The Year in Review: Culture

From Atonement to Zeppelin
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Sooner or later, they all come back. But rarely have they done so in such quantity, and variable quality, as this year. From Led Zeppelin to the Spice Girls, Take That to Madness, the Sex Pistols to The Police. That lot at least had the bulk of their frontmen and women even if Robbie Williams didn't want to play. Other moneyspinning reunions such as those of The Jam and Thin Lizzy lacked the key player, and I wondered if there shouldn't be a clause in the Trade Descriptions Act to prohibit such partial comebacks under a famous name.

The world of dance saw an emotional departure. Darcey Bussell gave her last performance with the Royal Ballet on a truly tear-jerking evening, at the end of which she broke down uncontrollably. But fear not, she composed herself for the inevitable comeback just a few months later, reinventing herself as part of a diva double act with the classical crossover singer Katherine Jenkins.

And they keep on coming. Or keep on coming back. The director of The Godfather, Francis Ford Coppola, tore himself away from his vineyards to make his first movie for 10 years, and suffered a critical mauling that might have driven a man with a less sophisticated palate to drink. Big names of a different sort made more welcome returns. George Bernard Shaw, a playwright not in vogue for some time, was back at the National Theatre with a hugely acclaimed production of St Joan, and his Major Barbara will now feature in that consistently exciting venue's programme next year. Shakespeare hasn't exactly been away from the London stage, but I can't remember when, in recent years, he has been quite so popular as to have tickets changing hands for up to 1,000 on eBay as they are have been doing for Othello and King Lear, helped just a little by the presence of Ewan McGregor in the former and Sir Ian McKellen in the latter.

The arts in any year will always have their share of nostalgia and comebacks (though this year must have few rivals on that score), and it will always have its share of big names being hot tickets. But this year was, significantly, much more remarkable for the success of new names and new trends, which gave a genuine excitement and sense of discovery to the cultural scene.

Arcade Fire may not achieve the fame or lasting popularity of some of the comeback bands above, but both as a recording band and a live act, they proved a compelling vanguard to an invasion of great music from the unlikely base of Canada. African music was lauded at Glastonbury, and the MySpace generation which last year gave us the genuine, quirky talent of Lily Allen, was all too inevitably followed this year by pale imitations such as Kate Nash and a dozen other derivatives who thought, sometimes rightly, that all that was needed for chart success was a faux-cockney accent and lyrics that dissed boyfriends.

In a way, it was the more established acts that shook up the music industry. Paul McCartney deserted EMI for Starbucks. Radiohead didn't just launch their new album as a download; they allowed fans to pay whatever they wanted for it. Cliff Richard tried something similar, but that smacked more of desperation than innovation.

A year that saw the Royal Opera House back on form; the Proms as popular as ever and set alight by Gustavo Dudamel's colourful Venezuelan orchestra drawn from the favelas; the charismatic Russian maestros Valery Gergiev and Vladimir Jurowski taking over two London orchestras; Damon Albarn's opera Monkey in Manchester; and the reopening of an improved Royal Festival Hall in London could only be a good year for classical music. Only the English National Opera lost its nerve, scheduling musicals to have more performances than operas. One of those, the musical comedy Kismet, a tale of love, romance and high jinks in Baghdad, must count as one of the worst examples of bad timing ever. A startlingly innovative Carmen with dance and video screens from the film director Sally Potter, brought the company's reputation for exciting productions back to the fore, even if it was not to all of the critics' tastes.

Startling and innovative, too, was one of the theatrical events of the year, The Masque of the Red Death at the Battersea Arts Centre. This piece took over the whole building as audiences donned masks and wandered through an Edgar Allan Poe-style Gothic-horror show, with a murder being committed in one room, while one could be part of a music-hall audience in another. Some saw it as the future of theatre, but the site-specific nature of such endeavours must surely mean that they remain rarities rather than the norm.

Nicholas Hytner, head of the National Theatre, may have bit off more greying heads than he could chew when he attacked (and quickly apologised to) the long-serving critics of national newspapers. But he made a far more interesting and noteworthy point when he lamented the lack of political plays written from a right-of-centre perspective. Add this to the head of the Royal Court's statement that he wanted more middle-class plays to reflect his audience, and it is clear that we have had signals this year of a dramatic change in the theatrical landscape.

At the cinema, directors focused on the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan; but to the chagrin of Redford, De Palma and the rest, audiences, particularly in the US, wanted to escape from such soul-searching, and the movies flopped at the box office. The Cold War was another matter, however. Audiences and critics lapped up The Lives of Others, a German investigation into the role of the Stasi in the former East Germany. At home, Joe Wright brought Ian McEwan's Atonement to the screen in a touching and humane adaptation, while Shane Meadows showed a more modern and more worrying side of the English character in his look at contemporary bigotry in This Is England.

The last two showed signs of a flowering of home-grown films. But the shouts of euphoria from the UK Film Council for a great year for British film were risible. Their all-embracing definition of British film now seems to include any film with a British director or with footage shot in Britain. The Bourne Ultimatum was classed as British for their purposes. No doubt we should be reclassifying all of Hitchcock's Hollywood movies as British, too.

Television's arts programming gets its fair share of stick, and this year, the furore over Alan Yentob nodding in interviews he may not have actually attended was the prime target for derision. But such a relatively minor lapse should not detract from the fact that with Yentob's Imagine, BBC2's The Culture Show, ITV's The South Bank Show, and the plethora of programmes on BBC4, Sky Arts and the Performance Channel, arts programming is not in bad health. That said, there is still a ludicrous paucity of classic and contemporary drama, and too much reliance on the non-terrestrial channels to form arts ghettos.

The year in visual arts was probably dominated by the all-conquering Terracotta Army at the British Museum. And only curmudgeons like myself will point out that, fantastic as the show is, much of it was seen a few years ago at the far less fashionable address of the Royal Horticultural Halls. It's the way you sell 'em, it seems. Elsewhere, let's hear it for Tate Britain, too often seen as the less exciting older brother of Tate Modern. Its shows on Hogarth and Millais were two of the most illuminating and satisfying of the year.

Anne Enright, with her novel The Gathering, was the surprise winner of the Booker Prize, beating Ian McEwan's acclaimed On Chesil Beach. But her triumph was almost overshadowed by the speech of the chairman of the judges, Sir Howard Davies, castigating the sometimes incestuous and defiantly non-populist world of book reviewing. There was no disagreement, though, on the continuing and welcome interest in foreign literature, with the Orange Prize going to the Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie for her second novel, Half of a Yellow Sun. Harold Pinter left his archive to the British Library. It cost the BL over 1m, but it is good to see the letters of a literary giant remaining here rather than going to a university in America's Midwest.

Also remaining in Britain will be more contemporary art. Sir Nicholas Serota continued to show a Midas touch with his Tate empire, and convinced a number of artists, including Damien Hirst, to donate work to the gallery. And to put icing on the cake of a genuinely good year, the arts for once convinced the Treasury of their worth and received the increase that they were hoping for in the public-spending review. However, this month, despite the overall uplift in funding from the Government, came an announcement from the Arts Council that it will cut grants completely from one-in-five of the organisations that it funds, the biggest cull since it was set up in 1946. The list has still to be finalised, but such bodies as the Bristol Old Vic, the Northcott theatre in Exeter, the National Student Drama Festival, and the City of London Sinfonia are among those threatened with losing their public subsidy.

The Bristol Old Vic nurtured Peter O'Toole, Daniel Day-Lewis and others; the National Student Drama Festival has produced such talents as Simon Russell Beale and Rik Mayall. But past celebrity does not guarantee survival. And, most significantly, the culling has come in a year when overall government funding proved better than expected. So this is not a decision brought about by penury. It is a clear policy to fund fewer better, and to destroy those that have underperformed. So applause for a remarkably successful cultural year should be tempered by the knowledge that next year will see some high-profile casualties.