We have lost much-loved stars like Barbara Windsor and John le Carré, but they live on in our hearts - Tony Earnshaw

The “most wonderful time of the year” generally coincides with the awful roll call that comes at the end of every 12-month period: the grim reaper’s tally of the great and good.

British bestselling author John le Carre, who has died aged 89, seen here giving a speech in 2017 in Hamburg. (DPA/AFP via Getty Images)
British bestselling author John le Carre, who has died aged 89, seen here giving a speech in 2017 in Hamburg. (DPA/AFP via Getty Images)

In the last eight days we have lost Barbara Windsor, Charley Pride and John le Carré: an actress of quiet versatility, a black American country superstar and a novelist whose own invented Cold War jargon was embraced and adopted by the real M16.

Those three octogenarians are representative of the ages of many of those veterans that have died in this most strange of years. The centenarians included acting legends Olivia de Havilland, Kirk Douglas and Earl Cameron; the nonagenarians included Swedish character player Max Von Sydow, master of comedy Carl Reiner and tough guy actor Stuart Whitman, whose face and torso seemed chiselled out of granite.

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Then there are the icons: Diego Maradona, Stirling Moss, Little Richard, Vera Lynn, Eddie Van Halen, and 1966 World Cup heroes Jack Charlton and Nobby Stiles.

I asked friends for their views on which of this year’s celebrity deaths hurt the most. One, a fan of 007 and The Avengers, name-checked Sean Connery and Diana Rigg.

Another mentioned Honor Blackman. Several said they were saddened by the passing of John le Carré who, for 60 years, documented the covert world of espionage.

On a personal level I worked with playwright and screenwriter Ronnie – alias Sir Ronald – Harwood a dozen or so years ago. He provided the foreword to my 2008 book Made in Yorkshire, which was a chronology of movies shot in the Broad Acres written in partnership with ace photographer Jim Moran.

Not only that, he turned it around in less than 24 hours accompanied with a note that read: “Here’s the intro. Hope it’s what you want. If not, just scrap it.” Obviously, we kept it. I’ll never forget his kindness.

For the majority of us our connections with the famous come via movies, novels, the football pitch, records, the racetrack or other at-a-distance experiences. It doesn’t, however, make saying goodbye any less difficult.

But in bidding farewell to Ronnie et al it is impossible to forget the estimated 1.6 million others, no less worthy, whose lives ended in 2020 under the spectre of Covid. Indisputably, like it or not, that’s how this year will be remembered.

Celebrity favourites receive TV tributes and page-length obituaries. “Ordinary” mortals – our relatives and friends – enter a markedly different Valhalla: they live on in our hearts.