2023: 50 reasons I was cheerful

31st December 2023

John Wyver writes: Two years ago I compiled a list of stuff – books, films, journalism, television, exhibitions, online elements – that I had enjoyed, appreciated, learned from and generally been cheered by over the previous twelve months. Herewith, this year’s selection (and instead of a Sunday Dozen, which will be back next week) — and yes, I missed 2022. The order is (largely) random.

What compiling this year’s list made me realise is (a) that while I listen to a lot of music, it’s mostly via certain radio strands (on BBC Sounds), a couple of which are listed below, and that I acquire only a very few CDs (and yes, I do still listen like that); and (b) I’ve read a lot of books, but more research-related non-fiction than fiction, and only a few have made it to the list.

The image is a detail from Édouard Manet’s ‘Portrait de Zacharie Astruc’, 1866, oil on canvas, seen (and photographed, poorly) in the Musée d’Orsay’s Manet/Degas exhibition.

Barbie: movie of the year for me – outrageously enjoyable, and extraordinary in being a film that critiques capitalism and the patriarchy from inside the system (discuss!) and achieves an eye-wateringly significant box office.

Manet/Degas: .. and this was the exhibition of the year, seen at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris in May. Intelligently curated, immaculately hung, and a selection of the some of the very finest 19C paintings. There were juxtapositions in the galleries that were so powerful and so beautiful that they simply made me catch my breath.

Origin Story: Dorian Lynskey and Ian Dunt’s podcast is everything you want from the form: funny, informed and informative, irreverent but deeply serious, surprising, useful and sweary. Here’s the blurb:

In each 50-minute episode, Ian and Dorian focus their attention on exploring a single over-used (and over-abused) word or phrase. Through a combination of historical, etymological and contextual analysis, they unmask the true meaning of our most popular misinterpreted expressions—giving listeners keen insight into the murky nature of political and societal communication.

The Gold: a very good year for drama from the BBC included this true crime series written by Neil Forsyth and set in the 1980s – smart scripting, immaculate production design, elegant and innovative filmmaking, with Hugh Bonneville and Dominic Cooper. It’s available on BBC iPlayer for over a year, and a second series was recently commissioned.

Guys & Dolls: if it didn’t quite top in my memory Richard Eyre’s production for the National Theatre back in the 1980s, this in-the-round staging by Nicholas Hytner of the greatest of all Broadway musicals, by Frank Loesser, Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows, is nonetheless a wonderful night out.

A Canterbury Tale: among the cultural highlights of the autumn has been the BFI’s ambitious Powell + Pressburger project, highlighting the films of this most original pair of filmmakers. I thrilled to many of their films, seeing old favourites and making some exciting discoveries, but none made a bigger impact than this 1944 wartime tale which I had seen before on television, but which on the screen was a revelation – strange and beautiful and magical and surprising and English and so, so engrossing.

All’s Well That Ends Well: with the wonderful stage director Blanche McIntyre and my colleagues Hayley Pepler and Todd Macdonald, I directed a radical screen adaptation of Blanche’s stage production which is available via co-producers Sky Arts. Immodestly, I’m going to claim that we developed a completely new screen language, with multiple images in the frame, mobile phone and GoPro filming, and the use of graphics which together is, I humbly submit, distinctive and original – and frustratingly next-to-no-one noticed. Above, a production photo by Ikin Yum © RSC,

Joan Mitchell, Retrospective: this great exhibition of the American painter’s work, co-organised by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Baltimore Museum of Art in collaboration with the Louis Vuitton Foiundation, was paired at the Foundation in Paris with another extraordinary exhibition, Monet – Mitchell; gallery after gallery held beautiful canvas after beautiful canvas, with a small selection of these now on view at Tate Modern for a short while longer.

Composer of the Week: over the years I have learned so much, and derived such pleasure, from this BBC Radio 3 series, and the captivating recent offerings about John and Alice Coltrane, fronted by Kate Molleson, and Ned Rorem, with Donald McLeod, more than maintained the exceptionally high standards of the series.

Anselm: seen in 3D at BFI Imax, Wim Wenders’ documentary portrait of the German artist Anselm Kiefer was overwhelming – an experience of the sublime that is about Germany and Europe, memory, trauma, myth and beauty; a truly extraordinary portrait of one artist by another. (The link is to a good article by Katie McCabe.)

Masquerade – the Lives of Noël Coward: Oliver Soden’s biography of the Master is whip-smart, immensely readable and packed with gossip and cultural history.

Observations of film art: David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson’s invaluable blog currently carries the message below – I so hope David’s health improves in 2024, but in the meantime I am so grateful for what I have learned from their wonderful posts over so many years, and from David’s revelatory books of film criticism and theory.

David’s health situation has made it difficult for our household to maintain this blog. We don’t want it to fade away, though, so we’ve decided to select previous entries from our backlist to republish. These are items that chime with current developments or that we think might languish undiscovered among our 1094 entries over now 17 years (!). We hope that we will introduce new readers to our efforts and remind loyal readers of entries they may have once enjoyed.

The New Music Show: I try to catch every edition of BBC Radio 3’s showcase of cutting-edge and experimental music; Kate Molleson and Tom Service are the perfect (and complementary) guides to sound worlds that are often challenging, frequently beautiful and sometimes just downright weird – for me, this, the Proms, Composer of the Week (see above) and In Our Time (included in my 2021 list) are alone worth the licence fee.

The Kröller-Müller Museum: visited on a summer road trip through the Netherlands and Germany, this museum of modern art proved to be a revelation – beautiful galleries, a wonderful sculpture park featuring a clutch of very finely displayed Barbara Hepworths and Jean Dubuffet’s  Jardin d’émail (see below), and a stunning painting collection featuring a bunch of Van Goghs as well as Monet, Seurat, Picasso and many more. Also highly recommended from the holiday, the Red Star Line Museum in Antwerp and the Villa Hügel in Essen, which was home to the industrialist arms manufacturer Krupp family from 1873 to 1945.

Edward Scissorhands: Matthew Bourne’s dance version for New Adventures of Tim Burton’s classic, which is on view for much of January at Sadler’s Wells and then touring, is an ensemble work of joyful invention.

Dear England: this football confection on stage from James Graham, Rupert Goold, Es Devlin and Joseph Fiennes has a first half of such clarity and brilliance that you entirely forgive the still-enjoyable mess after the interval.

The Hundred Years War V – Triumph and Illusion: Jonathan Sumption’s great chronicle, lovingly and loyally published by Faber across two and a half decades, finally reached its conclusion this summer. Needless to say it was worth waiting for.

The Boss in Hyde Park: when my family and I saw Bruce in early July, I thought it might be our last nearly-three-hour encounter was this supreme showman (the fan video below is by Olive Toulouse), but – of course – we have tickets for Wembley 2024; note, Bruce Springsteen will celebrate his 75th birthday in September.

Hiroshi Sugimoto: the Hayward Gallery exhibition is on until 7 January, and I can only urge you to catch it before then; I was entranced by this Japanese photographer’s work, most especially the diorama photographs, the movie theatre meditations on time and mortality, and the sea pictures; the craft of the huge prints is also truly remarkable.

Colin from Accounts: what a delight this quirky comedy from Australia is, performed and scripted by real-life couple Patrick Brammall and Harriet Dyer – and it will remain on BBCiPlayer for more than a year.

Wuppertal Schwebebahn: for as long I can recall I’ve wanted to ride this suspended monrail through the German city, and when I finally managed it this year it was as fascinating an experience as I could have hoped for; this is a fine video report by Luke Starkenburg:

Interstellar at BFI IMAX: yes, I really admired Oppenheimer, which I also saw at the IMAX, but it was a screening earlier in the summer of Christopher Nolan’s 2014 sci-fi epic that really blew me away. Watching the extraordinary 70mm images and being engulfed in the astonishing score and sound design was a supreme cinematic experience.

Down Street – Churchill’s secret station: one of the London Transport Museum’s Hidden London subterranean tours takes you to a network of tunnels just near Green Park, where a disused tube station served during World War Two as the headquarters of Britain’s rail network. Even if the Churchill connection is a bit of a stretch, and the tickets are far from cheap, it’s a wonderful visit.

If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller: frustratingly not currently available, this is a super-smart, richly inventive Drama on 4 radio adaptation by Tim Crouch and Toby Jones (who also stars), directed by Nadia Molinari, which is totally true to Italo Calvino’s magical original.

Cymbeline: unquestionably the highlight of the RSC’s year, this Stratford production by (from today, ‘Sir’) Gregory Doran made perfect sense of Shakespeare’s all-but-impossible-to-stage drama, and featured cherishable performances from a host of Doran stalwarts including Peter de Jersey (marvellous in the final scene), Alexandra Gilbreath, Mark Hadfield and more, with design by Stephen Brimson-Lewis and music from Paul Englishby; the striking image above is by the great Ellie Kurttz.

New Books Network: the various strands of this podcast group feature scholars interviewing authors about their recent books – the quality is variable, inevitably, but at its best this is an exemplary way of making academic research accessible to a broader public. I listen to 2 or 3 a week.

The Diplomat: Debora Cahn’s political thriller for Netflix is ridiculous, but also ridiculously enjoyable, in part thanks to endlessly watchable performances from Keri Russell and Rufus Sewell.

Mubi.com: my go-to online site for world cinema, classic and contemporary, and with the always informative Mubi Notebook too.

2023 Ashes Series: needle, Bazball, a brilliant comeback, Zak Crawley’s 189 – one of the great sporting series of my lifetime – and let’s not forget Stuart Broad’s 600th (!) Test wicket:

Cécile, Toulouse: I love good food and wne, but I don’t think of myself as a foodie – nonethless, a meal in August at this very fine restaurant was an absolute highlight of the year; if you’re in town do try to book a table.

The Black Pirate: the London Film Festival saw BFI Southbank present the world premiere screening of the latest restoration of Douglas Fairbanks’ 1926 swashbuckler, presented in original two-colour Technicolor form, and with a scintillating piano accompaniment by Neil Brand. I revelled in it; the link is to an informative article by James Layton and Byrony Dixon about the complex restoration process.

A Northern Wind – Britain 1962-65: the latest volume of David Kynaston’s great post-war social history, Tales of a New Jerusalem, is just as rich and rewarding as the previous four (and a half, counting On the Cusp: Days of ’62); note too that publisher Bloomsbury do a great job with each volume.

Evelyn Hofer: a dazzling exhibition at The Photographers’ Gallery of the work of the American-German photographer who died in 2009.

BBC Proms 2023: it really is the greatest music festival in the world, and once again, thanks to BBC Sounds, I managed to listen to almost every note – and my life was all the richer.

Anatomy of a Fall: Justine Triet’s brilliantly controlled courtroom drama is a great watch, with a remarkable central performance from Sandra Huller.

Osborne: it’s fair to say that I didn’t fall in love with the Isle of Wight on my first visit at the start of December, but I did find Victoria and Albert’s house completely fascinating, and my tour was greatly enhanced by our knowledgeable and engaging English Heritage guide.

Red Sands Sea Forts: as a birthday present my sister Sheila chartered a boat to take the family out to the Maunsell Forts, built during World War Two, off Whitstable (below). Despite having grown up in the town, and seeing them in the distance on every clear day, I had never before seen them close-up. They are as eerily beautiful and strange and haunting as you could wish.

The War Trilogy: Second Run’s immaculate Blu-ray box set of Andrzej Wajda’s A Generation (Pokolenie, 1955), Kanał (1957), and Ashes and Diamonds (Popiół i Diament, 1958) was released in December 2022, and one of the great pleasures of this year has been exploring it in depth, immeasurably aided by Michael Brooke’s wonderfully informative audio commentaries.

It’s a Wonderful Life: one of our annual family rituals is a visit to BFI Southbank to watch Frank Capra’s dark yet truly life-enhancing masterpiece, and my tears roll pretty much from when brother Harry falls through the ice; there’s a good new BFI Film Classics volume about the film by Michael Newton.

The Betrothed: the few contemporary novels that I sampled this year by and large failed to enthral me (my problem, not theirs) but I was captivated by Alessandro Manzoni’s I Promessi Sposi, an epic historical novel set in the 1620s and first published in 1827. There is a new translation by Michael F. Moore, but I was more than satisfied by Bruce Penman’s earlier version for Penguin Classics, and there are lots of cheap copies available online.

Succession Series 4: it already feels a while ago now, but HBO’s family saga created by Jesse Aemstrong remains the television event of the year – brilliant plotting, brilliant performances, brilliant costumes and cars and ‘copters, brilliant drama.

Once Upon a Time in Northern Ireland: the testimonies are the thing in this remarkable and powerful documentary series from the BBC, and from KEO Films and Walk on Air Films, directed by James Bluemel and Sian Mcilwaine; television history that is also a major historical document.

Matisse in the 1930s: a beautifully judged exhibition, seen at the Jeu de Paume in Paris, that featured twenty or so exuberant and dazzling paintings along with a host of archival materials; there is also a very good catalogue.

Dancer on Film: one of the great disappointments of 2023 has been the wilful destruction of Twitter by its idiot owner. M*sk’s embrace of white supremacists was the final straw for me, and while I continue to read ‘X’ (since many I respect and learn from still post there) I have stopped contributing and am now try to build a better life for Illuminations on Bluesky. One of those I followed with great pleasure was this line of short dance scenes from all kinds of movies, and like many other favourites I wish they too would shift their allegiances elsewhere.

Tate Britain rehang: May saw the unveiling of a radically new, and for the most part successful, presentation of what the gallery claims is ‘the world’s greatest collection of British art. I have already spent a lot of happy hours revisiting old friends and making the acquaintances of many new ones – this feels like a model re-presentation, alive to a wealth of contemporary debates, of a major museum’s holdings

Letters from an American: Heather Cox Richardson’s informed missives from the United States ping into my mailbox every morning )she sends them late at night her time), and they never fail to enlighten me about the hideousness across the Atlantic and its historical contexts; sign up (for free) via the link.

The Crown S6 E10: despite the mis-steps of this final series, the concluding episode is consummate filmmaking in every department. By and large this has been essential and often water-cooler viewing across the past seven years.

The Criminal Acts of Todd Slaughter – Eight Blood-and-Thunder Entertainments, 1935-1940: a compendious Indicator box set of Blu-ray restorations of British thrillers from the 1930s, supplemented by the most remarkable menu of extras.

Rye Lane: my wife Clare and I simply loved this sparky, visually inventive, warm-hearted comedy directed by Raine Allen-Miller.

Festival Theatre, Stratford, Ontario: a visit here was a topline bucket list item, and I finally managed it in April – it did not disappoint. The annual Shakespeare productions hadn’t started but I saw a splendid matinee of Rent; the greatest pleasure, however, was drinking in the period detail of the 1957 building and the brilliance of the auditorium that became so influential on Chichester, Sheffield, the South Bank’s Olivier and many more.


  1. John Wyver says:

    Inevitably, there are things I left out, and I’ll add one or two over the coming days. I really should have found space for Philip Guston at Tate Modern, which is such a rich and remarkable show, and one that I definitely want to revisit before it closes on 25 February.

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