For celebrities, was it a very bad year?

David Bowie was one of an unusual number of famous people who died earlier this year.
David Bowie was one of an unusual number of famous people who died earlier this year.
Don't believe the hype: it's not that more famous people are dying, it's that we have more famous people

If you believe social media, which is an “if” so huge it should be rendered in bold capital letters in extra-large font, this has been a particularly gloomy year for celebrity deaths. But have more notable people than usual passed away in 2016?

In April, the BBC’s Obituaries Editor was tasked with checking if there was anything unusual about the number of well-known people dying, as many on social media had been claiming.

Nick Serpell counted the number of prepared BBC obituaries that ran across the network’s radio, TV and online platforms from January until the end of March for the years 2012-16.

And at that point he found that, yes, just looking at the first three months of the year, there had been a huge increase.

Twice as many notable people had died in this period of 2016 compared to the same period in 2015, and five times as many as in 2012.

The BBC points out that this is quite a crude way of measuring celebrity deaths.

It doesn’t do an obituary for every celebrity who dies and Serpell counted only prepared obituaries, rather than obituaries written after the event, or news reports that mention someone has died.

Then there’s the question of who counts as a celebrity in the first place. The BBC lists below show a clear skew towards UK politicians and actors. US television personality David Gest, for example, did not get a BBC obituary.

So has 2016 continued to be so dangerous and fateful for famous people?

No, Serpell says.

“The last six months of this year were broadly in line with the previous last six months of the previous four or five years,” he says.

“So we didn’t see that spike continuing throughout the 12 months.”

Across the whole year, there was a 30% increase in BBC prepared obituaries used in 2016 compared with 2015.

“In 2012, we had a total of 16,” says Serpell. “In 2013, it went to 24. In 2014, it rose again to 29.

“But well over half those deaths occurred in the first four months of the year. The rest of the year went back to a figure we considered normal over the past four or five years.”

One of the major reasons is that there are so many more “celebrities” around. We’re half a century on from the flourishing of TV and pop culture in the 1960s, which massively expanded the pool of public figures.

Prepared BBC obituaries that ran on television, radio and online


January to March, five deaths. Etta James, Davy Jones, Eve Arnold, Bob Holness, Whitney Houston,

April to December, nine deaths. Neil Armstrong, Donna Summer, Robin Gibb, Ravi Shankar, Larry Hagman, Vidal Sassoon, Gore Vidal, Gerry Anderson, Andy Williams

Total: 16


January – March, eight deaths. Frank Thornton, Richard Griffiths, Michael Winner, Tony Gubba, Hugo Chavez, Kenny Ball, Robert Kee, Richard Briers

April – December, 15 deaths. David Coleman, Ronnie Biggs, Peter O’Toole, Nelson Mandela, Margaret Thatcher, John Taverner, John Cole, Lou Reed, David Jacobs, Sir David Frost, Seamus Heaney, Cliff Morgan, Mel Smith, Alan Whicker, Tom Sharpe

Total: 24


January – March, 11 deaths. Ariel Sharon, Run Run Shaw, Sir Tom Finney, Sir Christopher Chataway, Simon Hoggart, Elizabeth Jane Howard, Eusebio, Tony Benn, Clarissa Dickinson-Wright, Roger Lloyd Pack, Shirley Temple

April -December, 18 deaths. Maya Angelou, Lauren Bacall, Richard Attenborough, Joan Rivers, Lynda Bellingham, Acker Bilk, PD James, Joe Cocker, Billie Whitelaw, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Eli Wallach, Saeed Jaffrey, Robin Williams, Rik Mayall, Sir Jack Brabham, Ian Paisley, Sir Donald Sinden, Jeremy Lloyd

Total: 29


January – March, 12 deaths. Geraldine McEwan, Richard Meade, Derek Chinnery, Lee Kuan Yew, Terry Pratchett, Demis Roussos, King Abdullah, Rod McKuen, Dan Topolski, Leon Brittan, Sam Simon, Leonard Nimoy

April – December, 20 deaths. Richie Benaud, Jimmy Hill, Keith Michell, Sue Lloyd-Roberts, Omar Sharif, Cilla Black, BB King, Lemmy Kilmister, Warren Mitchell, Colin Welland, Maureen O’Hara, Brian Sewell, George Cole, Val Doonican, Christopher Lee, Hugh Scully, Geoffrey Howe, Denis Healey, Charles Kennedy, Nicholas Winton

Total: 32


January – March, 24 deaths. Ed Stewart, Cecil Parkinson, Paul Daniels, Cliff Michelmore, Eric Lubbock, Nancy Reagan, Pierre Boulez, David Bowie, Frank Finlay, Alan Rickman, Sir Terry Wogan, Margaret Forster, John Chilton, Ronnie Corbett, Zaha Hadid, Barry Hines, Peter Maxwell Davies, Harper Lee, Sir George Martin, Robert Stigwood, Glenn Frey, Boutros Boutros Ghali, Tony Warren, Garry Shandling

April – December, 18 deaths. Victoria Wood, Leonard Cohen, Andrew Sachs, Gene Wilder, Caroline Aherne, Muhammad Ali, Carla Lane, Prince, Sir Jimmy Young, Fidel Castro, Robert Vaughan, Arnold Palmer, Elie Wiesel, Shimon Peres, Burt Kwouk, Peter Shaffer, Greg Lake, Peter Vaughan

Total: 42


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