New year arts: Observer critics pick the culture to get us through to spring

From laughter punches to legendary artists, rock and romance to drama and dance… our writers on cultural treats to light up the months ahead

Film: documentaries
If you’re ready for some heftier viewing after the distractions of the silly season, an influx of excellent documentaries awaits in early 2021. 15 January brings festival hit MLK/FBI, a gripping, eye-opening account of the FBI’s surveillance and interference in the activism of Martin Luther King through the 1950s and 60s, as well as the first essential documentary on the coronavirus pandemic, 76 Days, an emotionally pummelling fly-on-the-wall study of Wuhan hospital activity in the city’s early lockdown.
If you’re after a lighter crowdpleaser, delicious doc The Truffle Hunters – a wry, gentle portrait of the elderly men pursuing the elusive Alba truffle in Italy’s Piedmont region – arrives in on 5 February. Things get serious again in March, with Oscar-winning director Bryan Fogel’s sharp, sobering The Dissident (5 March), a probing investigation of the disappearance and death of Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul. After a year heavy on isolation, such documentaries offer a welcome reconnection with the world. Guy Lodge

Pop: homegrown debuts
Taking its title from a Zadie Smith line, Collapsed in Sunbeams is the much-anticipated debut album from 20-year-old Londoner Arlo Parks. Released on 29 January, it’s breezy but heavy with lived emotion, Parks’s 12 songs locating a very British meeting place between torch songs and rhythm.

Film: your cue to laugh again
God knows, we all need a bit of light relief. Fortunately, there are plenty of comedy options on offer in the early part of 2021. First up is the scalding Promising Young Woman (12 February), a ballsy assault on rape culture written and directed by Killing Eve showrunner Emerald Fennell, and starring Carey Mulligan at the top of her always impressive game. Scheduled to stream on Amazon Prime in March is Coming 2 America, starring Eddie Murphy, reprising his role as Akeem, heir to the throne of Zamunda. Also due to launch on Amazon in the UK in early 2021 is Palm Springs, an inventive new spin on the Groundhog Day format that sees Andy Samberg trapped in an endlessly replaying wedding. Meanwhile, Michelle Pfeiffer gets her perfectly manicured nails into a dream of a role, as an ageing socialite in French Exit (26 February), which is based on the novel by Patrick DeWitt. Wendy Ide

Radio: Emma Barnett on Woman’s Hour
From 4 January, the redoubtable Emma Barnett will host Woman’s Hour every day from Monday to Thursday, with other presenters trying out on the Friday slot. It’s a big change for Barnett, who’s used to the rangy freedom of a three-hour show (her morning slot on 5 Live), with the peppy to-and-fro of political interviews and the spontaneity of listeners calling in. Woman’s Hour has long been far more sedate and tightly packaged. Now Barnett’s in, you have a feeling this may change. Miranda Sawyer

Theatre: The Walk
After the success of The Jungle, Good Chance joins forces with Handspring Puppet Company, which created War Horse, for a travelling festival in support of refugees, directed by Amir Nizar Zuabi. The star is a 3.5-metre-high puppet, Little Amal, a representative of displaced children, who on 30 March will set off to walk more than 8,000km, through 70 cities, towns and villages, from the Syrian-Turkish border to the UK, bringing together artists, cultural institutions and humanitarian organisations in one of the largest and largest-hearted public art works ever made. Follow the journey onlline: Susannah Clapp

Art: blockbusters
Plague restrictions permitting, a resurgence of great exhibitions is due. First is the Royal Academy’s Francis Bacon: Man and Beast (currently scheduled for 30 January). Bacon painted dogs, hawks, monkeys and baboons as if they were human, and people as if they were creatures. Eventually the two become savagely indistinguishable.
From 6 March, in Dürer’s Journeys, the National Gallery presents Albrecht Dürer as Europe’s first great tourist, drawing walruses in Belgium and whales in Zeeland. Witness the strange influence of Italy on his work.
Tate Modern homes in on Australian art in the year 1992 (15 February) and the pioneering figures of Rodin (29 April), while Yorkshire Sculpture Park has Breaking the Mould, an epochal survey of women’s sculpture from Barbara Hepworth to Rachel Whiteread (13 March).
In contemporary art, look out for the fantastical dreams of Kenyan-born painter Michael Armitage (Royal Academy from 13 March) alongside David Hockney’s evergreen spring paintings (from 27 March). And Yayoi Kusama’s mirrored Infinity Rooms return on 29 March, by popular demand, to baffle viewers at Tate Modern. Laura Cumming

Classical: Hallé season
The seven concerts in the Hallé orchestra’s winter/spring season, from Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall and Hallé St Peter’s, show variety and flair. The opener (14 January) features the poet laureate Simon Armitage and saxophonist Jess Gillam, conducted by Jonathon Heyward, with a world premiere, Where Is the Chariot of Fire, by Hannah Kendall. Pianist Isata Kanneh-Mason plays Beethoven (28 January); the Hallé’s rising star, assistant conductor Delyana Lazarova, conducts Shostakovich (25 February); Mark Elder conducts a staged performance of Stravinsky’s The Soldier’s Tale (18 March), directed by Annabel Arden. The Norwegian violinist-composer Henning Kraggerud, artist in residence, has devised a mixed repertoire programme which he will direct, including Brahms’s String Sextet No 1. The season ends with a world premiere from Huw Watkins, his Symphony No 2, and Boris Giltburg as solo pianist in Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini (25 March). Available online; a subscription services gives you access to them all. Fiona Maddocks

Photography: Format 21 festival
The main theme of this year’s Format photo festival in Derby is “control”, and the curators have sought, through an open call to photographers across the globe, to explore the concept in all its myriad forms. The contrasts are often dynamic. Highlights include Marco di Noia’s viscerally powerful images of the pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong and Heather Agyepong’s conceptual reimagining of the legacy of Aida Overton Walker, a popular African American vaudeville performer who challenged the casually racist stereotypes that dogged black performers in the early 1900s. As ever, a deftly curated festival that reflects the breadth of contemporary photography. Runs 12 March–11 April at various venues and online; see Sean O’Hagan

Art: Matthew Barney
The giant of US film art, famous for his visionary Cremaster Cycle, returns to Britain for the first time in over a decade with an epic new work set in Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains. Redoubt, at London’s Hayward Gallery from 17 March, fuses classical, cosmological and American myths about humanity’s relationship with nature, and stars the artist himself in a snowbound choreography featuring animals, trees and elusive dancers. Hailed in the US as Barney’s most powerful work yet, it will be shown in a forest of sculptures. LC

Art: Jean Dubuffet
London’s Barbican gives us Brutal Beauty, the first show of this weird, wild and zany French painter in over half a century. His interest in raw art, the art of the mentally ill, and the untrained, from caveman to graffiti artist, fed directly into his brilliantly coloured and expressive work, using everything from tar and asphalt to spray paint and plaster. Expect to be startled by his spontaneity and the way his work seems to be the source of so much that followed. Opens 11 February. LC

Dance: there will be dancing
Winter’s plunges into high tiers for most of the country stopped a lot of dance plans in their tracks. Fortunately, Sadler’s Wells’ next showpiece was planned with the BBC for broadcast on iPlayer and the Sadler’s Wells website. Dancing Nation, on 14 January, is a one-day digital festival featuring three hour-long chunks of dance from some of Britain’s best companies. Highlights include Akram Khan and Natalia Osipova performing together for the first time in Mud of Sorrow: Touch, a revival of Matthew Bourne’s brilliant Spitfire, which mashes a ballet classic and an underwear advert, and a second outing for Shobana Jeyasingh’s Contagion, a reflection on coronavirus. Other performers include Birmingham Royal Ballet, English National Ballet, Oona Doherty and Boy Blue.
Meanwhile, the enterprising Rosie Kay is hoping to relieve the gloom with a new production of Romeo + Juliet, told through the lens of gang culture in a stifling Birmingham summer in 2021. The topical and intriguing piece is due to premiere at the Birmingham Hippodrome on 17 March. Many fingers are very firmly crossed for its arrival. Sarah Crompton

Audio: new podcasts
Project 17, on the World Service from 20 January, is an ambitious series that features 17 17-year-olds from 17 countries. Each one will examine one of the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals, which were set in 2015. Have they worked? Are they being met? We begin with the engaging Lanre, in Leeds, who wants to know why a rich country like the UK can’t eradicate poverty...
The Battersea Poltergeist, out on 21 January on BBC Sounds, tells the true story of 63 Wycliffe Road, an ordinary house in south London in 1956. Strange events start happening around a teenager, Shirley Hitchings. Are they caused by a poltergeist? Danny Robins presents (he speaks to an 80-year-old Shirley) and a high quality cast, including Toby Jones and Alice Lowe, recreate dramatic scenes, with spooky music by Nadine Shah and Ben Hillier.
Not quite so spooky is Jon Holmes and chums’ new spoof true crime series, Cold Case Crime Cuts (due early February), which promises to thoroughly investigate crimes in songs, from Barry Manilow’s Copacabana to Bob Marley’s I Shot the Sheriff to Richard Marx’s Hazard. MS

Pop: big hitters
Details remain scant about Certified Lover Boy – Drake’s sixth studio album, due in January on OVO – but a moody trailer suggests a legend-building set, focusing on this rapper’s strongest suit: his many feelings. First scheduled for autumn 2020, Lana Del Rey’s long-awaited new outing, Chemtrails Over the Country Club, has no official release date due to a vinyl pressing delay, but a good guess would be March. KE

Architecture: a Lambeth landmark
A new home for a 400-year-old ecclesiastical library second only to the Vatican in importance. The new Lambeth Palace Library, due to open in March, by Wright & Wright is a nine-storey brick tower that aims to protect the collections from flooding and fire risk, and make them more accessible, while minimising impact on the gardens of Lambeth Palace. It has already been battered on Twitter by conservative commentators who would like something more traditional. You could alternatively see it as a thoughtful response to a challenging brief.
Meanwhile, the next instalment is due for The Illuminated River, the plan to make 14 Thames bridges into “a free outdoor art project” by Leo Villareal, the artist best known for bringing light and love to the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, forever the ugly sister of the Golden Gate. Four bridges have been animated by his slow-moving coloured lighting since July 2019. Early this year, five more will join them, from Blackfriars to Lambeth. Rowan Moore

TV: Bloodlands
Northern Irish noir, anyone? James Nesbitt stars in this cat-and-mouse BBC One crime thriller, written by exciting new talent Chris Brandon and produced by Jed Mercurio. When a car is pulled out of Strangford Lough in County Down, police detective Tom Brannick (Nesbitt) connects it to a cold case close to his heart. The four-parter follows his high-stakes hunt for an infamous assassin known as “Goliath”. Gripping, psychologically complex and shedding light on the legacy of the Troubles. Dates TBC. Michael Hogan

Theatre: The Normal Heart
Larry Kramer’s largely autobiographical play about the Aids crisis in New York in 1980 will be directed by Dominic Cooke as part of the Olivier-in-the-round season at the National Theatre. In this co-production with Fictionhouse, Ben Daniels stars as the founder of an Aids advocacy group, alongside Danny Lee Wynter, Daniel Monks and Stanley Townsend. The set will be designed by Vicki Mortimer and the lighting by Paule Constable. Dates TBC. SC

Film: Vanessa Kirby
Prepare to see a lot of Vanessa Kirby’s face over the next few months. The British star, formerly a standout in The Crown, will be in the thick of the Oscar race for her gut-wrenching performance as a grieving mother in Pieces of a Woman, while she’ll be on screens again on 5 March in The World to Come, director Mona Fastvold’s exquisite American period tale of two frontier wives who fall in love. GL

Pop: The Weather Station
You don’t need to be a fan of Canadian auteur Tamara Lindeman’s previous works to access her band’s extraordinary new album, Ignorance (5 February). This is leftfield pop, elegant and danceable, brimming with orchestral touches and jazz feints. It harks backwards to Talk Talk and the 80s, but is alarmed by the here and now. Songs that seem to be about lost love double as nuanced odes to the planet we are losing. KE

Opera: Royal Opera’s Tosca
After losing £3 out of every £5 of income during the pandemic, the Royal Opera House is taking no risks for its first full staging since last March: its 2021 season plans to open with Puccini’s passionate thriller Tosca in Jonathan Kent’s classic staging, with Russian superstar soprano Anna Netrebko in the title role, and tenor Yusif Eyvazov (Mr Netrebko) and bass-baritone Gerald Finley leading the first of three casts. Dates TBC; live stream currently scheduled for 22 January. FM

TV: appointment comedy
Mirth might be in short supply right now, but TV is at least serving up some laughs. David Tennant and Michael Sheen star in a second series of luvvies-in-lockdown comedy Staged on BBC One from 4 January. Although they’ll probably bicker over the order in which they’ve been named in that sentence.
In mid-January comes Channel 4 reality series Stand Up & Deliver, which sees five game-for-a-giggle celebrities trying their hand at standup comedy. The brave quintet includes Reverend Richard Coles, Happy Mondays frontman Shaun Ryder and former Conservative MP Baroness Sayeeda Warsi. Each will be paired with an established comic – David Baddiel and Zoe Lyons among them – who’ll train them to compete for top billing at a live gig.
Spring brings the third run of BBC Two’s school-gates sitcom Motherland, and, finally, the fourth season of French comedy word-of-mouth hit Call My Agent! hits Netflix on 21 January. Expect A-list cameos and chic Gallic gags. MH

Pop: Femi and Made Kuti double album
Fela Kuti’s influence lives on with twice the punch, thanks to Legacy+ (Partisan, 5 February), a double release from son Femi and grandson Made. The former’s album, Stop the Hate, keeps his father’s political flame alive, while the latter – who studied music at Trinity Laban Conservatoire in London, just as his ancestor did – throws Afrobeat to the future on For(e)ward with a freshness that recalls UK jazz acts Ezra Collective and Kokoroko. Kate Hutchinson

Film: Nomadland
Chinese film-maker Chloé Zhao’s exquisite third film was a popular Golden Lion winner at Venice in the autumn, and went on to top many year-best lists across the pond (it’s released in the UK on 19 February). Blending documentary and narrative techniques, it stars Frances McDormand as an itinerant widow drifting across America, and merges her fictional story with the experiences of various nomads cast as themselves. The results are uniquely moving and adventurous: expect an armful of awards. GL

Theatre: new plays
New work brings the hope of spring. At Sheffield, writer Chris Bush and director Robert Hastie, who created the Sky Arts South Bank award-winning Standing at the Sky’s Edge, come together again for The Band Plays On, telling the Steel City’s recent history to a soundtrack of its music (Anthony Lau co-directs; 3–13 February).
Paterson Joseph stars and, with Simon Godwin, co-directs his one-man show about the first black person of African origin to vote in Britain. Sancho: An Act of Remembrance is at the Lyric Hammersmith from 25 February–20 March.
At Stratford East, Nadia Fall stages Dipo Baruwa-Etti’s The Sun, the Moon, and the Stars – about a young woman’s search for justice after her twin brother is murdered in a racist attack (3-20 February.
The global online première of Lorien Haynes’s Good Grief, “a romantic comedy about grief”, can be seen from 15 February, featuring Sian Clifford and Nikesh Patel. Natalie Abrahami directs; Isobel Waller-Bridge composes the sound design and score. SC

TV: It’s a Sin
A new drama from Russell T Davies is always an event. His last two creations, after all, were Years and Years and A Very English Scandal. Now comes this long-gestating passion project, airing in late January on Channel 4. It charts the adventures of four friends throughout the 80s – the decade when everything changed for the gay community. Olly Alexander from Years & Years (the pop band, confusingly, not the TV show) leads the young cast, supported by experienced hands Keeley Hawes, Stephen Fry and Neil Patrick Harris. MH

Pop: live-streamed gigs from Paul Weller and Nadine Shah
A socially distanced performance at London’s Barbican Hall that will also be broadcast online (6 February) promises to give Paul Weller’s works, old and new, a fresh dimension thanks to the BBC Symphony Orchestra, artistic-directed by Jules Buckley. As befits this restless, constantly evolving artist, sneak previews of songs from Weller’s forthcoming album, are also on the cards.
Kitchen Sink, Nadine Shah’s jazz-goth fourth album, was one of 2020’s most provocative slow-burners, fixing its many guilty targets with an elegant death-stare. Shah – a south Tynesider with Norwegian and Pakistani heritage – will bring the album to life for the first time in its entirety as part of the live-streamed programme at the Barbican (30 March). Or as Shah puts it: “not any old shit-hole.” KE

Art: V&A season
The V&A in South Kensington gets off to a flying start this spring with winged horses, bronze busts of ancient kings and illuminated visions of paradise on Earth in its long-awaited blockbuster Epic Iran (from 13 February). Art from 5,000 years will represent this historic civilisation, drawn from pre-biblical times to contemporary painting and photography.
This is followed by the spectacularly immersive exhibition Curiouser and Curiouser (from 27 March), a celebration of anything and everything related to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Taking in film, theatre, ballet, fashion, art and more, from illustrations by Tenniel and Dalí to costumes, movies and virtual recreations of Lewis Carroll’s scenes and characters, this will be a fantastical trip in itself.
And at V&A Dundee, the party continues with Night Fever: Designing Club Culture (from 27 March), exploring the way architecture and interior design merged with sound, light, fashion and graphic design in the evolution of nightclubs, including Studio 54, the Haçienda and the Ministry of Sound. LC

TV: true crime
With the likes of Des, Quiz and The Salisbury Poisonings proving big hits in 2020, the pipeline of fact-based crime drama shows no sign of slowing down. First to arrive is The Pembrokeshire Murders on ITV, starring Luke Evans as the detective on the trail of Welsh serial killer John Cooper (Keith Allen). On BBC Two is feature-length one-off Danny Boy, about real-life decorated soldier Brian Wood, accused of war crimes in Iraq by human rights lawyer Phil Shiner (Toby Jones), which resulted in the high-profile Al-Sweady inquiry. Finally, BBC One’s Four Lives tells the story of “Grindr Killer” Stephen Port from the perspective of his victims’ families. Stephen Merchant plays Port and Sheridan Smith co-stars. MH

Film: Supernova
Colin Firth and Stanley Tucci are both on peak form in this watercolour-delicate British tearjerker (5 March), playing a longtime couple rocked by the ravages of early-onset dementia. A road movie that follows them on what may be their last holiday to the Lake District, it’s as simple as it is devastating, and a breakthrough of note for writer-director Harry Macqueen. GL

Pop: 90s Glasgow rises again
Indie rock is one of Scotland’s most abundant natural resources. In an echo of Glasgow’s 90s pomp, three of the city’s most venerable (albeit now relocated) creative powerhouses have new projects due – on their own independent labels, naturally. Recorded during lockdown, Mogwai’s 10th album, As the Love Continues (19 February), maintains their sky-high quotient of “dreamlike grandeur”. Their more scabrous fellow travellers, Arab Strap, reunited in 2016 but only now deliver a new compendium of beat-laden gallows wit – As Days Get Dark (5 March), on Mogwai’s imprint, Rock Action. Balm comes in the form of deathless romantics Teenage Fanclub, Scotland’s answer to the Byrds, who present their 10th album, Endless Arcade (5 March). Gerard Love retired from the band in 2018, citing his reluctance to tour; his live replacement, former Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci frontman Euros Childs, rounds out this album’s poised mellifluousness. KE

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