In 2016, as the death toll mounted of stars, artists, celebrities and international worthies, the feeling that their passing was all part of some wider malaise became hard to resist, writes Dani Garavelli
About halfway through 2016, a dark joke began circulating on the internet. David Bowie, it was suggested, had been the glue holding the cosmos together. There could be no other explanation: his death in early January was the catalyst for the unleashing of apocalyptic forces that wrought political havoc and saw a mass cull of some of our most revered public figures.
Certainly, it seemed as if an amphetamine-crazed Grim Reaper had appeared at the gate of the year, and having started scything, couldn’t stop. Over the next 12 months, he harvested indiscriminately, taking actors, comedians, musicians, writers and politicians and prompting a communal outpouring of grief. There came a point when the sight of an international treasure trending could provoke near hysteria, quelled only when it turned out they’d won a Nobel Prize (Bob Dylan) or said something controversial about migrants (Gary Lineker) or sex abuse within football (Eric Bristow).
Statisticians argue that our perception has been distorted; that a large number of celebrities succumb to illness every year. It’s just that nowadays the bar to what constitutes celebrity is so low, there are more of them around to die and social media has amplified their passing. Others view the mass keening as a tasteless expression of our superficiality and narcissism. But, unprecedented or not, the departure of some of our best and brightest cast an extra pall over an already gloomy landscape. And mourning them as personal bereavements acted as a kind of catharsis: a focus for our anguish over a world that seemed to have lost its bearings, and a lament for an annus horribilis we can’t wait to lay to rest.
The news of Bowie’s death of liver cancer came as a sucker punch to fans who, in hindsight, interpreted his last album Blackstar as a farewell, but were in no way psychologically prepared for his departure. The 69-year-old’s influence on contemporary culture – as an actor and icon, as well as a musician – had been vast. Throughout his career he had a boundless creativity, endlessly reinventing himself – as Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane and the Thin White Duke – and experimenting with new forms. His genius lay in his originality, his eclecticism and his eagerness to challenge convention. His glamorous, gender-bending personae brought glamour and edge into dowdy suburban living rooms and gave frustrated young people a licence to be different.
Hardly had the ink on Bowie’s obituaries dried, than Alan Rickman, also 69, died of pancreatic cancer. Having played Severus Snape in the Harry Potter films he was as beloved by millennials as by the older cinema-goers captivated by his performance as Jamie, a cellist who returns from the dead to comfort his grieving girlfriend in Truly Madly Deeply.
Towards the end of the month, the country had to come to terms with the loss of the institution that was Terry Wogan. At 77, he had ceded his role as voice of the Eurovision Song Contest to Graham Norton in 2008; it was a long time since we had heard his Irish brogue bemoan the jiggerypokery that saw politically aligned nations vote for one another. He had also retired from Weekend Wogan, his two-hour Sunday morning show on BBC Radio 2, saying goodbye to his TOGS (Terry’s Old Geezers and Gals). Still, the thought of yet another landmark excised from the national topography was distressing.
Setting the tone for the year, January also saw the deaths of Scottish architect Gareth Hoskins, 48, who was responsible for the redesign of Edinburgh’s National Museum of Scotland, Glenn Frey, 67, the founder of the Eagles, actor Abe Vigoda, 94, who played Salvatore Tessio in the Godfather films and Jacques Rivette, 87, the pioneer of New Wave film.
The departure that caused the greatest international upset this month was probably that of Harper Lee, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel To Kill A Mockingbird, at the age of 89. Lee’s frailty had already been widely commented on after it was revealed a manuscript of a prequel, entitled Go Set a Watchman, had been “rediscovered” and would now be published. This rediscovery was contentious, because after the success of her first novel, Lee retired from public life, and some believed she was in no state to consent to its release. Go Set A Watchman met with mixed reviews, but To Kill A Mockingbird is still regarded as a seminal work of racism in the Deep South and is on high school curricula across the English-speaking world.
Controversy also surrounded the legacy of Boutros Boutros-Ghali, 93, who died a few days earlier. The veteran Egyptian diplomat helped negotiate his country’s landmark peace deal with Israel, but his single term as UN secretary-general (from 1992-96) was characterised by perceived inaction over the genocides in Rwanda (1994) and Bosnia (1995) and by repeated clashes with the US.
The death of actor Frank Kelly, 77, best known for playing the drunken, sweary priest Father Jack Hackett in the sit-com Father Ted prompted much jocular repetition of the words “drink”, “feck” and “girls”, and the phrase “that would be an ecumenical matter”, while the passing of Umberto Eco, 84, the Italian author of The Name Of The Rose, rekindled memories of Sean Connery in a cassock playing Franciscan monk William of Baskerville in the film of the book.
Other victims of what was rapidly becoming accepted as the curse of 2016 included Arthur Binnie, 89, the Scottish journalist who broke the story that the Stone of Destiny, “stolen” from Westminster Abbey, had been found wrapped in a saltire in Arbroath Abbey, and Maurice White, 74, founder of the supergroup Earth, Wind and Fire.
March was the cruellest month. It claimed the lives of so many significant public figures it is impossible to do them all justice. First to go was Tony Warren, 79, the creator and writer of Coronation Street, the UK’s longest-running soap, loved for its doughty characters, its touching storylines and its sarky northern humour. He was quickly followed by Nancy Reagan, 94, actor, wife of Ronald and glitzy First Lady, known for her Just Say No campaign aimed at keeping teenagers off drugs.
The world of light entertainment lost Edinburgh-born comedian Ronnie Corbett, 85, the more diminutive half of The Two Ronnies, whose show livened up Saturday nights in the 70s and 80s – and Paul Daniels, 77, the marginally taller magician, latterly renowned for being the butt of spoof chat show host Mrs Merton’s sarcastic question to his younger wife Debbie McGee: “What first attracted you to the millionaire Paul Daniels?”.
Veteran TV presenter Cliff Michelmore, who fronted the BBC’s ground-breaking current affairs programme Tonight and anchored the Apollo moon landings, died at the grand old age of 96, and TV agony aunt Denise Robertson died at a comparatively youthful 83.
Once again music did not escape unscathed, with George Martin – the man who made the Beatles – and composer and conductor Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, who lived in Orkney, both joining the choir invisible.
March’s litany of the faithful departed also included Booker Prize-winning author Anita Brookner, 87, who wrote Hotel du Lac, Iraqi-British architect Zaha Hadid, 65, whose iconic buildings include the Riverside Museum in Glasgow and the Maggie’s Centre in Kirkcaldy, Dutch football legend Johan Cruyff, 68, Sylvia Anderson, 88, the voice of and inspiration for Lady Penelope of Thunderbirds, Frank Sinatra Jr, 72, and the Very Rev Sandy McDonald, 78, former moderator of the Church of Scotland, who had a cameo role in Doctor Who alongside his son, actor David Tennant.
April’s toll dipped slightly, but the fact that one of those who died was Prince – a star of almost as great significance as Bowie – meant there was no emotional let-up. Once described as the Picasso of pop, Prince, the seven-times Grammy winner, with an instantly identifiable falsetto, straddled genres and pushed boundaries, and his unexpected death from an accidental overdose at the age of 57 left fans bereft.
The death of 62-year-old comedian Victoria Wood, who specialised in a raucous and ultra-British humour, the day before, also robbed the world of a great talent. In the hours that followed, clips of her bouncing about on a piano stool singing “beat me on the bottom with a Women’s Weekly,” provided a much-needed, but short-lived tonic.
By the time Wood and Prince died, we had already lost former jailbird and country singer songwriter Merle Haggard, 79, music producer and Reality TV star David Gest, 62, former drug smuggler-turned-author Howard Marks, 70, and Edinburgh-born actor Morag Siller, 46, who played Reverend Esther Warren in Coronation Street.
As the Holyrood elections got underway, the Grim Reaper seemed, briefly, scunnered; even so, in the first half of the month, he took two Scots: Fife-born saxophonist Joe Temperley, 86, who worked his way through the best British dance and jazz bands before making it on the New York jazz scene, and Bobby Carroll, 77, a footballer best known for scoring Celtic’s first European goal in a match against Valencia in 1962. On 31 May, Scouser Carla Lane, 87, who wrote the sitcoms The Liver Birds, Butterflies and Bread and set up the charity Animals in Need, also passed away.
June gave us Brexit and took Muhammad Ali, the world’s greatest ever heavyweight boxing champion. Ali, who used to “float like a butterfly and sting like a bee”, was formidable in the ring, and won a succession of iconic matches such as the Rumble in the Jungle against George Foreman in 1974. But his huge celebrity owed as much to his sharp tongue, his conversion to Islam and his commitment to justice as his sporting prowess. Ali had been suffering from Parkinson’s Disease for many years, but that didn’t make it easier to come to terms with the loss of yet another figure who helped define the 70s and 80s.
June also saw the shocking death of 27-year-old Star Trek actor Anton Yelchin in a freak accident in which he was pinned against the metal gate of his Los Angeles home by his 2.5-tonne Jeep Grand Cherokee.
And then followed one of the most distressing events of the year: the murder of the Labour MP Jo Cox by a man who shouted “Britain First” as he shot and stabbed her. Cox, 41, the mother of two small children, had spoken out against those within the Leave campaign and the media who sought to foster resentment towards migrants, and her death inspired the #moreincommon movement against hatred.
Just two days into the month, comic genius Caroline Aherne, 52, the creator and star of The Royle Family and the Mrs Merton Show, and the voice of Gogglebox, lost her long battle with cancer. The Royle Family, about a dysfunctional family who spend most of their time lounging in front of the box was ground-breaking and her performance as the lethargic and manipulative Denise Best was a joy to behold.
Unlike Aherne, Marni Nixon, 86, earned her living lending her voice to other people. She signed a secrecy clause which prevented her from revealing that she sang the parts of Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady and Deborah Kerr in The King And I. However, she began to resent the lack of recognition. When she was asked to sing Natalie Wood’s part in West Side Story, she fought for and won the right to a credit.
Three Scots artists also died in July: Gaelic singer Maggie Macdonald, 63, variety singer, Anne Fields, 83, and sports broadcaster and journalist Dick Donnelly, 74, best known for his coverage of football in Tayside. Donnelly’s passing meant another unmistakable voice (in his case, gravelly and authoritative) was erased from our airwaves.
By now, online grieving had become the norm, and still the deaths kept coming. The most high-profile loss was Gene Wilder, 83, the frenetic, madcap star of The Producers, Young Frankenstein and Willie Wonka & The Chocolate Factory who, unbeknown to his fans, had been suffering from Alzheimer’s. Wilder’s frizzy hair, manic energy and collection of dramatic ticks made him perfectly suited to play characters on the fringes of lunacy. Similarly missed was Kenny Baker, the actor who played R2-D2 in the Star Wars films. Baker, 81, who was born with dwarfism, also had roles in The Elephant Man, Time Bandits and Flash Gordon.
Closer to home, former Edinburgh councillor and self-appointed moral arbiter Moira Knox died of a stroke at the age of 85. A Scottish Mary Whitehouse, Knox became something of a cult figure after it became apparent her disapproval of a Edinburgh Festival show guaranteed an immediate spike in ticket sales. This observation led some to speculate that perhaps she was on the books of a canny PR firm, and one promoter to launch the “Moira award” given to the most offensive show on the Fringe.
In September, Shimon Peres, 93, died after an extraordinary career which saw him hold every major office in Israel. In more than six decades of political life his defining achievement was as one of the key architects of the Oslo peace accords, for which he was jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1994 with the then Israeli prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin, and Yasser Arafat, the chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organisation. Those peace deals later collapsed, however, and the country is no closer to realising the two-state solution they proposed. Many Palestinians viewed Peres negatively, as a key figure in the construction of the settlements, and even in Israeli politics he was a divisive figure, but his popularity grew with age, and he was finally elected president in 2006 , continuing to serve until he was 90.
Meanwhile, the sports world lost both US golfer Arnold Palmer, 87, and Scottish boxer Mike Towell, 25. Palmer was one of the most important figures in golf history, racking up seven major championships and 62 PGA Tour wins and reaping millions of pounds from endorsements. Tragically, Dundee-born Towell suffered a bleed on the brain after being knocked out while competing in an eliminator for the British welterweight title.
September also claimed the life of Lord Ronald King Murray, 94, a politician, lawyer and judge in the Court of Session and High Court of Justiciary, who championed the anti-nuclear weapons movement.
October was another bumper month for deaths. Music lost yet another talented maverick in Pete Burns, 57. Burns emerged from Liverpool’s burgeoning punk scene to make the UK No 1 hit, You Spin Me Round with his band Dead or Alive. But the public fascination lay less with his music and more with his androgyny, his glamour and his confrontational personality. Indeed, one of the most bittersweet moments of the year came when former customers of Probe Records – where Burns once worked – traded accounts of the abuse he hurled at them when they tried to buy music he disapproved of. “He literally threw my copy of OMD’s Enola Gay across the counter,” wrote one. Burns also appeared on Celebrity Big Brother where he and George Galloway danced together in Lycra leotards.
Thailand was plunged into mourning when the country’s monarch, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, 88, revered as a demi-god for acting as an anchor in unsettled times, died after seven decades on the throne.
Jean Alexander turned Coronation Street gossip Hilda Ogden into one of the country’s favourite soap characters. Once voted the fourth most popular woman in Britain, after the Queen, the Queen Mother and Princess Diana, she was royalty of sorts, presiding over her terraced house with its famous flying ducks, with a strident dignity. Tears were shed when Alexander bid farewell to the street on Christmas Day, 1987. And again when she died at the age of 90.
Sport took a big hit too, with Munster rugby coach Anthony Foley, 42, Hamilton-born football player David Herd, 82, who is 15th on the list of all-time top scorers for Arsenal, and Carlos Alberto, 72, captain of Brazil’s 1970 World Cup winning side all dying within a few weeks of one another.
Teen idol Bobby Vee, 73, Scottish actor and comedian, Richard Callan, 54, co-creator of Dad’s Army, Jim Perry, 93, and fiddler Angus Grant, 49, who invented the folk-fusion known as acid croft, were among October’s other victims.
With consummate timing, Canadian singer songwriter Leonard Cohen, 82, exited the world stage just as it was confirmed Donald Trump would be dominating it for the foreseeable future. Cohen, 82, who gave us masterpieces such as Suzanne, So Long Marianne and Famous Blue Raincoat, lived long enough to greet news of his long-time friend and adversary Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize with typical grace, but not to learn the outcome of the US election. But tracks such as Everybody Knows and First We Take Manhattan – played endlessly in the wake of his death – served as a perfect backdrop to the general gloom.
Fidel Castro, 90, survived 600 assassination attempts; but – so the joke went – it took 2016 to finish him off. One of the most extraordinary political figures of the last century, reaction to his death was divided between those who viewed him as a liberator who brought world-class standards of health and education to Cuba and those who viewed him as a cruel despot crushing anyone who disagreed with him. Few, though, questioned his charisma or the power he wielded over the public imagination.
Other big names to take their leave included Sir Jimmy Young, 95, best known as a BBC radio presenter and “housewives’ choice”, Janet Reno, 78, the first woman to serve as US attorney general, actor Robert Vaughan, 83, who co-starred with David McCallum in The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and Andrew Sachs, 86, best known for playing hapless Spanish waiter Manuel in Fawlty Towers. When news of Sachs death broke, the Daily Mail ran a front page tribute alongside its latest anti-migrant story. Sachs and his family – fled to the UK from Nazi Germany in 1938.
No sooner had the shops started playing seasonal songs than Greg Lake – of Emerson Lake and Palmer fame, whose protest against commercialism, I Believe In Father Christmas, is on almost every festive compilation album – succumbed to cancer. Like Bowie and Rickman, he was 69.
We also lost Glasgow-born meteorologist Ian McCaskill, 78, who was one of the most recognisable faces on the BBC in his role as a weatherman and was paid the ultimate compliment when he was satirised with a Spitting Image puppet that perfectly captured his cheerful, slightly bumbling delivery.
So far, December has also deprived us of actor Peter Vaughan, 93, who played Grouty in Porridge, US astronaut John Glenn, 95, the first American to orbit the Earth, and journalists Phillip Knightly, 87, who helped expose Kim Philby as a spy, and AA Gill, 62, whose writing on anything from food to the NHS could be scabrous, provocative, offensive or poignant, but never less than compelling. Revealing his cancer in his restaurant column just weeks before his death, Gill wrote: “I realise I don’t have a bucket list; I don’t feel I’ve been cheated of anything. I’d like to have gone to Timbuktu, and there are places I will be sorry not to see again. But actually, because of the nature of my life and the nature of what happened to me in my early life – my addiction – I know I have been very lucky.”
With a week to go before the end of the year, there may be more celebrity deaths to come. We will mourn their passing as we have mourned so many others. But we should also be grateful for the pleasure they brought us.
So let’s raise a glass. A toast to those artists who brightened our lives with their talents. Here’s to their memory, and to a happier, more hopeful, less loss-laden 2017.