Cliff Richard dressed as Austin Powers, a ‘legal’ Dana looking about twelve, Agnetha’s sequinned tea-cosy hat, Clodagh Rodgers’ hot-pants, the Bucks Fizz girls having their skirts ripped-off, Russian lipstick lesbians Tatu drowned in boos, Jemini’s nul points, transsexuals with and without facial hair, singing grannies, thrash metal bands in fright-masks – one can never accuse the Eurovision Song Contest of being boring.
Like many events that begin on a small-scale – the Olympic Games and the World Cup spring to mind – the Eurovision has swelled to gargantuan, bloated proportions in recent years; since the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the number of countries wanting to participate has increased so much that there is now a qualifying tournament. Yet, even when the numbers have been whittled down before the actual Contest itself, there are still so many contenders that midway through the marathon, the first dozen songs have already been permanently erased from the memory. By the end, only the last four or five can be recalled. This is why spectacle and image have overridden the actual musical content of late; we all remember last year’s bearded lady, but could anybody hum the tune he/she sang?
How different from 1956. As one of those wonderfully idealistic ideas to bring the battle-scarred continent of post-war Europe together (the Common Market being another), the formation of the European Broadcasting Union was an attempt to unite the various public service broadcasters of Europe under a banner of beneficial co-operation. Developments in television technology could be shared and therefore the product of each individual member country could be traded, something that British TV audiences enjoyed with the glut of dubbed children’s serials that dominated holiday schedules in the 60s and 70s. But it was felt a grand gesture was needed to test the strength of this new mutual admiration society, and Marcel Bezencon, the director of the EBU, proposed a song contest in which the infant medium of broadcasting events from one country to several others could be stretched to its technological limits.
Staged in Lugano, a town in the famously neutral Switzerland, the first-ever Eurovision Song Contest was held on May 24 1956, with just seven competing countries represented by two songs each. Although the UK, along with Denmark and Austria, missed the deadline for submitting an entry and therefore failed to participate, the event was nevertheless broadcast live on the BBC, brought to British audiences via a complex sequence of cables running under the Channel in the pre-satellite age. The host nation won the inaugural Grand Prix and although no recordings of the event exist, in a year that saw the first burst of rock ‘n’ roll the presence of a 24-piece orchestra to back each singer suggests a strong MOR slant to the ditties was probable.
By 1960, when the Eurovision was held in the UK for the first time (at London’s Royal Festival Hall), the Contest was slowly establishing itself as an annual institution with its own distinctive hallmarks and clichés – the switch between French and English of the host/hostess, the huge scoreboard dominating the stage once the performances were over, an interval act of an indelibly surreal nature, and the detached voices on the telephone announcing the votes (‘Hello, London! This is Brussels calling, and here are the results of the Belgian jury!’) Perhaps the most notable innovation of all, however, was the emergence of a style of song unique to the Contest, one that would never have been penned without it in mind; the strict rule of contestants having to sing in their native tongue limited the potential commercial success of the song outside its country of origin, leading to the much-mocked and simplistic ‘la la la’ lyrics that could be understood in any language.
With Britain’s global domination of pop gradually coming to define the decade, it was time to ditch the ‘Housewife’s Choice’-type crooners in dinner-jackets by 1967, and one of Swinging London’s leading songbirds in the shape of Sandie Shaw scooped the UK’s first success with the oompah-oompah rhythm of ‘Puppet on a String’, a pattern that continued with Cliff, Lulu and Clodagh Rodgers; by the early 70s, however, the event was beginning to look and sound increasingly anachronistic in the age of T. Rex, Slade, Gary Glitter and the Sweet. Not until Abba’s 1974 victory with ‘Waterloo’ was a genuinely great contemporary pop song brought to the table, one that was good enough to have been a hit without the Contest. Participants were now free to sing in English, a new addition that occasionally resulted in some bizarre translations, though I always prefer the native tongue for maintaining the mystique, exemplified by the 1965 winner, the Serge Gainsbourg-penned ‘Poupee de Cire, Poupee de Son’.
The Eurovision Song Contest as we knew it really changed forever from the 1990s onwards; the merging of the Eastern European OIRT network with the EBU saw an influx of old Iron Curtain nations added to the mix, a change that extended the length of the event so that it seemed to go on all night. Unlikely participating countries such as Israel and Morocco were joined by unlikely participating countries such as Bosnia-Herzegovina and Slovenia; it quickly became apparent that there were too many entrants to accommodate a three-hour programme and thus was instigated the ‘relegation’ system and pre-Contest qualifiers. By the end of the decade, the live backing orchestra, viewed as an archaic irrelevance, was finally dropped
With the introduction of the qualifying tournament and televised semi-finals, the Eurovision – like Christmas – now spans a full week rather than just the one night, but the bias of the voting system, in which political allegiances are upheld, has served to do more damage to the event than any deficiencies in the actual songs submitted. Russia’s neighbours tend to save their highest votes for their former overlord in the manner of a playground bully’s protection racket, whereas both Greece and Turkey always give a nod in the direction of Cyprus – whilst the UK can usually rely on Ireland (if nobody else). The impossibility of winning without the backing of political allies has led many veteran Eurovision nations to submit comedy numbers as a form of protest, refusing to entertain the effort of a well-crafted song sung by a decent performer when the likelihood of leading the scoreboard is so remote. Even Terry Wogan eventually hung-up his commentator’s microphone in disgust at this development.
But on and on the eccentric institution goes – this year, even bloody Australia have been invited to the party. Yet, for all the tweaking of the past twenty years, the Eurovision remains an utterly unique event with no real competition. A venue of aircraft hangar-size proportions may now be needed to host it, but the strange parade of performers knocks the bland conveyor-belt ‘X-Factor’ androids into a cocked hat. And I suppose it does serve as a reminder that there’s more to Europe than unelected faceless bureaucrats specifying the width of sausages.
The Eurovision Song Contest was one of the annual TV highlights in my household as a child, and along with ‘Jeux Sans Frontieres’ and UEFA Cup football, beamed oddly exotic-sounding locations into the living room that were inaccessible anywhere else. The world may appear considerably smaller these days, but I now watch because it’s so strangely entertaining, and I’ll be watching tomorrow. I do miss the television commentator sounding as though he has a sock stuffed in his mouth, though.