The only useful list is a shopping list

Only now do I see what a fiendishly difficult and meaningless exercise it is to compile lists of the best films, music and plays

THE FOLLOWING will not appear in the list of the 100 best columns of the century. But I have little doubt that someone somewhere is compiling just such a list.

In the last week we have had definitive surveys of the best albums, worst albums, most miserable albums and most overrated albums. It is a perfect indication of the frenetic illogicality that goes into these surveys that Fleetwood Mac's Seventies album Rumours makes the top 20 in both the best albums of the century and the most overrated albums. In other words the same people that mock it as overrated then solemnly go on to overrate it.

Rock music produces more "best of lists" and surveys than most art forms, but the others are catching up. And it seems we can't get enough of them. We devour numerous best films, best composers, best sitcoms and best books compilations, with even a tiny exercise by one publishing house managing to grab headlines in two continents. In preparation is a list of the best plays of the century.

This I know, because I have been asked by the National Theatre to give my nominations for the 10 most "significant" 20th century plays. (I'm pleased to note that art form linguistic snobbery remains. Pop may have its best; but in theatre you have to be "significant".) Only now do I see what a fiendishly difficult and all but meaningless exercise it is.

Best, greatest, most significant ... how to define. A play like Look Back In Anger should be in everyone's list because it helped to change the nature of 20th-century theatre. But it won't be in my list because it has flaws as a piece of dramatic writing.

One respected drama critic is putting in J B Priestley's An Inspector Calls on the strength of an innovative and radical current production. And a play is what you see on stage. But should a play be judged on the strengths and weaknesses of one production? Tricky. And of course we all want to impress a touch of idiosyncrasy on the list - a personal choice that no one else might have. So out goes Look Back In Anger from my list and in comes Brian Friel's poignant and evocative Dancing At Lughnasa. Significant, in my book, means significant to me as well as to the nation.

Then, with all these surveys, there is the memory problem. I can't actually name that many plays written between 1900 and 1920. I feel churlish about writing off a couple of decades, but at least I'm not writing off the whole of history as happened in a ludicrous BBC survey about sitcoms in which viewers not only put Men Behaving Badly at the top, but had contemporary shows filling all the leading positions. Hancock, Steptoe, Alf Garnett and the Likely Lads were all victims of the peculiar characteristic of best of century surveys which decrees that the century started during our lifetimes, or even during the last few months.

Even in rock music, a relatively modern art form, memory lapses occur in these compilations. I can confess to a youthful indiscretion of once being rather keen on the rock group Slade. They were pretty big at the time. Indeed they had more records enter the charts straight at number one than The Beatles, no mean achievement.

But, with none of their songs featuring in any contemporary movies, they have been forgotten and never appear in any "best of" compilations. Equally, the great Sixties' TV comic Marty Feldman is always absent from the comedy lists because for 30 years his shows never came out on video, and the memory of "best of" compilers is fickle.

And then, of course, received critical wisdom plays a part in the compiling of a "best of" list. James Joyce's Ulysses and Tolkien's Lord of the Rings appear at the top of every book compilation going. I suspect more people have voted for them than have actually read them. It's not strictly necessary to sample the wares oneself. As Professor Simon Frith, who has lectured about pop music at university level, says of album surveys: "The younger person will list records they've bought most recently. The older will pick a record they neither own nor expect to listen to ever again."

So, beware reading anything of lasting cultural importance into the "best of" lists. Laurence Olivier in his last years appeared in a Granada TV series entitled The Best Play of the Year that featured a particular play from a particular year each week. Such plays as Tennessee Williams's Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Harold Pinter's The Birthday Party may or may not have been the best plays of their particular years. What is certain is that they and all the others in the series had a marvellous cameo part for an old man. We all have our own reasons for deciding that something is the best.

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

music
Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
News
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
people
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
Yaphett Kotto with Julius W Harris and Jane Seymour in 1973 Bond movie Live and Let Die

film
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment

film
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Where the spooks get their coffee fix: The busiest Starbucks in the US is also the most secretive

    The secret CIA Starbucks

    The coffee shop is deep inside the agency's forested Virginia compound
    Revealed: How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Loch Ness Monster 'sighting'

    How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Nessie 'sighting'

    The Natural History Museum's chief scientist was dismissed for declaring he had found the monster
    One million Britons using food banks, according to Trussell Trust

    One million Britons using food banks

    Huge surge in number of families dependent on emergency food aid
    Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths 2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

    2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

    Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths trove
    The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey, 25 years on

    The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey 25 years on

    The space telescope was seen as a costly flop on its first release
    Did Conservative peer Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

    Did Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

    A document seen by The Independent shows that a week after he resigned from the Lords he sold 350,000 shares in an American company - netting him $11.2m
    Apple's ethnic emojis are being used to make racist comments on social media

    Ethnic emojis used in racist comments

    They were intended to promote harmony, but have achieved the opposite
    Sir Kenneth Branagh interview: 'My bones are in the theatre'

    Sir Kenneth Branagh: 'My bones are in the theatre'

    The actor-turned-director’s new company will stage five plays from October – including works by Shakespeare and John Osborne
    The sloth is now the face (and furry body) of three big advertising campaigns

    The sloth is the face of three ad campaigns

    Priya Elan discovers why slow and sleepy wins the race for brands in need of a new image
    How to run a restaurant: As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food

    How to run a restaurant

    As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food
    Record Store Day: Remembering an era when buying and selling discs were labours of love

    Record Store Day: The vinyl countdown

    For Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
    Usher, Mary J Blige and Will.i.am to give free concert as part of the Global Poverty Project

    Mary J Blige and Will.i.am to give free concert

    The concert in Washington is part of the Global Citizen project, which aims to encourage young people to donate to charity
    10 best tote bags

    Accessorise with a stylish shopper this spring: 10 best tote bags

    We find carriers with room for all your essentials (and a bit more)
    Paul Scholes column: I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England

    Paul Scholes column

    I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England
    Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

    Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

    The heptathlete has gone from the toast of the nation to being a sleep-deprived mum - but she’s ready to compete again. She just doesn't know how well she'll do...