Arts news in 2016: Knocking on death's door

Will Gompertz with Huw Edwards on the BBC One Ten O'Clock News on the night of David Bowie's death
Image caption Will Gompertz appeared with Huw Edwards on the BBC One Ten O'Clock News on the night of David Bowie's death

Each specialism within journalism has its area of breaking news.

For foreign correspondents, it tends to be a conflict or catastrophe. Politicos deal in shock resignations or revelations. For us in the arts unit, it is award ceremonies - and celebrity deaths.

An instant obit of a once great, but now late, talent is what programme editors demand from us.

And you can be as Boy Scoutish as you like in your preparations, but the artistic life - and death - isn't about pleasing the establishment: creative souls do things their own way.

'Incredible life'

So, I was not entirely awake on Monday 11 January 2016 when my phone rang around 6.55am. It was a producer at the Today programme.

Had I heard the news, he asked? M…maybe - I hedged. What news? David Bowie is dead, he said.

Oh no! Oh no for lots of reasons. Firstly, it was awful news. I loved David Bowie; couldn't imagine him dead. He was still making great records. He wasn't particularly old, and now - well - he was no longer here.

And then, oh no - I had to make sense of his incredible life, without much time to pause for thought. Six minutes later, I was on-air talking to Today's Nick Robinson.

I got home late from work that night, put Heroes on and thought… sad day, but thankfully rare - a once-a-year occasion at worst.

But three days later came another call from another producer. Had I heard the news…?

Oh dear. Alan Rickman was fine actor whom one generation fell for Truly, Madly, Deeply, in 1990, and a new generation got to know and eventually love as Severus Snape in the Harry Potter films.

By the time news emerged of Sir Peter Maxwell Davies's death on 14 March, we had already paid our tributes to Pierre Boulez, Harper Lee and Sir George Martin. All titanic figures, but at least they had led full lives.

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Media captionWill Gompertz looks back at the life of "trailblazer" Dame Zaha Hadid

And then on 31 March, another shock.

Dame Zaha Hadid had died. I had interviewed the Bagdad-born British architect just a few weeks before, when she appeared as hale and hearty and feisty as ever.

She was frustrated with her adopted country, rightly so. Her fellow Brits had been sniffy and slow in recognising her brilliance - and now she was gone, still in her prime, before amends could be made.

2016 was beginning to feel like a weird year. A sense compounded three weeks later with the announcement of Victoria Wood's death.

That was a blow, too. We adored her. She was great. Always funny, jokes on the money; and never mean. We need such towering talents in our lives, not scythed down by the Grim Reaper. But he wasn't done yet.

Image copyright AP
Image caption Tributes were left to Prince after his death in April

The very next day, at around 3pm our time, social media stories started bubbling up speculating that Prince had died at his Paisley Park estate. Now, come on! Don't be silly. Don't be true. Don't be dead.

But he was.

At this point, articles started to appear asking if arts deaths were at an all-time high. Columnists wrote think pieces explaining to us that it was all to do with our obsession with celebrity in a post-Warholian media age.

Meanwhile, the man in charge of obituaries at the BBC noted his services had been called upon far more frequently in the first third of 2016 than in the same months of the past five years.

It had been an extraordinary period. It has been an extraordinary year - with a sting in its tail.

On 11 November at 1:15am - a call from a producer on the Today Programme. Had I heard the news?

"Who's dead?" I said.

"Leonard Cohen," came his reply.

I knew he was frail and unwell, but there is something about truly great, unique artists - which he was - that you hope can circumnavigate that realities of live and death.

That pop's longstanding poet-in-residence had succumbed while still making fine work seemed unfair, to us and to him. He knew better:


If you are the dealer

I'm out of the game

If you are the healer

It means I'm broken and lame

If thine is the glory

Mine must be the shame

You want it darker

We kill the flame

You Want it Darker by Leonard Cohen (2016)


And so we went into the festive season. Surely Death was done?

Sadly not. In fact, he indulged in a Christmas rush with many unpleasant surprises to unpack.

The news about Status Quo's Rick Parfitt broke on Christmas Eve. George Michael was found dead on Christmas Day. And then, the following day Richard Adams passed away. So did Carrie Fisher, and her mother - Debbie Reynolds - 24 hours later.

I think it is fair to say 2016 was a most unusual year.


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