This has been a ‘surreal’ year according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary and it’s no coincidence that we’ve been seeking out a variety of ways to distract us from our increasingly bizarre reality. Here, we share our favourite entertainments of the last 12 months—including David Attenborough's Planet Earth II.
Fiona Hicks, Editor
Book of the year: Miss Jane by Brad Watson
This is a gentle, moving tale of a lady who lived in rural Mississippi in the early 20th century. Inspired by the author’s great aunt, the character of Miss Jane was born is a genital defect—meaning that the usual destiny of women of the period (marriage and children) was not open to her. Instead, the reader follows her as she comes to term with her differences and crafts a life on her own terms. The eponymous character’s dignity is humbling, and her grace sticks with you long after you’ve finished reading.
TV Show: Planet Earth II
I am utterly spellbound by this programme. I’m continually amazed not only by the beauty and diversity of the natural world, but also by the incredible skill and patience of the crew who manage to capture it. Cossetted in my London flat, it’s a necessary reminder that the world is much bigger than crowded tubes and busy streets.
Travel: South Africa
Having dated a South African for three years, I’ve heard an awful lot about this country—and finally managed to visit it in 2016. I’ve never seen such a landscape. Imposing mountains look over sparkling beaches, and lush wine lands are just a short drive away from bustling cities. More so than our own little isle, it’s a place where nature and man harmoniously intertwine.
One of this year’s West End blockbusters, this is certainly worth the (ever increasing) ticket price. Colourful, rambunctious and featuring a beautifully composed score, it instantly engages your inner Disney-loving child. The genie is a particular highlight, bringing a flamboyance that fills every corner of the theatre.
In 2017 I’m looking forward to…
Reading Younger by Sara Gottfried
A renowned doctor and hormone specialist in the US, Sara is known for blending Western scientific vigour with Eastern sensibility and holistic values. Her latest book promises to address ageing and vitality from all angles, covering everything from biochemical processes to the best yoga pose to ward off wrinkles. It’s essentially self-improvement with a biomedical edge—my perfect bedtime reading.
Anna Walker, Associate Editor
Book of the Year: My Name is Leon by Kit de Waal
Debut novelist Kit de Waal’s story of a young boy taken into care after his mother can no longer cope, and his unbreakable bond with his little brother Jake, is something really special. A must read for anyone close to their siblings—you’ll never take them for granted again!
TV Show: Planet Earth II
Sunday nights are usually reserved for dreading Monday morning, but the new series of Planet Earth has provided a very welcome change to that routine. I’ve been spellbound by every episode and it’s left me chomping at the bit to see some of the sights with my own eyes in the New Year.
Art gallery: yellowpinkblue
Ann Veronica Janssen’s ‘yellowpinkblue’ installation in the Wellcome Collection blew me away back in January. Part of the museum’s 'States of Mind' season, which explored the concept of consciousness, Janssen filled the gallery with coloured mist so dense you could barely see your hand in front of your face.
I was also lucky enough to catch Brian Wilson performing Pet Sounds in full at the London Palladium for the record’s 50th anniversary. Sweeping sound, goose bump-inducing nostalgia and the thrill of a few hours in the presence of a living legend. Awe-inspiring stuff.
Album: Life of Pablo by Kanye West
Amid the tweets, the fashion, the presidential campaigns, the Kardashians, the pleas for loans from Mark Zuckerberg and that celebrity orgy music video, it’s easy to forget that Kanye West is a really, seriously, talented musician.
This year’s The Life of Pablo is another spectacular album from a man who is—in my opinion at least—yet to release a bad record. Or even an average one for that matter.
The 20 tracks wrestle with the discord between family life and the rap game. The album might be conflicted, but it’s also in turns joyful, reflective and—like anything West creates—very funny.
News event: Ed Balls on Strictly Come Dancing
The nation lost something precious with the departure of Ed Balls from Strictly in November. His dancing was a romping, rollicking, and most importantly—silly—delight that somehow managed to cheer me up more and more with every passing week.
In contrast with the more serious American version, Dancing with the Stars, this series of Strictly reminded me of all I love about being British at a time when I really needed that.
Not only was Balls very funny, but he was also a real try-er. The only thing that Brits love more than an underdog is an underdog in sequinned spandex.
Podcast: Reply All
The weekly podcast 'Reply All' has kept me company on my daily walk to work for two years now, but the past 12 months have been particularly excellent.
The show is ostensibly Internet themed, but this rather vague specialism gives them scope to cover a huge variety of topics, each with an insightful personal interest angle. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself slowing the last five minutes of your commute to a crawl, just to catch the end of the episode.
The miniseries, On the Inside, which spanned four shows, was the highlight of the year. It told the story of prisoner Paul Modrowski who has been authoring a blog within a maximum-security prison for years, without ever having used the Internet. A must listen for fans of Serial.
Standout episodes: #64 On the Inside, #79 Boy in Photo, #74 Making Friends
Farhana Gani, Culture Editor
Book of the Year: Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
We alerted you to this book in the autumn when it was published in the UK. It went on to win the coveted National Book Award and that's jut for starters. Cora is a young slave working on a cotton plantation in Georgia. Her wretched life is made worse after her mother disappears without so much as a goodbye. Escape is the last thing on her mind as her every moment is spent on survival. And then Caesar insists Cora join him in his bid for freedom via the underground railroad.
A sharp, brilliantly written fictional tale about history, people and the situations they find themselves in—and a film adaptation is now in development.
The Good Immigrant by Nikesh Shukla is another notable book in a politically turbulent year. The 21 essays, by a variety of writers, are insightful, moving, humorous and provocative explorations of what it means to be an immigrant and non-white in Britain today. JK Rowling is a fan.
Film: Hell or High Water
A contemporary Western and a parable of modern times, with a soundtrack by Nick Cave, is bound to be original, deep and daring. British director David Mackenzie delivered on all three counts. An oustanding cast led by Jeff Bridges, Chris Pine and Ben Foster turned this bank heist thriller, laced with dark humour, into undoubtedly the most memorable film of the year for me. I enjoyed it so much I went to see it twice!
TV Show: The Disappearance
Nordic Noir is the much bandied about term to reflect our surge in interest in sub-titled crime thrillers. But the output is not limited to the Sandinavian countries. France is actually the culprit! Spiral (2005) came before The Killing and is, in my opinion, far superior. This year, BBC Four brought us a new French crime mini-series. The Disappearance is an eight-part drama about a missing teenager and the police assigned to the case. The investigating duo quickly find themselves neck-deep in the secrets and lies of her friends and family. The intelligent script and sharply defined characters make this one of the best dramas of the year.
Theatre: Flick, by Annie Baker
This play was long, but worth it. It’s about the desperately lonely lives of three people working in a run-down cinema in a small American town. There is love and passion and jealousy and futility. It's heartbreaking and hilarious. And yes, there is popcorn!
I was also enthralled with the National Theatre’s production of Terence Rattigan’s 1952 play, Deep Blue Sea. It opens with a married woman attempting suicide when her RAF lover tires of her. Over the course of a day, events unfold and we learn about the circumstances that led to her crisis. Helen McCory was stunning as worn-out-by-love Hester.
News Event: Tiger cubs born at London Zoo
Proud mum Melati with her twins
On 27th June this year, one of the world's rarest tigers gave birth to twin cubs at London Zoo. I went to see them a couple of months after they were born and the experience was unforgettable. It was a weekday and there were few people at the zoo. The cubs were out and about with their mother Melati, a Sumatran tigress, and I watched them as they enjoyed an 'enrichment' break, chasing leaves and finding tucked away treats to gnaw on in their enclosure. The time I spent with them felt private and precious.
I returned to visit them again in November. The cubs were still small, about 1/3rd the size of Melati and they frollicked with each other under the watchful gaze of mum and Jae Jae, their dad.
Sumatran tiger numbers are estimated to be as few as 300 individuals in the wild. These two cubs represent a huge achievement for the global breeding and conservation programme of this critically endangered species.
Here's the moment the ZSL staff captured Melati ging birth to her twins on the secret 'cubcam' camera:
In 2017 I’m looking forward to…
The film adaptation of Julian Barnes’ Booker Prize-winning novel, The Sense of an Ending, starring Jim Broadbent, Charlotte Rampling is coming our way in the spring. It looks promising!
The British Library is hosting a Harry Potter exhibition and if the Library's previous events are anything to go by, this is guaranteed to be good.
As far as travel goes, I'm in the throes of devising an itinerary for a spring cycling trip around Denmark to experience hygge in the country of its origin.
Finally, I'm setting myself a personal challenge to learn another language. After six years of weekly classes I’m now capable of speaking French with the French without turning bright red as I struggle to find the right words. I’m hoping to have the same success with Japanese. Wish me luck!
Eva Mackevic, Assistant Culture Editor
Album of the Year: Hopelessness by Anohni
Once known as Antony Hegarty, Anohni has shed her former persona, along with the gender she never felt a part of. And thus, came the raw, majestic, politically-charged Hopelessness which, defined by Anohni’s unmistakably vulnerable but resonant vocals, is one powerful beast of an album.
Long-time fan of Almodóvar (almost wrote my dissertation on the man!), I always get nervous when a new film of his is about to come out. It’s the irrational fear of someone I adore losing their touch (I’m looking at you, Tarantino), but Almodóvar did not disappoint! A passionate, moving and complex tale of a difficult mother-daughter relationship, Julieta is a true return to form!
TV Show: Gilmore Girls
Many feelings were felt while watching the manically anticipated Gilmore Girls revival! Disappointment, longing, discomfort, happiness, sadness—you name it. Even though the four feature-length episodes were far from perfect, it will always feel good to be back in the cosy fictional town of Stars Hollow, no matter what.
Exhibition: The Handel and Hendrix Museum
So much musical genius in one tiny building at London’s 23 Brook Street! The legendary guitarist rented the attic flat adjoining the former home of the 18th century composer in the 1960s. Apparently, Hendrix was delighted to learn of the Handel connection when he moved in, and insisted he had once seen the composer’s ghost—“an old guy in a night shirt and grey pigtail”.
Event: The Double R Club
A variety show with elements of cabaret and burlesque, inspired by the films of David Lynch. The squalid charm of the Bethnal Green Working Men’s Club, the racy costumes, the surreal performances, the bawdy jokes and a smoke machine—what more can you want?
Podcast: You Must Remember This
I’m a bit late to the party with this one, but it needs a mention! The beguiling host Karina Longworth tells the juicy (yet meticulously researched and informative) stories from Hollywood’s Golden Age! All you need to know about MGM’s ruthless treatment of its stars, Joan Crawford’s long journey to stardom or the disturbing Charles Manson and Dennis Wilson encounter.
In 2017 I’m looking forward to…
The London Flamenco Festival because nothing matches the emotional intensity of hand-clapping, finger-snapping and guitar-playing at Sadler’s Wells on a cold February evening. Unless it’s the new Marilyn Manson album, of course. 2017 will see both.
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