Superstar - Mark Senior
Pepe Nufrio as Jesus in Jesus Christ Superstar – Mark Senior
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

Richard Alston Dance Company - Alastair Muir
Richard Alston Dance Company – Alastair Muir
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

Andrew Scott in rehearsal for Three Kings at the Old Vic - Manuel Harlan
Andrew Scott in rehearsal for Three Kings at the Old Vic – Manuel Harlan
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

What would be on your list? Leave your suggestions in the comments below

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