David Lister: So if there was an award for Arts Personality of the Year, who would we honour?

The Week in Arts


As I watched the BBC Sports Personality of the Year the other day, I felt that something was wrong.

Is it really just sport that produces "personalities"? You only have to go to a First Night party to know otherwise. So, to (almost) round off the year, I hereby launch the Arts Personality of the Year.

And because I'm doing the launching, I will also do the choosing. In theatre, there has been no shortage of personalities, the intermittently hilarious James Corden in One Man Two Guvnors and the mesmerising Mark Rylance in Jerusalem. But there are personalities behind the scenes, too. Michael Grandage has been consistently superb at the helm of London's Donmar theatre. His new production of Richard II with Eddie Redmayne had me buzzing days after seeing it. Now that he is stepping down, a medal is due.

On television, several of the cast of Downton Abbey have grown into personalities that stretch way beyond the series. A new generation has learned to love Maggie Smith; the three sisters have become stars; and its creator, Julian Fellowes, is probably the most in-demand TV writer of the moment. But none of them gets to pick up the trophy. The TV drama personality of the year has to go to the jumper of the year, Sarah Lund. The Killing and its protagonist have made the Danish thriller the television breakthrough of the year.

In opera and ballet, the Royal Opera House scored a personality double with the stars and directors of Anna Nicole and Alice in Wonderland stretching the boundaries of their respective art forms. Mind you, in dance, it is still hard to look beyond the sleek, enigmatic and gravity-defying Sylvie Guillem, filling houses well into her forties.

With film, it took to the last week of the year for the biggest personality to take one's breath away. Leave the family on Boxing Day and go and see The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Rooney Mara's androgynous, vengeful and strangely sexy heroine makes two hours 40 minutes go by in a flash. She is stunning on screen – violent, provocative, disturbed and dangerous. Ms Mara, herself, is of course a very different animal off screen.

And that is precisely the problem. For, as much as one wants an arts personality of the year, what precisely does it mean? Are you a personality if, as with Mark Rylance, you are larger than life on stage and turn in the performance of the decade? Are you a personality when your lines have been written by someone else, or a stunning cast has made a director look good? You are great in the arts because you can immerse yourself in an alter ego. I must confess I can't even recall the name of the actress who plays Sarah Lund. Besides, she may have a rotten personality. It is Lund herself that I would want to win the trophy.

Of course, you could argue – and I would – that the same argument is true of sport. Being a supreme athlete does not of itself make you a personality. But in the performing arts, we must be more honest. You can have great performances and fantastic achievements in the arts. So, reluctantly I must withdraw the prize. There can't be an arts personality of the year. It's a contradiction in terms.

Some concepts are just so last century

The impressive, newish director of Tate Modern, Chris Dercon, is a 21st-century man. I asked him the other day which exhibitions he would be masterminding, and he told me that a curator making all the decisions was "so 20th century". Today's curators bring together great minds and adopt a collegiate approach. That's me sent back to the last century, then.

But he did say that he was particularly excited about delving in the Tate's extensive archives and putting on an exhibition of artists' letters, diaries, etc. It should be an illuminating show, and it's interesting to learn that looking back in the archives is so 21st century.

What an absolutely fabulous idea

One of the highlights of Christmas Day TV tomorrow is sure to be the return of Absolutely Fabulous. I was amused to read this week that a BBC executive rang up Ab Fab's creator and star Jennifer Saunders to ask if the programme should be scheduled before or after the watershed. Ms Saunders ranted afterwards that idiots were running television, and of course it had to be after the watershed.

Actually, I find it rather endearing that a BBC exec asks the writer where her programme should sit in the schedules. I think Jennifer should have kept her temper, stayed in character and said: "Marvellous, darling, put it on directly after the Queen's Speech and repeat it in prime time. Cheers, sweetie."

d.lister@independent.co.uk // twitter.com/davidlister1

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