From Sophie Ellis Bextor to the National Gallery – who were the cultural heroes of 2020?

From left: Kiri Pritchard-McLean, Sophie Ellis-Bextor, Lawrence Power - Kayla Wren/Jack Liebeck/Avalon.Red
From left: Kiri Pritchard-McLean, Sophie Ellis-Bextor, Lawrence Power - Kayla Wren/Jack Liebeck/Avalon.Red

In a disastrous year for the arts which saw venues close and many lose their livelihoods overnight, some individuals and organisations showed bravery, initiative and good old blitz spirit to try to keep the party going. Here are seven who brightened up 2020.

Pop: Sophie Ellis-Bextor

By hanging a glitterball and tinsel curtain in the open plan kitchen of her home in west London, underemployed pop star Sophie Ellis-Bextor became a beacon of national joy. Every Friday through the darkest hours of the pandemic, the 41-year-old mother-of-five staged an ebullient, cheerfully chaotic Kitchen Disco, filmed on an iPhone and streamed live on Instagram.

Whilst her five boys (aged from 18 months to 16 years) romped around in fancy dress, their ridiculously glamorous mother danced and sang in outfits ranging from sequinned jumpsuits to rainbow minidresses. With unflappable calm, she kept the party going whilst simultaneously dealing with mini family emergencies, dispensing hugs, fixing children’s costumes and chattering with amused amiability throughout. Husband Richard Jones (bass player with The Feeling and Loup GarouX) filmed proceedings, making odd guest appearances presumably whenever he could persuade a teenager to take over the camera phone.

Sophie Ellis-Bextor performing her 'kitchen disco' - Tim Stewart News Limited
Sophie Ellis-Bextor performing her 'kitchen disco' - Tim Stewart News Limited

Kitchen Disco sets ranged from Ellis-Bextor’s own back catalogue to ropy karaoke versions of classic dance hits and show-stoppers from Grease and Ghostbusters. Where most of the amateurish first wave of pop-up pop star live-streams felt flat and vainglorious, Ellis-Bextor’s embraced the oddness of the situation with such good cheer, it really made locked down onlookers feel a part of her zany family. “My house is your house now,” as she told the hundreds of thousands who tuned in to her adventures online. “Can you go and put the kettle on?” By Neil McCormick

Classical: The Royal Liverpool Philharmonic

The regional orchestras were at the head of the pack when it came to restarting performances after the first lockdown. Right at the front was the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, which gave its first post-lockdown concert on September 30, and continued with a terrific Autumn season until the second closure of concert halls brought everything to a halt.

Now they’ve announced a Christmas and New Year season of over 40 concerts, which beats any other orchestra. The range is impressive, from Christmas favourites to Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream to contemporary pieces conducted by violist Lawrence Power, one of a number of starry visitors in the season.

The Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra
The Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra

There are seven concerts from Liverpool Philharmonic Youth Company Ensembles: a children’s concert, an education project, a concert from the orchestra’s own contemporary music ensemble 10/10, and visiting ensembles such as the terrific choir Voces8. Five of the events will be streamed for audiences at home, and the hall will be rigorously cleaned between performances.

It’s all testament to the way an orchestra blessed with visionary and courageous management, with the freedom of manoeuvre that comes from owning its own venue, can curate an inspiring season that appeals to every taste. By Ivan Hewett

Theatre: Andrew Lloyd Webber

Many in British theatre have tirelessly fought the good fight since the pandemic struck, decimating an industry that had been going from strength to strength. They’re too numerous to mention, but nearing the top of the list would have to be Julian Bird, chief executive of the Society of London Theatre and UK Theatre, and Nica Burns, chief executive of Nimax; they have done everything possible to revive theatreland.

But the clear candidate for a loud and long standing ovation is Andrew Lloyd Webber, whose credit rating with insiders like Burns and Bird has rocketed and who has won over new armies of admirers with his continued good cheer and practical dedication.

Andrew Lloyd Webber - Rii Schroer
Andrew Lloyd Webber - Rii Schroer

As soon as lockdown started, he used social media channels to raise morale with goodwill messages, avuncular renditions of his songs at home on the piano and free YouTube streamings of his major hits. Back-catalogue aside, he was on the front foot as the owner of six major London theatres, grasping the science and recruiting the expertise required to support the case for reopening venues, both behind closed doors – with the DCMS and Public Health England – and to the media. The socially distanced, Covid-secure pilot events conducted at the London Palladium were crucial turning points in bolstering confidence.

Somehow he also found time to volunteer for the Oxford vaccine, oversee the renovation of Theatre Royal Drury Lane and finish a musical – Cinderella, which previews from April (all his theatres will open thereafter). As if that wasn’t enough, the Open Air Theatre’s al fresco 50th anniversary production of Jesus Christ Superstar (scorching despite the rain) was a theatrical highlight of the year. “Messianic” should be applied sparingly, but it’s an awestruck adjective that fits. By Dominic Cavendish

Opera: Grange Park Opera

Things looked bleak for opera in the first months of lockdown: as well as the wholesale cancellation of productions, the business was paralysed by the medics’ insistence that singing could transmit the virus through the projection of saliva droplets.

But for Wasfi Kani, the founder-director of Grange Park Opera (based at West Horsley Place in Surrey), the restrictions were just a challenge. She sprung into action the moment the rules allowed her some leeway and commissioned friends like Bryn Terfel and Simon Keenlyside to stream online concerts from their homes.

Claire Booth, singing the role of Elle in Grange Park Opera's La voix humaine - Richard Lewisohn
Claire Booth, singing the role of Elle in Grange Park Opera's La voix humaine - Richard Lewisohn

That was just the beginning: with imagination and common sense, the problem of saliva droplets could be avoided. Grange Park went on to become the first venue to film an opera post-lockdown – Poulenc’s La voix humaine – and to commission an exciting new opera by a young composer, Alex Woolf’s A Feast in the Time of Plague, staged live before a socially distanced audience in September. Since then Grange Park has also made a highly original film of Britten’s Owen Wingrave. For sheer resourceful creativity, no other company can match it. By Rupert Christiansen

Art: National Gallery

Remember that famous photograph of St Paul’s Cathedral shining above the firestorms of the Blitz? Well, the National Gallery boasts a dome, too – and that’s how I think of it weathering the storm of 2020: rising above the clouds of Covid chaos, while other institutions struggled to cope.

From the off, it recognised that it had an important, morale-boosting role to play, just as it had during the Second World War, when Myra Hess gave her famous concerts. Reacting swiftly under the leadership of director Gabriele Finaldi, it insisted it was open online after the doors at Trafalgar Square shut, following the unveiling of a spectacular Titian exhibition (which, thanks to some deft negotiating, remains on view into the new year).

detail of Judith Beheading Holofernes, a painting from the National Gallery's Artemisia exhibition -  Galleria degli Uffizi
detail of Judith Beheading Holofernes, a painting from the National Gallery's Artemisia exhibition - Galleria degli Uffizi

Emphasising the solace that art can provide, Finaldi and his team (none of whom was furloughed) rolled out a popular, wide-ranging digital programme – including video concerts featuring members of the London Philharmonic Orchestra, released on the anniversary of Hess’s first wartime performance. Before March, the gallery hadn’t hosted a single live event online. It has now notched up nearly 200.

It was also the first gallery to reopen when lockdown eased. And, come autumn, a barnstorming exhibition about Baroque painter Artemisia Gentileschi finally began, a fillip for anyone feeling ground down by everything that’s happened. By Alastair Sooke

Comedy: Kiri Pritchard-McLean

This should have been Kiri Pritchard-McLean’s year. This March, the Radio 4 Extra Newsjack host had just been named Britain’s best compère for the third year running at the Chortle Awards, and won the BBC’s prestigious Caroline Aherne bursary for new comic talent. She was just setting off on a national tour of her superb new stand-up show, Empathy Pains. Watching that show in an early preview, I was convinced it would catapult her into the mainstream.

Welsh comedian Kiri Pritchard-McLean
Welsh comedian Kiri Pritchard-McLean

Instead, the tour was scuppered by lockdown. But rather than admit defeat, the Welsh comedian launched an online comedy night at virtual “pub” The Covid Arms, with herself as landlady-cum-MC. Every week during the first lockdown (and monthly thereafter) comedy fans could recapture something of the joy of a good old-fashioned pub gig, while raising money for charity.

With most comedians suddenly having an empty diary, Pritchard-McLean and her colleagues were able to book a raft of top guests (Harry Hill, James Acaster, Sara Pascoe) and welcome far larger crowds than would be possible at any non-digital pub. More than 3,000 people tuned in to the first show. So far, it has raised more than £120,000 for food bank charity The Trussell Trust. I’ll drink to that! By Tristram Fane Saunders

Dance: Birmingham Royal Ballet

While my heart goes out to every last dancer and dance company in Britain this past, tragic, panic-filled year, one institution stands out for sheer get-up-and-go. Carlos Acosta had the least enviable start imaginable to his directorship of BRB, having to put his company on ice before he’d even got properly started. Undaunted, he asked that excellent choreographer Will Tuckett to create a brand new piece for the company, one that boldly took the experience of life under lockdown as its chief inspiration.

Birmingham Royal Ballet's Lazuli Sky - Johan Persson
Birmingham Royal Ballet's Lazuli Sky - Johan Persson

The result was the 30-minute Lazuli Sky. Its London premiere at Sadler’s Wells in October – alongside two further creations new to BRB – was remarkable, and not just for its ambition, its quality, or the lyricism with which it was performed. This was – and will now remain – the only remotely substantial new dance work to be performed to a live audience in Britain between March and the year’s end. And that evening – which also marked the (temporary) reopening of Sadler’s Wells – was also the closest thing in recent memory to a proper, pre-Covid evening of world-class dance. If BRB can achieve this amid the challenges of 2020, just imagine what their future might hold. 
By Mark Monahan