The Eurovision Song Contest

Saturday, May 21, 2005 by

It’s the European Broadcasting Union’s finest three hours. Indeed, its only three hours.

This majestically mysterious organisation, into which Britain, Spain, France and Germany pours – by the sounds of it – billions of currency every working week, has an office somewhere or other which is open for business on the 364 days a year not spent staging the Eurovision Song Contest. It’s also the organisation which regularly rewards Britain, Spain, France and Germany with the bottom four places in the titular tonsil-touting tournament. “What does that tell us?” waxes Terry Wogan from his invisible commentary booth high above the pit and pendulum of the jiving Eurovision masses. “For Pete’s sake, does nobody like us in Europe anymore?”

The month of May traditionally marks the first and only annual sighting of the EBU ident on these shores. A more recurring presence on the nation’s screens would quite possibly render it a potent, if pleasantly hummable, red rag to many an anti-European bull. But as it is it only turns up the once, and bookends what could quite easily be depicted as both the most persuasive, and also the least convincing, argument for further European integration. After all, everybody seems to speak the same language (English, of course) and does so with panache and good humour. The fact nobody actually likes the English, nor the French, German or Spanish – the contest’s chief paymasters – prompts as many questions as there are answers. But none of these have a place in a competition that seeks to promote international harmony through boisterously disharmonious singalongs, and which advocates cross-border co-operation while simultaneously providing a public platform for half a century’s worth of cross-border rivalries.

Watching the Eurovision Song Contest is to wallow in such blatant, hilarious contradictions, while letting somebody else take the responsibility of sitting through the whole thing and say precisely what you’re thinking. “The banal, the bizarre and the downright barking,” promised Terry at the show’s opening: precisely what you wanted to hear. Last year’s winner took the stage with a giant-sized flamethrower. “A nice, quiet opening, setting the tone.” Hungary was the first to chance their arm, or maybe a leg. “It’s the age-old Magyar tradition of the half-trouser,” Terry reasoned.

Meaningless montages of glum-looking Ukrainians were spliced between the acts. “Nothing like a good laugh,” Terry opined as a scowling pensioner popped into view. This was a far cry from the contests of old, when each competitor was introduced with stirring rhetoric like, as once memorably claimed of a Spanish entry, “a born artist who swells when faced with a difficult task.” But at least Moldova boasted a drumming granny: gold dust for the Wogan’s verbalese (“For the first time in Eurovision, a mobile commode”). “Has nobody here ever heard of a vest?” he wailed as yet another modesty-challenged diva bounded and thrust their way through a hail of “jungle drums”.

Six and a half thousand were present in the auditorium in Kiev. The time difference between the UK and the Ukraine meant proceedings weren’t destined to wrap up over there until well past midnight, which perhaps helped to explain, if not excuse, the sense of demented hysteria that was running amok. The cameras certainly captured the boggling euphoria of everyone involved, from the native presenters (struggling, as is the law, to deliver everything in jovial, informal English – “Ukraine is voting, Eurovision voting, ohmigod, keep the voting!”) to the roster of acts, and the sprawling crowd.

In fact everyone was having a good time. You can’t begrudge these sort of collective pleasantries. You can’t, either, bemoan the host country for failing to deliver the goods, especially one that since winning the contest 12 months ago has been through a full-blown revolution. Watching as a fan of Eurovision the TV event rather than Eurovision the schlock market, it was impossible to not get caught up in the dazzling scope of it all. This was the first time the Ukraine had ever mounted a live TV show for anybody other than themselves, for heaven’s sake. Even the president turned up to take part. The size, the colour, the pageantry was breathtaking. The same went for the presentation.

“Ah, the entrance of the unfortunates,” Terry noted as the twin hosts launched into the first of many attempts at heavily-scripted badinage. “Stop shrieking,” he winced as the female anchor weighed in with an outburst of high volume histrionics. “That voice goes right through me.” Tel started off dubbing them “Mascha and Pascha”. Then they became “Ant and Shrek”. Finally it was “Ant and Shriek,” which stuck for the rest of the night. Wogan can sleepwalk through all this stuff, but the beauty is he knows it, and he revels in what’s expected of him. From start to finish he’s never credited, never introduced, never even appears in shot. It’s just assumed we know who he is, what he’s there for and what game he’s playing. This might be the height of self-indulgent predictable broadcasting, but it’s almost the only thing on mainstream TV today that values a presenter for what they say and think rather than how they look. For this alone the contest is avowedly exciting, original television.

It’s also a fantastically massive anachronism. This year’s effort was a defiantly 21st century affair corseted in linguistic trappings of the 1950s. “Good evening Kiev, this is Reykjavik calling!” hazarded Iceland’s representative. The ballet that comprised the interval entertainment went on for almost as many minutes as Britain was destined to get points. Then there was the actual business of going round the 34 – oh yes – countries for votes, which constantly teetered on the edge of technological collapse. It was fascinating to see the different perceptions of what each nation considered to be a suitable celebrity “face”. The UK rustled up Cheryl Baker (“I’m toasting the 50th Eurovision with a glass of bucks fizz!”). “Is this woman from the Rank charm school?” wondered Terry as Russia phoned through its votes courtesy of a pinch-cheeked Rosa Klebb lookalike. Other representatives simply stared glassy-eyed into the camera waiting to be verbally prodded into action. In contrast the German linkman was having a party with 3000 guests, all of who remained reassuringly oblivious to their country coming last.

As the close of play inched into view, our hosts plugged the official Eurovision CD and DVD while Terry made plans for next year’s contest in the victorious country of Greece. “I look forward to it – I’m sure you will as well.” He could go on doing this for another 10 years; let’s hope he does. It’s his strongest TV gig nowadays, chiefly because he’s by himself, left to get on with proceedings as he sees fit. There’s no screeching Gaby Roslin with whom to compete and contend. It’s Terry trying to stay in control of an uncontrollable situation: the perfect combination.

It all made for, once again, joyfully disposable and entertaining television. It also capped a heady evening for BBC1. In the unremitting siege warfare of Saturday night telly, ITV1 had sought to play their best hand with, of all things, a dog-eared fourth generation video copy of Star Wars. The Beeb responded with an overlong FA Cup Final, another bristling instalment of Doctor Who and three hours of pan-continental-fried shimmying: enough tinsel and gruel to make anyone swell. When faced with a difficult task, naturally. “Ohmigod, keep the voting!”


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