The Quietus - A new rock music and pop culture website

One for the Road

The Time I Went To Eurovision, By Steve Jelbert
Steve Jelbert , May 27th, 2010 11:36

As this weekend's Eurovision Song Contest approaches... chapeau! It's free-wheeling Steve Jelbert remembering a trip to the contest of European harmony, and musical dischord

Somewhere near the end of the last century I found myself teamed up with a smudge chum, stalking Britain's Eurovision hopeful for a national newspaper, a quixotic task that would hopefully culminate in Our Girl picking up the big cup in front of a home crowd in Birmingham. (UK pop PLC had snatched the title, and the right to host Big Show, when American honorary Brit Katrina Lesnavich had vanquished the Eurofoe a year previous with some piece of fluff penned by Kimberley Rew, the wealthy, successful ex-Soft Boy, as opposed to Robyn Hitchcock, the critically admired ex-Soft Boy).

Obviously Imaani (nee Melanie something) never took the title, pipped at the last. Only Ireland ever managed to retain it, and despite the old Father Ted Eurosong gag about throwing the show with the worst song imaginable due to the cost of staging the idiotic bunfight, I once worked with the son of the RTE producer, and he swore blind it wasn't true. (In fact the European Broadcasting Union actually pay the bill, and how could anyone spot a deliberately bad entry anyway? Especially now the public have a part in choosing) Though I thought the eventual imposed headline 'Nul points for humility' was a bit harsh on someone involved in a competition, albeit the most ludicrous kind - was she expected to 'fess up that her song was shite (it wasn't, in fact) and stood no chance? - I was more intrigued by the event than her relatively minor story. And Brum is only a hundred miles up the road from me, not even a Bruges away.

The important thing to know about Eurovision is that it attracts freeloaders on a continental scale. At one point in this longest day I popped outside to a pub on the sunny canal path, possibly the very boozer a passing President Clinton had blessed a week or two earlier (Brum has more canals than Venice, don't you know, none of them Grand). On my return to the venue I found myself trapped in a crush of seemingly hundreds of folk all suffering from an elevated sense of entitlement. The words 'Do you know who I am?' resounded in several languages. At this point I recalled nervously that I'd tucked a lump of hash into my slobby backpack, probably for just this eventuality. But security were searching for semtex, not sticky black, and I passed through unhindered, unlike the phenomenally annoying Greek woman who had been shrilling in my personal space, or ear, throughout.

The basement press centre was a delight. The entire show is meticulously rehearsed. In 1998 (or whenever it was), the televised version was merely the third or fourth full run-through of the day, including satellite link-ups, and maybe the sixth go of the week. (Sadly such professionalism is one of the factors that makes it all so, well, Westlife these days.) This included the half-time acts, allegedly representative of the host nation. The Patti Boulaye ethnical dance school routine was all so so-so, but when opera singer Lesley Garrett, or more accurately Lesley Garrett's impressive embonpoint appeared on the many telly monitors, a nearby Frenchman yelped 'Fuurrrque me!' at the sight. And he wasn't being seductive. (Later on, using the uniquely British art of sarcasm, I would interrupt an interview with Jonathan King in the press pit so successfully that the stringers present started taking down my remarks over his.)

While the snapper snapped I wandered the arena, watching Ulrika-ka-ka-ka practice her hosting routine a few times and waiting for the main event. Let me make it clear: it's better on the telly. You don't get Terry Wogan (as was) patronising foreigners, his introductions a lesson in how to read the gap between what he says and what he means. Instead you get to see whole blocs of national support, like an Olympic opening ceremony confined to the stands. Christ knows what sort of loons travel from Hungary or Denmark - do they hire coaches, or travel separately, only meeting in Anglia? - but there they are, waving flags half-remembered from school geography lessons. I found myself sharing a box (high up, left of the stage, decent view) with a girl called Maureen, who had won two tickets by singing 'Making Your Mind Up' live on GMTV in the Bull Ring Shopping Centre. She had brought her mum along. Later, she gave me a card that described her as 'singer, as seen on GMTV'. We both liked the Dutch entry, a neat bit of faux-Town that would have sounded better in any other language than Dutch. (At this time artistes performed in their home tongues)

The crowd present went mad for Guildo Horn, an antic German comedian who had supposedly entered himself as a gag but went with the ensuing flow (a worryingly accurate description of German history there). He looked shite on the telly though, all desperate and bearded, hampering his chances with the uncommitted and flagless. A Croatian performer turned her dress inside out, from black to white (or maybe the other way round). None of it was all that memorable. But Dana International - Sharon Cohen to her family, if they still talk - stood proud as the first non-European transsexual to take the crown. (Israel is an EBU member, as are many Arab countries, all of whom are equally eligible for Eurovision but won't enter because Israel is invited. The words 'grow' and 'up' come to mind. At least Italy dropped out on the grounds that it's all shite.)

Dana's backside apparently impressed the oafish hacks as she did her circuits of the press room, but I was EV-ed out by then. We drove home, no Euro tunes stuck in our head, suddenly aware that the inherent kitsch value of the contest might have been due to the fact that back in the day, the odd flash aside, all the other nations were sending their pop dregs into battle too.

Eventually I gave my photopass to a friend who sports it at his raucous EV parties each year somewhere on the South Circular. It's good to see that someone's still getting some pleasure out of it, but personally I think the romance went out of Eurovision once everyone started using the same musical technology, let alone singing the same bland phrases (is 'pop English' a linguistic development comparable to 'technical German', a set of signifiers that only make sense in a specific context?- Discuss). You'll never get it back. Next, the World Cup, and I know how to improve that too…