ARTS 1996

It was the year of Cezanne at the Tate and Oasis at Maine Road; of `Moll Flanders' and `Emma', `Trainspotting' and `Our Friends in the North'. And here, in time-honoured tradition, our critics pick their people and productions of the past 12 months. The envelopes please ...

BEST POP ACT

NICHOLAS BARBER

FIGHT; have an album in the Top 20 all year long (3.6 million sales in Britain alone); play some concerts in your favourite football stadium; play some concerts that make the ones in the stadium seem tiny; win a heap of Brit Awards; swear at the Brit Awards, not because you want to shock people but just because you feel like it; ditto the MTV Awards; drop out of your MTV Unplugged recording; sing a song on stage with Burt Bacharach; swan about with Kate Moss and Johnny Depp; get engaged to the ex-wife of the ex-king of stadium rock; tattoo her name on your arm; get your name in the tabloids - and keep it there; get on the News at Ten; be unashamed about your possession of cocaine; get arrested for possession of cocaine; refuse to let the Smurfs murder a song you wrote; refuse to let Urban Cookie Collective release a song you wrote; refuse to let Evan Dando release a song you co-wrote; refuse to let the Chemical Brothers use your name on a record you co-wrote; allow Germany to use your song as a Euro '96 anthem; prepare to conquer America; start the tour late; stop the tour early; split up - but not quite; work on your next record; fight.

When no one else is having a fraction of the impact Oasis are, they don't even have to release an album to be the indisputable Band of the Year.

Last year's winner: Pulp.

BEST FILM

KEVIN JACKSON

THE deadening experience of sitting through far too many formulaic idiocies can give reviewers the impression that this is the worst of times for cinema. It isn't so: 1996 may not have been a plainly outstanding year, particularly not for foreign- language films, but it wasn't unredeemed. British directors gave us, in no particular order, Secrets and Lies, The Pillow Book, Leaving Las Vegas, Richard III, Jude, Trainspotting and the underrated Small Faces. There were some decent children's films: The Secret of Roan Inish, James and the Giant Peach, Toy Story; The Hunchback of Notre Dame had its moments, too. Almodovar's The Flower of My Secret extended his range in unexpected ways; Lars von Trier's Breaking the Waves was deeply suspect, but powerful none the less.

Among the Hollywood products worth enthusing or arguing about were Heat, Seven (see also Best Screen Actor), Casino (underrated, or the conclusive sign of Scorsese's technique triumphing over his dramatic intelligence?), Twelve Monkeys, Sense and Sensibility, Get Shorty and that unstoppable invader, Independence Day. From America's left field came Jim Jarmusch's Dead Man, the Coen brothers' Fargo and John Sayles's deeply impressive Lone Star - the last two being very strong contenders for end-of-year laurels. When it came to the final spin of the coin, though, the winner was Smoke: no more than competently directed by Wayne Wang, perhaps, but beautifully scripted by one of America's fin-est writers, Paul Auster, wittily acted by Harvey Keitel (one of the best, and least typical roles of a remarkable career), Forest Whitaker et al. Smoke was a film to make you feel cautiously optimistic about the United States and its independent cinema, and - the final, seductive touch - surely the only American movie ever to refer to Bakhtin.

Last year's winner: `Crumb'.

BEST SCREEN ACTOR

KEVIN JACKSON

A TRULY hateful and shuddersome villain is a rare creature, but "John Doe" in Seven was every inch that Satanic visitation. Quietly spoken, slyly insinuating, terrifyingly clear-sighted in the terms of his own misanthropic logic, faintly though identifiably camp, and disconcertingly funny, John Doe managed in his few minutes on screen to lend the sulphurous whiff of authentic evil to a widely praised but - in this writer's view - meretricious and sophomoric exercise in making the flesh creep. (Rather as the superb Morgan Freeman - another contender for this title - lent it undeserved maturity and human warmth as Detective William Somerset.) And no one now working in Hollywood could have played John Doe with quite such enthralling nastiness as Kevin Spacey.

1996 was the year in which Spacey capitalised on his arresting part as Verbal Kint, the unacknowledged genius of last year's The Usual Suspects. His blisteringly sardonic performance as a creepy studio boss in Swimming With Sharks raised it into one of the most memorable of Hollywood satires; his Machiavellian but wickedly self-aware role as a Southern prosecuting lawyer was the best thing in the otherwise so-so John Grisham adaptation A Time to Kill; and almost everyone who has seen him in Al Pacino's upcoming documentary essay Looking for Richard has been impressed by his uncommon ease with classical material. He's one of the few bankable actors who could squeeze the full poisonous zest from a part like Iago or De Flores, and one of the handful to show signs of being intelligent to the point of insolence. Perhaps he is too uncomfortable a presence ever to play the lead in a major production, but let's hope not. Better the devil you know, as the saying goes; and in 1996, Kevin Spacey became the best devil we know.

Last year's winners: Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke for `Before Sunrise'.

BEST TV DRAMA

DAVID AARONOVITCH

IN A year in which the swish of crinoline and the clop of horses' hooves have been the predominant sound effects in TV drama, the prize has to go to that very rare thing - an epic of the recent past. Our Friends in the North took a huge risk in following its characters through the social and political changes of the latter part of our own century, and emerged with a drama that should endure. It also confirmed Christopher Eccleston as a star. I think that it was probably Michael Jackson's finest moment as controller of BBC2.

Hillsborough was in the fine (but much- criticised) tradition of Granada drama-docs, and together with Andrew Davies's sexy Moll Flanders gave end-of-year hope about ITV's investment in something other than men in uniforms. A sympathetic nod to Rhodes - it didn't work and the excellent Frances Barber was terribly served by her casting as an extraneous mad Russian stalker - but Martin Shaw was commanding, and it looked magnificent. Two dramas I feel very guilty about, since I failed to review them, were The Crow Road and A Fragile Heart. The former was more intriguing than the latter, but both had their fans.

Finally, the soaps: EastEnders has been on a grim roll. So, too, has the ludicrous Brookside. Corry's been kinder to its older characters; if it can give the young 'uns as much to do then its exaggerated ratings "crisis" will be a thing of the past.

Last year's winner: `A Village Affair' (ITV).

BEST TV DOCUMENTARY

DAVID AARONOVITCH

THERE IS, as the TV big cheeses claim, a vast amount of factual programming around, a lot of it good. In one week on terrestrial TV, there are three holiday shows, three cooking programmes, four natural-history films - and so on.

But the genre that has been most getting up my hooter is the new Voodoovision, epitomised by Carol "Spooky" Vorderman's collection of plausible nonsense, Out of This World. This examined psychic pets, alien abduction, doppelgangers and various hauntings, all given far more credence than the facts should have allowed. It was of a piece with the fad for weirdness and out-of- mind experiences that is the worst aspect of what has been called "pre- millennial tension".

So Doc of the Year goes to the show that most comprehensively debunked one of these Voodoo myths, that of the Great Templar Conspiracy. BBC2's Timewatch: History of a Mystery was cleverly constructed, beginning as though it believed in King Dagobert II and the treasure of Rennes-Le-Cateau, but gradually unveiling the evidence that the whole thing was a gigantic fraud-cum-puzzle cooked up by a Parisian aristocrat and a lunatic antiquarian. I would like to force all those credulous citizens who sat through Spooky's show saying "there must be something in it" to watch Timewatch and admit that eventually this stuff always turns out to be nonsense.

Last year's winner: Princess Diana's `Panorama'.

BEST AD

PETER YORK

I LOVED the Superdrug ads. They took us to nice places (the bedrooms of teenage girls), and introduced us to entirely convincing people. This is something of an achievement in any advertising sector, but particularly in hair and cosmetics ads, which are usually formulaic and aspirational to the max.

It was also innovative in using the BBC2 Video Nation format - people talking artlessly to camera about their lives, while appearing to get on with them. But God is in the details, and the triumph of the Superdrug ads lay in finding the right people. To this day I'm not sure how it was done - whether they were actors, and if not, to what extent they had scripts. And the "set decoration" - if that's what it was - was utterly believable too: patterned duvets in pine-and-poster-decorated bedrooms.

But the greatest joy was in what these teenagers actually said and how they deconstructed - as the culture critics say - the fancy symbolism of hair and make-up and reconstructed it in terms of credible situations, like "meeting my friend Tanya, who always looks perfect". There were smaller pleasures too: Twenties-sounding jazz interludes and amusing copy lines that matched the mood of the vignettes - funny without being patronising, identifiable without being remotely dull.

Last year's winner: `Miller Time'.

BEST RADIO PROGRAMME

SUE GAISFORD

THERE should be a dozen categories for the radio prize but, as there aren't, it is shared by two great and enthusiastic communicators: Leslie Forbes, whose series, A History of Britain in Six Menus (R4) and Great French Dishes (R3), presented food in the enormous context of Life; and Joanna Pinnock, who did the same with natural history in Twilight, Cry in the Dark and Grubs Up (all R4).

My favourite actress was Margot Boyd - Marjorie Antrobus in The Archers (R4) but also the beguiling heroine of The Ladykillers (R4). Best play was Don Taylor's complex historical drama Merely Players (R4); best solo performance, Simon Callow's reading of Oscar Wilde's De Profundis (R4); best poetry programme, the tribute to Raymond Carver, Pure Gravy (R3).

Superb foreign correspondents included Allan Little in African Harvest (R4), Fergal Keane in No Man is an Island (R4), Robert Fisk in Between Two Worlds (R4) and Simon Dring in Pity the Peacekeepers (R4). Two R5 documentaries were first class: the harrowing Kids for Sale and Marianne Henry's Taking Drugs Seriously. Also highly commended are Blessed Are They (R2) and Bugles Calling From Sad Shires (R2).

The Proms (R3) were better than ever, especially the Junior Prom (R3); Classic FM produced two winners, Menuhin the Master Musician and Russian Revelation.

There was much to laugh at, including Perry Pontac's hilarious play After Albert (R4) and splendid R3 spoofs by John Morton. Throughout the year, thank heaven, countless lives were enhanced by the benign wisdom of the World Service, and by Alistair Cooke, celebrating 50 years of Letter From America (R4/WS). And there was so much more...

Last year's winner: `Fairest Isle' (R3).

BEST PLAY

ROBERT BUTLER

RUNNERS-UP for Best Play would be Martin McDonagh's cruel, oppressive portrait of an Irish mother frustrating her daughter from marriage in The Beauty Queen of Leenane (now transferred to the Royal Court Downstairs), which displays a Hitchcockian taste for suspense, and Ben Elton's Popcorn (Nottingham and Leeds), which had the inspired idea of unleashing a couple of cult killers into the Hollywood home of a Tarantino-esque director of violent movies. It's rare to find plays with a thematic and structural energy - pent-up, focused, accumulative - that pull an audience in and then won't let it go. Both these plays had that. So, in even greater abundance, did Art. In it, three middle-aged men argue about the merits of a white canvas with three diagonal lines. Richly perceptive, Yasmina Reza's play, which opened in Paris two years ago, takes on the conflicting faiths of rationalism, modernism and liberalism on the one hand, and the way we try to mould our friends - and our friends try to mould us - on the other. It's amazing that it takes two years, and Sean Connery's help, for this calibre of show to cross the Channel: what do producers do all day? Art has three stellar performances: from Tom Courtenay, Albert Finney and Ken Stott (see also Best Stage Actor). It's buoyantly directed by Matthew Warchus, and wittily translated by Christopher Hampton. Its only problem is that it is so funny and stylish that the skilled interplay of ideas has been largely underestimated. Here is a West End play with enough bite and fizz to make sitting in a theatre the best possible option on a winter evening.

Last year's winner: `The Phoenician Women' (Katie Mitchell, The Other Place).

BEST STAGE ACTOR

ROBERT BUTLER

AMONG the men, Paul Scofield was in toweringly restless form as the disgraced John Gabriel Borkman. Mike Nichols achieved an enviable spontaneity in Wallace Shawn's The Designated Mourner (he may have used an autocue, but he used it superbly). David Suchet was lethal as George in the Almeida's revival of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, and Stephen Dillane had an anguished comedy as Clov in Katie Mitchell's Donmar production of Endgame. Among the women, Penelope Wilton was harrowing in Long Day's Journey into Night, Isabelle Huppert had an intense emotionalism as Mary Stuart and Paula Hemingway a gritty authenticity in Jim Cartwright's I Licked a Slag's Deodorant. There were some superb Ibsenite women: witty Eileen Atkins sharply acidic as Gunhild in Borkman, Harriet Walter oscillating between languor and recklessness as Hedda Gabler, and Janet McTeer rivetingly busy as Nora in A Doll's House. But the year was divided up, like term times, by three performances in three translations of French plays. In the new year, Ken Stott was Alceste in Martin Crimp's update of The Misanthrope. In the summer, he was Scottie Scott, the Glaswegian comic in The Prince's Play, Tony Harrison's rewrite of Victor Hugo's Le Roi s'Amuse. Then in the autumn, Stott played Yvan in the West End hit Art (see also Best Play). If the other two roles had run the gamut from spleen to bile and back again, here was an alternative for Stott: neat, metropolitan and vulnerable. He was the punch-bag, who didn't have much of a point of view. In a laboratory, Stott would have been a scientific phenomenon: a vacuum acting as a catalyst. In the theatre, he more than equalled his celebrated co-stars, Tom Courtenay and Albert Finney.

Last year's winner: Diana Rigg (`Mother Courage and Her Children', National).

BEST DANCER

JENNY GILBERT

IT WAS a year in which mature artistry triumphed over youth. Mikhail Baryshnikov proved dazzlingly that there is life after 48 and serious injury. Fellow American Trisha Brown, 56, danced unforgettably in a slit- to-the-hip dress with her back to the audience. The hype that preceded gorgeous, pouting Joaqun Cortes got its come-uppance when he was upstaged by his own uncle. Our own Lynn Seymour, 57, swanned into the "male" Swan Lake to add veracity to the role of Siegfried's mother. Just watch her face when she extends a queenly hand to the Black Swan and instead of a kiss gets a lascivious lick. Matthew Bourne's brilliant production became the longest-running ballet ever to play the West End. For the Royal Ballet, the pounds 68m gift from the Lottery must at times have seemed more like the curse of Carabosse than a blessing from the Violet Fairy. With rebuilding closure set for next July, the company is still unable to say where its temporary home will be. More positively, the year produced a magnificent new Anastasia, fulfilling the late MacMillan's wishes. And the year's most thrilling dancing came from the Royal's Deborah Bull, whose ferocious athleticism and flaming passion amount almost to a fire hazard in Forsythe's Steptext. Bull (34) has been asserting herself off stage too. Her ardent speech at the Oxford Union in favour of arts subsidy had cynical impresarios quaking in their socks. Her recent expose of dancers who starve themselves to dance will be the saving of many less level-headed than her. Here is a dancer whose intelligence and courage - for once - don't reside entirely in the tips of her toes.

Last year's winner: the Royal Ballet's corps de ballet.

BEST COMEDIAN

BEN THOMPSON

EVERY NOW and then something happens that gives hope to all those who toil in comedy's foothills: a magical blend of talent, hard work and a sprinkling of dumb luck suddenly elevates a humble share-cropper to the status of feudal laird. Such has been the happy fate of Al Murray's Pub Landlord. Murray's character - a snug-bar sage who expounds a philosophy based entirely on hostelry ritual ("Man cannot live by beer alone: he needs crisps and nuts as well") - began life as a bit-part in Harry Hill's 1994 show, Pub Internationale. The decision to take him out onto the club circuit alone was a bold one, but what might have been a one-trick pony turned out to be a true circus show-stopper. Veering without warning between lachrymosity and belligerence, the Landlord personifies Little Englandism with awe-inspiring acuity. Widely compared to Harry Enfield's "Loadsamoney", Murray's creation actually employs a laser-guided airbrush where Enfield's Eighties plasterer used a broad fluffy roller. While the established comedy aristocracy strove ignobly to forget its roots in an orgy of novel writing, Hollywood cameos and unseemly tabloid brouhahas, a small group of committed individuals battled to uphold the good name of their profession. Notable among the newcomers were admirably sinister northern-gothic sketch trio the League of Gentlemen. For the old guard, Harry Hill went from strength to strength; a triumphant appearance on the David Letterman show raised expectations for next year's proper British TV debut (Saturday Live doesn't count) way beyond fever pitch.

Last year's winner: Phil Kay.

BEST BUILDING

JONATHAN GLANCEY

IT HAS yet to be built, but the Ruskin Library at the University of Lancaster promises to be the best building to have surfaced in Britain in 1996. It made its public debut at the Venice Biennale this autumn and has now won the necessary Lottery funds to see it built. Designed by MacCormac Jamieson Prichard, the eye-shaped library will be the focus of studies of the life, works and influence of John Ruskin, the great Victorian critic. MacCormac's building, realised in rich materials inside and out, promises to revive architectural craftsmanship and to reconcile the lessons of history with the strivings of contemporary architecture. The Ruskin Library will open next year. Of completed buildings, David Chipperfield's boat house at Henley is a fine example of disciplined modern architecture made delightful by its purpose and Thames-side setting; the Donnelly Art Gallery, Dublin, on a hill above the sea by Claudio Silvestrin, is underway and promises to be, in the words of the architect who has made his name with minimalist design, "a very long, very stretched, narrow gallery to mirror the horizon of the sea"; finally, I liked the interior of Teresa Roviras and Spencer Fung's London flat, which proved that the combination of a graphic designer and an architect in love with the modern world can produce a crisp, uncluttered and fashionable home without being either too clever or frosty.

Last year's winner: Zaha Hadid's stand for `Blueprint' magazine at the Interbuild exhibition.

BEST CLASSICAL MUSICIAN

MICHAEL WHITE

GIVEN that concerts, like buses, run increasingly in convoys, it feels like 1996 came themed around composer series: Ives at the Barbican, Birtwistle at the South Bank, Henze at Aldeburgh ... not forgetting the centenary of Roberto Gerhard, which turned up modestly but noticeably all over the place. So did music from Denmark, where, armed with this year's European Cultural Capital, the Danish Government took the opportunity to promote its composers with a vigour ours would never contemplate. Discoveries included Bo Holten, whose evocative, richly textured choral writing had a major platform in the Clerkenwell Music Series - a new, struck-lucky festival in the right place at the right time. Manchester wasn't so lucky with its new concert hall, which opened badly with the Halle Orchestra in poor shape. But it was a good year for the two rising stars I mentioned in last Christmas's dispatches, Daniel Harding and Ian Bostridge. My personal highlights were the astonishing automotive brilliance of Yevgeny Kissin at the Barbican; the incomparable partnership of Wolfgang Holzmair with Imogen Cooper at its best in the Bath Mozart Festival; and Simon Rattle overseeing the mighty challenge of Stockhausen's three-orchestra epic Gruppen on successive nights in Birmingham and London. This performance, together with his television series, Leaving Home (which came as close as TV can to an uncompromised sugaring of the pill of modern music), gets Rattle my vote - again - for Musician of the Year. It's not a startling choice, but it's a necessary one, as Rattle proves himself ever more essential to the health of British music-making. He ought to be available on prescription; and one of the concerns thrown up by this year was the announcement of his departure from Birmingham, which means that in a few years time he may not be available at all. The USA or Germany will beckon, and we'll watch his triumphs from a distance. Not a happy prospect.

Last year's winner: Simon Rattle.

BEST ARTIST

TIM HILTON

IT'S been a super year for heavyweight Old Master shows - Vermeer, Cezanne, Velasquez - but not so good for new art. Rachel Whiteread's display at the Liverpool Tate was widely acclaimed, and Howard Hodgkin, currently at the Hayward, is obviously at the peak of his form. Bright newcomer of 1996 was the zany, insolent painter Richard Patterson. Public gallery of the year: Abbot Hall, Kendal, for the coup of a Lucian Freud exhibition. Commercial gallery of the year: Crane Kalman, for a terrific little show of early-modernist American painting. Artist of the year is Jennifer Durrant, whose paintings attracted a record number of visitors to the Francis Graham- Dixon Gallery and were the best canvases at the RA summer show. Durrant isn't famous in the world at large - not yet, anyway - but is much- loved by other painters. They appreciate the invention and charm of her smaller works and the meditative lyricism of her big pictures. Durrant has produced some great, decorative mural-like paintings this year; and they are simply and unaffectedly beautiful, as so much current art is not.

Last year's winner: Anthony Caro.

BEST OPERA

MICHAEL WHITE

MAYBE I've got a bad case of selective memory, but 1996 strikes me as year when operatic agonies outweighed the ecstasies, with too many revivals just about limping home and too many new productions that should have been stifled at birth. Opera Factory's Magic Flute, Covent Garden's camp-crude Giovanna d'Arco and the direly dull House of Crossed Desires at Cheltenham were all indictable offences - outclassed only by the Orpheus et Euridice that played Edinburgh with the production values of an Oscars ceremony: it lingers in the mind like something from the Barbara Cartland Book of Taste. More positively, there was some interesting new work around - only semi-successful, in the case of the premiere stagings of James MacMillan's Ines de Castro and Maxwell Davies's Doctor of Myddfai, but with magical intensity in Param Vir's Indian exotica Broken Strings and Snatched By the Gods at the Almeida. Covent Garden's Ring Cycle came together, musically if not dramatically, with magisterial conviction from the baton of Bernard Haitink. And there were a few, fabulous vocal sur- prises springing unexpectedly from almost no- where: Ruth Ann Swenson's brilliant coloratura in the Covent Garden Semele; Rosa Mannion's beguiling Violetta in the ENO Traviata; and above all Lorraine Hunt, whose all-round vocal and dramatic presence made the Glyndebourne Theodora my opera of the year. Its director Peter Sellars has dealt British audiences some foul hands in the past, but his streetwise, all-American stage language strikes unlikely chords of sympathy with Handel, and what he did here was profoundly moving: stunningly well-cast, and with a knowing partner in conductor William Christie.

Last year: `The Makropulos Case' (Glyndebourne).

BEST JAZZ MUSICIAN

PHIL JOHNSON

THOUGH there's no shortage of deserving cases, from lifetime-achievement- award candidates to ever-present hard-sloggers and bootstrap-tugging upcomers, no one I've seen this year has filled me with a sense of wonder like the 23-year-old pianist Nikki Yeoh (pronounced Yoh). Yet after only a limited apprenticeship as a member of bands led by musicians as disparate as Courtney Pine and Neneh Cherry, Yeoh gave a solo concert at St George's Church in Bristol that was revelatory. Beginning extended improvisations with dense, ruminatory flourishes at the keyboard, and going on to paraphrase modern jazz classics like Herbie Hancock's "Maiden Voyage" or John Coltrane's "Giant Steps", Yeoh gradually revealed a playful and utterly distinctive musical personality, interpolating quotes from soap-opera themes and cheesy soundtracks into a seamless improvisation. By the end of the concert, she was so full of confidence that anything seemed possible. Instead, she played "Chopsticks" and made a po-faced audience laugh out loud. Recent work composing for Piano Circus suggests that anything, in any genre (though she's as jazz as Earl Hines), is possible.

Last year's winner: Sonny Rollins. !

ARTS ETCETERA

The Arts Etcetera page is taking a Christmas break, and will return on 29 December. The annual Christmas Details competition will be published next week.

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