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Celebrity deaths 2016: Why this year won't be considered unusual – eventually

A variety of factors means the past 12 months could well be considered in the new norm

By Chris Maume

The 2016 death list seems to go on forever. Forget the rest of the year – just take the last week or so: George Michael, Carrie Fisher, Richard Adams, Rick Parfitt, Rabbi Lionel Blue, Zsa Zsa Gabor…

A few months ago a New Yorker cartoon depicted an angel advising Death: “Maybe cool it on the beloved celebrities for a bit”, and there were suggestions on social media that Time magazine’s Person of the Year shouldn’t be Donald Trump but the Grim Reaper himself. The comedian and writer David Baddiel tweeted: “Starting to think it might be a serial killer, with a grudge against people who are massively loved."

Even early in the year there were suspicions that celebrity mortality was on the rise. In April – by which time we had already said goodbye to David Bowie, Pierre Boulez, Cecil Parkinson, Alan Rickman, Umberto Eco, Anita Brookner, Johan Cruyff, Ronnie Corbett, Sir Terry Wogan, Harper Lee, Sir George Martin, Keith Emerson, Nancy Reagan, Zaha Hadid and Paul Daniels – the BBC responded to the noise on social media that this was shaping up to be a record year by counting the number of pre-prepared BBC obituaries that had run in the first three months of each year from 2012 to 2016.

They found that there had indeed been a spike in celebrity deaths: twice as many “famous” people (defined as having a BBC advance obituary) died in January, February and March of this year as had done during the corresponding period of 2015 – and five times as many as in the first three months of 2012. However, the BBC’s obituaries editor Nick Serpell reported that things began to level out somewhat after that, and that the second half of the year was not especially unusual. But still, in the whole of 2016, the BBC has used 30 per cent more pre-prepared obituaries compared to the previous year.

That corresponds with a slight increase in deaths generally: for the first three months of the year in Britain 156,041 people died, up from 151,801 in 2015 – so there were more deaths, but only a few per cent more, and not statistically significant, which suggests that the death ratio of celebrities to the unsung is higher than normal.

So are there good, solid reasons behind the surge in celebrity deaths, or is it just one of those things, a statistical blip? I suspect the former, for one good reason: the Sixties.

In the late 18th century, when Gentleman magazine expanded its list of death notices into the first full-blown obituaries section, the principal criterion for inclusion was whether the subject was an “Eminent Person”, as the magazine put it. For more than a century that would have encompassed what we used to know as the great and the good: politicians, royals, businessmen, diplomats, but not too many actors or musicians.

What we now call celebrity culture probably kicked off with the rise of Hollywood and of professional sport in the first decades of the 20th century, and things began to resemble the modern day with Frank Sinatra’s “bobby soxers”, and, a few years later, Elvis. But it was in the first few years of the 1960s, when four moptopped chaps from Liverpool took the world by storm, that the cult of the celebrity really got into gear.

It was the decade that promised a classless, meritocratic future, when young working class people could rise to stardom fuelled by talent and ambition alone rather than by privilege and breeding.

The Beatles were rapidly followed by the Stones, the Who and the Kinks, and by a stampede of rising stars from other metiers: Muhammad Ali, Michael Caine, Terence Stamp, Julie Christie, George Best, Davids Bailey, Frost and Hockney… modern popular culture as we know it took flight.

Those people who came to fame in the ’60s are now in the autumn and winter of their years, so there’s bound to be an increase in celebrity mortality. And in the case of musicians, death comes sooner: an 2014 academic study in Australia which looked at 13,000 rock and pop stars found that they die on average 25 years younger than the rest of the population (Keith Richards, still hale and hearty a few days after his 73rd birthday despite a lifestyle to fell an elephant, is clearly the rule-proving exception).

Then there’s social media: the rise of Facebook – which grew by 250 million subscribers during 2016 – and of Twitter means that each notable death becomes known about and commented upon around the world within seconds of an announcement. Outpourings of grief go rapidly viral, and celebrity deaths seem to mean and matter far more than they ever did.

For these reasons, I don’t see any change on the horizon: there are more famous people than ever before, and they’re all on the Grim Reaper’s to-do list. I suspect that this time next year we’ll be telling ourselves that in celebrity-death terms, 2016 wasn’t so unusual after all.
Entertainment's long list of losses in 2016

The world of entertainment has lost stars from all genres of the industry in 2016.

Here is a list of some of the biggest names to die so far this year:

:: Singer David Bowie died aged 69 on January 10.

:: Actor Alan Rickman died aged 69 on January 14.

:: Eagles frontman Glenn Frey died aged 67 on January 18.

:: Broadcaster Sir Terry Wogan died on January 31 aged 77.

:: Author Harper Lee, who wrote To Kill A Mockingbird, died aged 89 on February 19.

:: Actor Frank Kelly, who played Father Jack in the comedy series Father Ted, died aged 77 on February 28.

:: Coronation Street creator Tony Warren died aged 79 on March 1.

:: Nancy Reagan, actress and former first lady of the United States, died aged 94 on March 6.

:: Beatles producer Sir George Martin died aged 90 on March 8.

:: Magician Paul Daniels died aged 77 on March 17.

:: Comedian Ronnie Corbett died aged 85 on March 31.

:: This Morning agony aunt Denise Robertson died aged 83 on March 31.

:: Sherlock Holmes actor Douglas Wilmer died aged 96 on March 31.

:: Drugs campaigner Howard Marks, known as Mr Nice, died aged 70 on April 10.

:: Reality TV star and music producer David Gest died aged 62 on April 12.

:: British playwright Sir Arnold Wesker died aged 83 on April 12.

:: Comedian Victoria Wood died aged 62 on April 20.

:: Pop star Prince died aged 57 on April 21.

:: Television writer Carla Lane, known for sitcoms such as The Liver Birds and Bread, died aged 87 on May 31.

:: Boxing champion Muhammad Ali died aged 74 on June 3.

:: Singer Dave Swarbrick of folk band Fairport Convention died aged 75 on June 3.

:: Anton Yelchin, actor in Star Trek, died aged 27 on June 19.

:: Comedian, Royle Family actress and writer Caroline Aherne died aged 52 on July 2.

:: Ken Barrie, the voice of Postman Pat, died aged 83 on July 29.

:: Kenny Baker, who played droid R2D2 in the Star Wars films, died aged 81 on August 13.

:: Gene Wilder, who played Willy Wonka and other memorable comedy roles, including parts in The Producers and Young Frankenstein, died aged 83 on August 28.

:: Former Israeli president Shimon Peres died aged 93 on September 28.

:: Former Coronation Street actress Jean Alexander, who played Hilda Ogden, died aged 90 on October 14.

:: Raine Spencer, the stepmother of Diana, Princess of Wales, died aged 87 on October 21.

:: London-born fashion designer Richard Nicoll died aged 39 on October 21.

:: Jimmy Perry, screenwriter known for shows including Dad's Army and It Ain't Half Hot Mum, died aged 93 on October 23.

:: Singer, songwriter and television personality Pete Burns, who founded pop band Dead Or Alive, died aged 57 on October 23.

:: Sir Jimmy Young, who hosted BBC radio programmes for half a century, died aged 95 on November 7.

:: The death at 82 of Canadian singer, songwriter and poet Leonard Cohen, who penned the classic song Hallelujah, was announced on November 11.

:: The Man From Uncle star Robert Vaughn died aged 83 on November 11.

:: Musician Craig Gill, drummer of Madchester band Inspiral Carpets, died aged 44 on November 22.

:: The death of West End star Keo Woolford, 49, who starred in The King And I opposite Elaine Paige, and in the television remake of Hawaii Five-O, was announced on November 30.

:: The death of comic actor Andrew Sachs, 86, best-known for playing Spanish waiter Manuel in Fawlty Towers, was announced on December 1.

:: Peter Vaughan, who starred in Game Of Thrones and Porridge, died aged 93 on December 6.

:: Greg Lake, King Crimson founder member and one-third of Emerson, Lake & Palmer, died aged 69 on December 8.

:: Restaurant critic AA Gill died aged 62 on December 10.

:: Status Quo guitarist Rick Parfitt died in Spain at the age of 68 on Christmas Eve.

:: Liz Smith, who played the Royle Family's Norma (Nana), dies aged 95 on Christmas Eve.

:: George Michael passes away aged 53 on Boxing Day.

:: Richard Adams, author of Watership Down, dies aged 96 on December 27

:: Carrie Fisher dies aged 60 on December 27

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