Glory days: what does success mean in 2021?

Russell T Davies

Screenwriter, It’s a Sin

Success in 2021 meant cold, hard cash. Not for me! For charity. Damn it. I created an in-joke for the It’s a Sin gang: “La” instead of hello. We said that when I was young, in Swansea, camp little kids that we were. So I put it on screen. The first episode was watched by a man called Philip Normal, the UK’s first HIV-positive mayor. He turned “La” into a T-shirt and began printing. Eight months later, that T-shirt has raised £500,000 for the Terrence Higgins Trust. Half a million quid. You can stuff your awards and reviews. That money will change lives.



Formula gone … Finneas O’Connell. Photograph: Angela Weiss/AFP/Getty

It’s playing by your own rules, making whatever you want to make, worrying only about fully realising your own vision. Whatever formula once existed is gone. Nobody can tell you how to achieve it; it’s all about whatever you can dream up that the world hasn’t heard.

Hayley Williams

Musician, Paramore

My definitions of contentment and success have changed too many times to count. This is Paramore’s 19th year alive — holy shit. I think we’ve only managed to survive this long because we’ve become hyper-protective about the space we take up, personally and professionally.

Today, nearly three years since we decided to take substantial time off, I feel prouder than ever of the work we’ve put out into the world. I feel even more connected to the people behind the work — myself, Taylor and Zac. There was a time I couldn’t say that. For many years, I lost myself to the image and the expectations projected onto me from the moment we came onto the scene.

Strangely, I believe it’s been the “no”s that have defined our career and successes. It isn’t easy to turn down a big payday or a huge opportunity that you know could set you and your family up for life. I tell my friends in this business that a thoughtful “no” can be just as lucrative as a thousand “yesses”. I’ve never stood by that more proudly than I do today. After coming off the road with Paramore, releasing two solo albums in the last year — neither of which I promoted very heavily — and, most importantly, coming to a healthy acceptance of living a public life while privately dealing with intense bouts of depression, I don’t regret any choice I or the band have made. We simply don’t believe success can be measured by the metrics we were traditionally taught to trust.

Jamie Demetriou

Comic, creator Stath Lets Flats

Stath time … Jamie Demetriou. Photograph: Rex/Shutterstock/Bafta

When I was a tiny, curvy child, my wildest daydreams about working in telly were all about me being “big”. If I’m honest, a part of me probably still needs to grow up and embrace that true success has nothing to do with “big-ness”. I suspect real success is the ability to feel calm about work. I’m never calmer than when I’m involved in a project that I really get and love. Scale rarely informs that. That said: can I be the lead in a Marvel film please? I’d love to play a god made of guns.

Jack Thorne

Screenwriter, Help/Kiri

In the write … Jack Thorne. Photograph: Rob Langley

Two things really had an impact on me this year. The world got uglier and the more we learn about what happened during the pandemic the angrier we should feel. The disabled world, in particular, was betrayed by this government. The second is that my dad got cancer. My dad is my Jiminy Cricket, the person on my shoulder nudging me. He’s always lived a good life and he’s always been the one who said if you’re not doing good in the world then what are you doing? I’m instinctively a coward, he’s not. For me, success is trying to live up to him, and to work out how to support him, and that struggle, frankly, is ongoing.

Siobhan Reddy

Studio director/video game producer, Media Molecule

Follow your Dreams … Siobhan Reddy. Photograph: Sam Hendel

During this time we need to look at how we measure creative success. Creativity connects us all and it covers a wide spectrum. It can be personal, like making a vegetable garden to share with family you haven’t seen for a long time; social, like making a funny TikTok that makes people think; or it can scratch an itch, like being a hobbyist games designer. When we look back to this time, measures like how thoughtful we were, how inclusive our designs were, how we connected people to make things more helpful, more real and more positive will be important.

Alex Horne

Comedian/Taskmaster creator

Taken to task … Alex Horne. Photograph: Channel 4/Simon Webb

If I come up with a single idea for a task, joke or song, it’s been a successful day. If I can write that idea up and make it work, then it’s been a successful week. If I can perform that idea, make someone laugh and, mainly, have fun, then it’s been a successful month. And if I can keep doing that, while spending time with my family, who inspire pretty much every idea I ever have, then it’s been a successful year.

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Lena Dunham


Creative success means something very different to me now than it did five years ago — but it sort of means the same thing it did to me 10 years ago. When I started, all I dreamed of was the chance to make work. I imagined I would make micro-budget indie films when I could and cobble together a life around that with other pursuits. The wild luck, and yes, some very hard work, of Girls allowed me to see a “bigger” life for myself, but in that bigger life it was easy to get distracted and think it was my job to try and take over the world. A combination of growing older and the reflection forced on us by the pandemic has me back to appreciating the very fact that I get to do this job, and so creative success is once again the chance to tell stories in any form, for an audience comprised of however many people might want to hear them. The simplicity of a clear mission is comforting to me as the world starts to reactivate.

Liam Williams

Comedian/writer, Ladhood

Top lad … Liam Williams.

At the beginning of my career I’d oscillate, in terms of creative ambition, between a craving for eternal, Osymandian approbation and the hope of just being able to pay the rent each month. A decade in, I tend more towards the latter, though the idea of having some sort of “higher” social or political purpose matters to me too, even if it will all be forgotten in the end, buried under desert sands.

Adam Buxton

Comic, The Adam Buxton Show

Buckles your ideas up … Adam Buxton. Photograph: Fabio De Paola/The Guardian

Hello, Adam Buxton here. I’m a multi-award winning writer, comedian and podcaster. Here are my rules for success in the creative industries:

If you do a thing and people like it, carry on doing that thing over and over again with very slight variations to create the illusion of change. Don’t make the variations too big or people might get confused and go elsewhere.

Don’t take long breaks to be with friends and loved ones or work on new things. If you take a long break, people will forget you and then you won’t be successful and your friends and loved ones won’t like you any more.

Try to win awards. Awards are proof that a thing is good. Things with no awards are not as good. Look at the things that win awards and make a note of what those things have in common. Can you put some of those things in your thing?

Act at all times as though you’re a genius and the success of your thing is well deserved. You’ll be surprised how many people will go along with this, including the people who give out awards.

See you at the success party!

Rina Sawayama


It’s an ever-moving goalpost that I’m trying to find peace with. As an artist, it’s hard to predict what the next 10 years, five years, even one year is going to be like … I couldn’t have seen myself starring in John Wick 4! An uncertain future can make planning hard, so I’ve learned to be successful in the daily things I do. Otherwise I get defeated by the monstrous societal idea of success, which doesn’t necessarily align with mine.

Danny Brocklehurst

Screenwriter, Brassic

Top Brassic … Danny Brocklehurst. Photograph: Dave Benett/Getty

Whenever we put work out we share a piece of ourselves and I know I have succeeded when audiences respond on an emotional level. I’ve lost count of how many times people have told me that my potty-mouthed comedy Brassic has uplifted them, especially during the pandemic. With more serious dramas like Exile and Come Home, I’ve had responses so personal that I’ve realised the power of the television dramatist. To be able to connect with an audience, change their mood, make them laugh, cry, think or feel is truly a special thing.

Tolly, Audrey and Milena

Podcasters, The Receipts

Feeling content … (l-r) Audrey Akande, Tolani Shoneye and Milena Sanchez of The Receipts. Photograph: Suki Dhanda/The Observer

Being able to create your own content and not wait to be given chances has redefined what success looks like. Before signing with Spotify, we had already carved out our lane: we came with a readymade audience, which means our presence couldn’t be denied. What we value is creating a space for black and brown women to feel safe in a world that often excludes their voices. So long as that remains the focal point, we’re happy to see where this journey takes us.

Digga D


Knows the drill … Digga D.

To me, success means finally being able to give my fans the live performance I haven’t been able to give to them until now. Being able to showcase my talent live to those who have been supporting me throughout my career would mean the world to me.

Brian Cox

Actor, Succession

The Covid lockdown has threatened the live performing arts — which are the lifeblood of my profession as an actor — in a way that I have never known in my lifetime. My own personal creative success means nothing to me if we cannot keep the artform going. Live performance is a gentle but visceral reminder of our connection with one another and our humanity. I am deeply concerned about the break in our shared cultural life, and the way that arts communities have been fragmented. The need to come together, which was a rallying cry when I was starting out in the 1960s, is now more vital than ever.

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Anish Kapoor

Sculptor, London Orbit

Down to a fine art … Anish Kapoor. Photograph: Sarah Lee/The Guardian

Success is an illusion of little real interest. We artists struggle to find our voice and to keep it alive. What I know — or think I know — is not a true source of creativity. It is out of what I don’t know that deep creative impulse arises. My job is therefore to de-school myself and unlearn what I have spent a lifetime learning and achieving. It is in the wild, in the disobedient, in disavowal that we find home. Covid has forced us all to recognise that we are unprepared and fragile. For us, the privileged, there is some solace, but for most people in most of the world Covid gives face to the lie that there is any equality or compassion. I hang my head in shame.

Joe Lycett

Comic/consumer rights champ

Mum’s the word … Joe Lycett. Photograph: Ollie Millington/Getty

When I was a boy, my mum told me she thought happiness was “meaningful occupation”. There’s a lot of freedom within those words. You can be occupied in an infinite amount of ways, and can find meaning and motivation in the strangest of places. For the most part, my occupation is the business of jokes. The meaning can be skewering injustice, illuminating the quirks of being human or simply to make people laugh. I’ve had mixed success with this, but when it works I know my mum’s words are absolutely bang on.

Jamie Morton

Podcaster, My Dad Wrote a Porno

A smut above the rest … Jamie Morton Photograph: British Podcast Awards/Getty

There seems to be more value today in being seen as successful than in feeling fulfilled. But when you make something, you can never think about its future; all that matters is turning that idea into a reality. Wrestling and moulding those ragged shreds of nothing into a tangible something is, to me, everything.

Rosie Kay

Founder, Rosie Kay Dance Company

Save the last dance … Rosie Kay. Photograph: Ian Wallman

This year, survival has been the only success. There is no doubt this has been a difficult year, from the night when we realised school wouldn’t be reopening and our premiere had to be postponed, to dealing, sadly, with the death of my father. Creativity, hard work, daily discipline and dancing has never been more vital, urgent or important to me. Now is an important time for the arts: we need to show how vital we are to understanding and interpreting the human condition.

Edgar Wright


A Guide to happiness … Edgar Wright. Photograph: Domenico Stinellis/AP

I cannot lie: seeing something I had made featured in the Guardian Guide was an intoxicating thrill. As someone who bought the paper every Saturday mainly to peruse the exciting goings-on, seeing my own work printed in ink was a major milestone. The first time — a listing for the debut of Spaced in September 1999 — was momentous enough. But that paled in comparison to seeing the back cover in April 2004 adorned with the poster for Shaun of the Dead. If I had any existential doubts as to whether I had made a movie that was going to be released or not, this was hard proof: it’s on the back of the fucking Guide. I can retire now. (I didn’t.)

Jonny Greenwood

Guitarist/composer, Radiohead

Fitter, happier … Jonny Greenwood. Photograph: Sarah Lee/The Guardian

I keep thinking about an early rehearsal with Radiohead before we were called Radiohead. I was 14 or 15. All three of us were playing very loud electric guitars, facing each other. That moment was really exciting. We took rehearsals so seriously but we wouldn’t play concerts. It’s weirdly unambitious. We were just into writing and learning how to arrange songs.

I remember coming out of a venue called the Lemon Tree in Aberdeen. NME’s review of The Bends was just out. I was really excited. It’s fine to claim to do music just for yourself. But you want complete personal satisfaction and then you want everyone to agree with you! Early success was all about seeing the world and performing. Then it came back to writing and recording. Thom always says it’s good to be a moving target — that’s how you stay supple. Even now, when we play live, we still feel like that school band — in that some bands have the ambition to be the biggest band in the world and we’ve never understood that. You hope to be as good as some of the bands that you grew up listening to. And that’s plenty for anyone.

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