After months of lockdowns and restrictions, live music and theatre shows are still a long way from getting back to normal – but there are some stars who have gone above and beyond to bring entertainment to our lives and make things that little bit better.
With prolonged periods stuck at home in what has been a truly strange and horrible year, we have needed our favourite TV shows and music and books more than ever.
So here, we salute those in the celebrity world who have been doing their bit to make a difference during the COVID-19 pandemic.
When the UK entered its first lockdown in March, Tim Burgess knew that music could help keep spirits up. While other artists went down the path of streamed gigs, to varying degrees of success, The Charlatans frontman had a different idea: listening parties, on Twitter, with everyone pressing play on the same album at the same time and fans interacting with the artists who created them.
Burgess had actually held listening parties before, but realised they could be more important than ever during the pandemic. From Oasis and Blur to Kylie Minogue and Paul McCartney, more than 600 iconic albums have been celebrated and, 10 months on, the parties are still going strong, every day. Which means the musician has spent a lot of time on Twitter in 2020. “I just thought it might be helpful, as simple as that,” he told Sky News, back when the listening parties first started. “It was this idea – we can listen together, apart.”
Not only did the parties bring people together, they also gave fans the time to sit and listen to their favourite albums in full – something that has been lost in the streaming era. There’s no doubt Burgess’s listening parties have helped a great deal during tough times, and with live music still off the cards it looks like that will continue into 2021 – we’ll see you on New Year’s Day for Fatboy Slim and the oh so apt, You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby.
It’s the wholesome, somewhat chaotic feel of Sophie Ellis-Bextor‘s kitchen discos that have made them the highlight of online musical lockdown. While other stars tried to recreate the polish of a stage show, these were all about having fun with the family at home – albeit with a big glitterball and with our star adorned in sequins at all times, of course.
With her children bopping and squabbling away in fancy dress in the background, Ellis-Bextor has Instagram discoed us though hits including her 2000 smash Groovejet (If This Ain’t Love), and Take Me Home – reworked to encourage us all to Stay At Home.
And of course, there was a Christmas disco – complete with a performance of Dancing Queen. “Shimmy through it, my darlings,” she says. “There ain’t no other way to do it. One day we’ll do it in real life together but for now, my house is your house.” God bless Sophie Ellis-Bextor.
“Vaccine, vaccine, vaccine, vacciiiiine,” was the tweet doing the rounds when it emerged that Dolly Parton had donated $1m (£814,000) to the Vanderbilt University Medical Center – a partner of the US company Moderna, which developed one of the COVID-19 vaccines.
Fans are saying she has cured coronavirus. While that milestone is a long way off, the country singer has certainly done her bit. Earlier in lockdown, she also performed weekly online bedtime readings for children and recorded a new song called When Life Is Good Again, all about the pandemic and lockdown.
“When life is good again, I’ll be a better friend,” she sang. “I’ll open up my heart, and let the whole world in. I’ll try to make amends, when life is good again.” When life is good again, Parton will have played a big part in making it so.
Bill Bailey and Oti Mabuse
Strictly Come Dancing is always joyous but this year’s series, which producers managed to pull off despite all the coronavirus restrictions, was the sparkly Saturday night TV we needed to keep spirits lifted. Claudia Winkleman’s magnificent fringe aside, the highlight of 2020 was of course seeing comedian Bill Bailey lift that glitterball trophy alongside his professional dance partner, Oti Mabuse.
At the start of the series, many may have pegged the 55-year-old as one of the more comedic acts, but how he proved them wrong. Was he the best dancer? Technically, no, but he was up there, and definitely the most entertaining. His and Mabuse’s dance to Rapper’s Delight by The Sugarhill Gang was the biggest viral moment of the series. They fully deserved to win – and the brilliant Mabuse for the second year in a row, no less.
Plus, after performing to Queen’s The Show Must Go On in the final, Bailey had this message of hope: “This is not just a song about the arts, this is an anthem about not giving up, keeping hope, getting through this. This is what it is – The Show Must Go On. This is an anthem about being strong and getting through all of this.”
We’re not crying, you’re crying.
When Jim Corr, Ian Brown, Van Morrison and Right Said Fred stepped up to become some sort of weird mask-complaining supergroup, there were two unlikely heroes who weren’t afraid to take them on. Ladies and gentlemen, we give you John and Edward Grimes, better known as Jedward, who have been unrelenting in their criticism of those not abiding by coronavirus restrictions, no matter how big or famous they are.
After Corr attended a protest, they tweeted: “G’wan leave the whole country ‘breathless’ from Covid because of your idiotic behaviour.” (Breathless, for any non-Corrs fans out there, was a number one hit for the band back in 2000.) And in response to a since-deleted tweet by Brown, the Irish twins said: “The Public have lost all respect and credibility for your views! Your music and cheekbones are a dream ❤️ but your tweets are a nightmare.”
And it’s not just coronavirus restrictions they’ve made a stand on, also taking part in Black Lives Matter protests and using their platform to call for better pay for nurses and to support Joe Biden. And to “anybody we offended” this year, they have this message: “You deserved it! Be a better version of yourself for 2021!”
Punk-folk singer Frank Turner was one of the musicians backing the Save Our Venues campaign, supporting hundreds of venues at risk of permanent closure as they had to keep doors shut.
“I hope that we’ll come out the other side of this with a better appreciation of what the arts and live music in particular bring to people’s lives,” he told Sky News back in May.
Running a small venue is “a pretty thankless task at the best of times”, he said, and “certainly not a way that anyone’s going to become a millionaire”. So the musician did his bit to help.
By performing albums from his back catalogue in full online for 16 weeks, he helped raise just under £200,000 for the cause. He also trialled a socially distanced show at London’s Clapham Grand.
Away from music, England and Manchester United star Marcus Rashford has been the undisputed hero of the pandemic. Campaigning for funding to help feed vulnerable and disadvantaged children, he succeeded in getting the government to have a change of heart over providing cash for the festive period.
In November, Boris Johnson phoned the footballer to tell him that £170m was being set aside for the Christmas holidays. But Rashford hasn’t just stopped at meals, revealing a few weeks later that he was launching a book club to help children experience the escapism of reading – saying his own family had had to prioritise food over books when it came to budgeting when he was young.
“We know there are over 380,000 children across the UK today that have never owned a book, children that are in vulnerable environments,” he said. “That has to change. My books are, and always will be, for every child, even if I have to deliver them myself. We will reach them.”
Dame Vera Lynn
Known as the forces’ sweetheart for her frontline visits during the Second World War, Vera Lynn‘s music provided that same morale boost at the start of the first lockdown.
We’ll Meet Again was referenced by the Queen during her address on the coronavirus pandemic in April, and the singer teamed up to re-record the song with Katherine Jenkins (pictured above) to raise funds for charity.
She died in June, aged 103, her words having brought comfort once again during a time of crisis.
A special mention goes to Tony Mortimer (left in the above photo), formerly of East 17 fame, who not only discovered the joy of reading his first novel during lockdown (Secrets Of The Greek Revival, a haunted house mystery by US novelist Eva Pohler, according to an interview in The Times) but loved it so much he has since read more than 70 books, and has even been compelled to write his own with the help of a how-to guide by Stephen King.
This hasn’t been released yet, so it’s perhaps a bit early to be calling him a cultural hero, but the idea of a former hard man of the boyband world discovering a love for literature as he turned 50 is so heartwarming it had to be included.
Like Mortimer, many of us have turned to literature in lockdown – there is no better escapism than burying yourself in a good book, after all. I’m looking forward to hopefully reading his own work in the not too distant future.
Picture credits: Sophie Ellis-Bextor – Richard Jones; Strictly Come Dancing – BBC/ Guy Levy