Is 2016 cursed? Why are so many icons and celebrities dying?
Published 22/04/2016 | 08:25
It certainly seems the case. The death of the musician Prince, at the age of 57, just a day after Victoria Wood died from cancer, aged 62, has shocked their millions of fans.
But it also appears to prove that 2016 is cursed in some way. The two entertainers are the latest in a long line of celebrities to die in 2016, following Ronnie Corbett, Alan Rickman, David Bowie, Sir Terry Wogan, Harper Lee, David Gest, Garry Shandling, Johan Cruyff among others.
Many people have expressed their horror, on Twitter, at the glut of famous deaths.
But is it true? Are more celebrities dying than normal?
Theory 1: More people are dying
This would seem highly unlikely, unless there was a flu epidemic or a particularly harsh winter, which often causes spikes in mortality rates.
According to the Office for National Statistics in the UK, which measures all the deaths registered in England and Wales on a weekly basis, 156,041 people have died between the start of this year up until the week ending April 8. This is indeed slightly higher – just over 3 per cent – than the average over the last five years, which is 151,801. But a spokesman for the ONS says: “This is within the bounds of normal variance.”
Theory 2: Celebrities are cursed
This might be possible, bearing in mind that some of the people who have died were counter culture figures of the 1960s and 1970s, who epitomised the sex, drugs and rock and roll lifestyle of that era: David Bowie, who supposedly spent a year surviving on nothing more than cocaine, milk and red peppers; Howard Marks, the drugs dealer; Keith Emerson, one of the founding members of progressive rock group Emerson, Lake and Palmer; and Paul Kantner, the co-founder of Jefferson Airplane and prolific user of LSD.
Andrew Brown, the Telegraph obituaries editor, says: “It’s possible there are more pop stars coming into their 60s and 70s. Even if they corrected their lifestyles in later life, years of hard living might have made them more vulnerable to death now.”
Theory 3: There's been a strange statistical blip
Brown, himself, is dubious there has been a glut of celebrity deaths, and believes a couple of strangely busy weeks – Bowie died the same week as Alan Rickman; Gary Shandling and Johan Cruyff both died on March 24; Ronnie Corbett died on the same day as Dame Zaha Hadid a week later – has skewed our perception. It should even itself out later this year.
The Telegraph publishes three to four obituaries every day, day in day out. Only when a major figure dies – former prime ministers, royalty, David Bowie – do they merit a whole page. He insists he has not noticed a backlog.
Theory 4: The bar for 'celebrity' has been lowered'
This is possible. David Gest famous for being the fourth husband of Liza Minelli and a contestant on I’m a Celebrity, Get me Out of Here, merited a 1,120-word obituary in the Telegraph. Though this newspaper’s obituary page has always revelled in celebrating quirky lives, it’s fair to say he would not have appeared a decade or so ago.
Jade Goody, who died from cervical cancer in 2009 at the age of 27 – after forging a remarkable career as the archetypal modern reality television star – did have a Telegraph obituary (and an absolutely brilliantly written one, too), but it was decided by the editor at the time not to run it in the newspaper.
But Gest is about the only one of 2016’s celebrity deaths to fit this category.
Theory 5: There are just more celebrities per head of population
The pop music boom of the 1960s and the arrival of television in people’s sitting rooms from the mid-50s onwards has increased massively the pool of household names.
In the era of just three TV channels the likes of unassuming, bank-manager lookalike Cliff Michelmore became woven into families’ weekly lives. The Paul Daniels magic show regularly attracted viewing figures of 15 million; the Two Ronnies hit 18 million viewers in 1980 – giving these light entertainment stars a recognition factor that would be impossible in the period before television and celebrity magazines. It would also be far more difficult to replicate in today’s era of countless terrestrial channels, Netflix and iPlayer and YouTube, which has spawned thousands of “celebrities” but few genuine household names, known and loved by two or even three generations in the way that Victoria Wood, Prince or Ronnie Corbett were.
BBC Radio 4’s excellent More or Less programme, which looks at statistics behind the headlines, examined the theory that more celebrities had died this year than normal.
Nick Serpell, BBC’s obituary editor, calculated that in the period January to March the corporation had run 24 obituaries on its radio stations and online, double the figure for the same period in 2015. There had been 5 in 2012, 8, in 2013 and 11 in 2014.
Mr Serpell told the programme: “All these people, and the rise and growth of celebrity if you like, are reaching that period in their seventies and eighties where they are going to start to die and I think that is what's causing this.”
Theory 6: Social media amplifies the deaths
This is a popular theory. In the old days, a celebrity death was announced on the radio, or in the obituary section. We digested the news in private. Now, within seconds of the news breaking Facebook, Instagram, Twitter is deluged with #RIP and other hashtags as we try to out-bid each other in our public statements of grief.
We are now more aware of the demise of celebrities with whom we have no affinity, be they a footballer, an American stand up or British television presenter. It is possible, as a result, we now have a greater appetite for reading about the deaths of famous people. Facebook, in particular, seems to particularly encourage users to post clips or quotes of their favourite stars. We have all become citizen obituary writers.
So, what's the reason for all the deaths?
The theory that there are just more celebrities – per 1,000 head of population – combined with the fact that many had a terribly unhealthy lifestyle is the most compelling reason why so many have died in recent months. This will be of no comfort to their millions of fans.