Sunday, 20 May 2012

Engelbert or bust . . .

By this time next week, we will know who emerged victorious in the 57th Eurovision Song Contest. As of this afternoon, the ladies and gentlemen of the press have had to endure, and possibly enjoy, over eighty rehearsals. Speaking from personal experience, I always found that the rehearsal process dulled, rathen than sharpened, my focus. Songs that began the week as a heap of festering nonsense suddenly became treasured old friends. The entries I'd pinned hopes on tend to wither on the vine and die. In other words, I've hardly ever picked a winner in the past thirty years. With that cherished thought in mind, here's who I think will progress to next Saturday's final in Azerbaijan, Land of Fire and according to some media outlets, Land of Compulsory Eviction. Onwards . . .

First semi-final

Iceland - Never forget by Greta Samóme & Jónsi
Big, old-fashioned shouty ballad tarted up with a bit of fiddle playing. Rehearsals have gone well but there is something worryingly antiseptic and bland about the whole package.

Latvia - Beautiful song by Anmary
Lyrically not a beautiful song at all with it's odd references to Paul McCartney and Mick Jagger. The melody is catchy though. In the rehearsals, Anmary was wearing a vile blue frock which made her hips look huge. The backing singers were dressed in pastel-coloured hotpants. Hello? 2012?

Albania - Suus by Rona Nishliu
First goosebump moment of the contest. This is a very dark song, emoted rather than sung by the bun-haired Rona. There are some very big notes in this performance and it is a cut above much of the other frippery on offer. Will probably fail horribly . . .

Romania - Zaleilah by Mandinga
Cheap and cheerful holiday music with a catchy (bordering on irritating) tune. The throwaway simplicity of the song should get it into the final and possibly to the top spot.

Cyprus - La la love by Ivi Adamou
She's only seventeen and looks as though she is having fun. Again, this is music to live your summer vacation too - cheery, catchy and well-performed. Cyprus has never won the contest - this could do very well for them in 2012 though.

Denmark - Should've known better by Soluna Samay
The Danes tend to steer a very safe course through the contest with bland, safe, middle-of-the-road slices of pop. 2012 is no different and this mundane number will offend no one. Well, perhaps me.

Russia - Party for everybody by Buranovskiye Babushki
Six old grannies have the time of their lives, gathered around a bread oven, looking twinkly-eyed. The generic Europop dance track is pure rot but Europe will love these little old ladies so it's a contender. President Putin may ever break into a grimace . . .

Hungary - Sound of our hearts by Compact Disco
A downbeat song which sounds as though it should be a Depeche Mode b-side. Despite goood rehearsals, this is only seen as a borderline qualifier.

Moldova - Lautar by Pasha Parfeny
This is the kind of cheery turbo-folk nonsense that goes down well in the former Soviet nations. Pasha and his cohorts perform this very well and rehearsals have been good.

Ireland - Waterline by Jedward
This is the kind of entry that sounds as though it has been written by a computer programme. It's safe and ridiculously bland. The twins are as irritating and, if the rehearsal footage is to be believed, woefully off tune at times. All that aside, it would be a major surprise if this did not qualify.

Are you still with me? Shall we plod on to semi-final two? Ok . . .

Second semi-final

Serbia - Nije ljubav stvar by Zeljko Joksimovic
This is a Balkan ballad-by-numbers, all moody verses and plaintive chorus. Definitely a case of the performance being better than the song but this is a big shoe-in for the final.

Netherlands - You & me by Joan Franka
Dubbed Indiana Joan by the delegates in Baku, courtesy of the Native American head-dress she is sporting. The song is catchy in a Eurovision 'oompah' way. Maybe Joan is channeling 1976 through her feathers . . .

Portugal - Visa minha by Filipa Sousa
This romantic slice of fado may just scrape into the final list. Filipa is a classy performer and she makes a good job of this ballad.

Ukraine - Be my guest by Gaitana
This one is all shrieking horns and beats. If we're being kind, then the performance is vivacious. If not, it's a mess.Either way, it's on it's way to the final.

Slovenia - Verjamem by Eva Boto
More Balkan melodrama from a 16 year old girl with an amazing voice. The song builds nicely to a big finish. The rehearsals exposed a nasty frock though, covered in sewn on flowers. Oh dear!

Sweden - Euphoria by Loreen
It's the favourite to win but to date, Loreen's rehearsals have been worryingly underwhelming. Her piece of mid 90s trance may not be the shoe-in voctor that most were expecting.

Georgia - I'm a joker by Anri Jokhadze
Larger than life performance from a powerful, if effete, singer. This song jumps from cod opera to disco with ease. It's weird enough to appeal. Probably . . .

Estonia - Kuula by Ott Lepland
This is a big atmospheric ballad that builds nicely and is presented gimmick-free. Possibly the classiest song of the year but than by no means guarantees a victory.

Norway - Stay by Tooji
He seems to be camper than Liberace's clutch purse but this booming piece of dance music is well performed. One journalist descibed the backing singers/dancers as 'rough' which seems a little harsh . . . if true.

Bosnia & Herzegovina - Korake ti znam by Maya Sar
A lovely, gentle ballad whose chances seem to have been wrecked by a harsh stage setting and a frock horror. Full length black lace with shoulder pads anyone?

Enough for now! We'll take a look at Engelbert and the other qualified finalists during the week.

Saturday, 12 May 2012

Baku to 1993 . . .

And so the plucky journalists from around Europe are heaving their suitcases to the airport as they prepare to cross about 42 time zones in search of Eurovision joy in Baku. Do I envy them? Maybe not as much as I would have done almost twenty years ago. Back in the day, Eurovision was a very different animal. There were no semi-finals, no super-sized arena and the likes of Luxembourg rather than Lithuania were taking part. 1993 - a momentous year as I joined the throng and travelled to Eurovision as an accredited delegate.

The contest was being staged in the tiny village of Millstreet, County Cork as Irish broadcaster RTÉ wanted to try something a little different - and boy was this different! A showjumping arena had been transformed into a state-of-the-art music venue and broadcast centre. Yours truly dragged himself to Stansted for the flight to Cork and then the never-ending bus journey to Killarney. The following morning, another forty minute bus journey to the venue in Millstreet where everyone was accredited in the local primary school.

As well as the accredited press, the venue also seemed to have more than its fair share of nuns! They were everywhere, other than conducting the orchestra and singing the songs. En mass, they whisked through the auditorium, clutching press packs and Sonia CDs. Oh yes - this was the year when Sonia braved it for the UK. Her press conference performances were legend. When asked what European language she would like to record her song in, she burbled "Japanese" to a gasping audience.

One keenly anticipated moment was the daily totting up of delegate votes as they all tried to predict who was going to win. How uncomfortable it was to see the grim, uimpressed faces of the Danish delegation as their entry slid to the bottom of the scoreboard. Or the weary looking duo from Luxembourg, a country which hasn't participated since. Sonia polled in tenth place with the delegates and grinned inanely at the scoreboard until someone wheeled her away.

Politics reared its head at the 1993 contest. We were all rather amazed at the appearance of the delegation from Bosnia & Herzegovina, given that war was raging in the country at the time. Steely-faced head of delegation, Ismeta Kravavac when asked "How did you manage to get out of Sarajevo twice?" replied "Because I am a very fast runner sir". Indeed. The world's media gathered for the Bosnian press conference and Ismeta reminded them that the delegation were attending as musicians not politicians. We didn't really believe her. A few were worried that they sympathy vote would swing Bosnia's way and take the 1994 contest to a warzone. Saturday night would prove otherwise ...

Aside from the songs, Eurovision is also about partying and alcohol. Much alcohol. As well as music, countries are also rated on the quality of their party. The UK's, as ever, was a lacklustre affair. Dear old Auntie provided a free bar for around five minutes and wowed the international delegates with a selection of crudities smothered in Primula spread. Belgium cut to the chase and seemingly handed everyone a crate a beer at their party. Happy faces all round, although not on the faces of the Belgians on Saturday night as they headed home with just three points. The star party was given by Iceland who ensured that all attendees downed a vicious shot of something called Black Death before they had even entered the room. Result? Most people  staggered into the night and remembered little the next day.

Always fun are the odd (in more ways than one) delegates who turn up. Slovakia sent a team of one, Mrs Jasemova, to prepare her nation for its song contest debut in 1994. Resplendent in a designer jacket, Mrs Jasemova (and indeed the aforementioned jacket) became one of the enduring stars of the Eurovision circuit for a few years. A round of applause too for the husband and wife team commentating for Korea (presumably South . . .) and the British journalist who had travelled down to Millstreet in a camper van because his publication refused to foot the bill for expenses!

For the singers, taking part seemed to be a mixed experience. Sweden's teenage boyband, Arvingarna, looked perpetually bored and were accompanied everywhere by their parents. Burak Aydos, representing Turkey, had the air of someone who was out of his comfort zone. His song was disliked by the majority and his press conference was a lacklustre affair made worse by the song being handed to the press on cassette tape only. Other singers though were a total joy. The Netherlands' Ruth Jacott topped the delegates poll and shone in the way that only a true professional can. Patrick Fiori, representing France, proved to be fun and personable as did the Irish singer Niamh Kavanagh who had a ball on home turf. Portugal's sixteen year old Anabel was innocence personified but what a voice!

As for me, I made a beeline for the fearsome singer from Israel, Saraleh Sharon. Or Sara Lee Shalom as one fellow journo managed to pronounce it, making the poor woman sound like a bar mitzvah celebration cake. Anyway, old Saraleh was a scary piece of work, ordering her fellow singers around the stage like a headmistress with a bad attitude. Divisions grew as the week went on until one of Saraleh's co-singers barked "Does she not realise that I am an artist too?" rather loudly after one otwo sweet sherries. As contest night drew closer, the other singers hatched a plan. Those of us in the know kept quiet but I decided to seek out the harridan-in-charge for a cosy 'getting to know you' chat. Did she have any words of wisdom to impart for the viewers of Europe. Saraleh pulled me closer with a wintry smile and snarled "Sing and the whole world sings with you." I couldn't really argue with that.

Come May 15th and it was contest day itself. The previous night's dress rehearsal had been a disaster with delegation after delegation complaining about the camera direction and hostess Fionnuala Sweeney being less than happy with her, it has to be said, nasty pink party frock. Would it be all right on the night? Due to the lengthy journey into Millstreet and the security lockdown at the venue, we all had to travel in full evening costume first thing in the morning. It was a long day with only the final dress rehearsal to sit through plus a meal in a distant catering tent. By 7pm the place was filled with the local glitterati, the Irish PM and of course, Wogan. Would Sonia make the top ten? Would the delegates favourite Ruth Jacott top the scoreboard and could the downbeat Danes avoid last place?

The early leaders included Switzerland's Annie Cotton, belting out a halting mid-tempo number and incredibly tall Norwegian teenager Silje Vige who seemed to be channeling something Greek. However, it soom became a two-horse race, appropriate in this venue, between the host nation's Niamh Kavanagh and a surprisingly polished perfomance from the UK's Sonia. Not being a fan of the cheesy British entry and having already met the somewhat wonderful Niamh, I prayed for an Irish victory. The voting to-ed and fro-ed between the two and it was only the very last vote awarded by Malta that ensured the title stayed in Ireland. Relief!

The immediate after-show reception was something else. Jubilant bar staff were handing people not just a glass of champagne but a whole bottle. Not that I was there long before being herded on to a coach bound for the official winner's reception in Killarney. There I was, on a coach filled with inebriated journalists and performers. From the loud, unpleasant backing singers from one country to the indiscreet conductor from another, we all sang our way to a festival of even more booze. At the hotel, the singers began to pour in, some deflated, others jubilant and all relieved. It had been a long journey for most of them in more ways than one. For the sombre Danes, no last place but relegation. For Israel's Saraleh Sharon, an onstage revolt planned by her co-singers didn't bring any more than a sorry 24th place.

For me, the cold light of day brought the prospect of a journey back to Derbyshire. It had been an amazing week and one brought to a successful conclusion by a highly professional team from RTÉ. Rather than sit on their laurels, these same people now had to plan something even better for 1994.

Sunday, 6 May 2012

Saturday night's all right . . .

Saturday night telly! Ah - I could rattle on for hours about the joys of yesteryear. In fact, why don't I do that anyway. Let's bathe the 1970s in golden sunlight and wistfully remember how wonderful it all was back in the day. Or was it?

I'm Inspector Darblay and I'm a woman
For me, the opener to the evening was always Final Score as Frank Bough and his comb-over led us through the footie highlights of the day. With tea (never dinner) out of the way, we could settle down to an evening of predominantly BBC1 fare. Doctor Who was still in its imperial phase, with Tom Baker clowning around for the kids and Leila and her bra top providing the entertainment for dad. Then on to the Generation Game, both the Brucey and Larry versions. The former, the consumate all-round entertainer. The latter, a beffudled camp comic from Nuneaton. I loved them both. Scores on the doors? After this frippery, BBC1 would usually serve up a drama. More often than not, this would be Juliet Bravo. Brave times for the Beeb as they depicted a woman - WOMAN - police inspector battling life in a 'grim up north' police station people by overweight middle-aged men. They would call her 'ma'am' (rhymed with 'spam') and roll their eyes every time she issued an edict. Aforementioned lady police inspector would then dash home at 6pm to get a casserole for her understanding (and usually feeble) husband.

"And it's goodnight from . . . oh you known the rest . . ."
The Two Ronnies was another fave in our household. Always the same week in, week out. Two sets of specs at a newsdesk, a couple of sketches set in corner shops or cocktail parties, some serialised story forever starring Diana Dors, Ronnie Barker in a frock and a song from the lovely Miss Barbara Dickson. That's entertainment!

I'm not going to suggest that these halcyon days have returned but at the moment, Saturday nights have shown a distinct improvement. BBC1's The Voice has, to date, performed better than expected. Unlike the dreary X Factor, the BBC have provided a panel who actually seem to care about music. OK, Will.iam may be a bit of a twonk but the other three are enthusiastic enough. Reggie Yates continually falls into the Dermot-like falseness of calling the lads 'feller' but other than that, well done the BBC! I feel an e-mail to Points of View in the offing.

A Bridge too far . . .
However, the real gem on Saturday is BBC4's wonderful The Bridge. I'm not the biggest fan of Copenhagen but maybe this superb drama will help reel me in again. The two lead characters are a joy - the overweight, fag-smoking laconic Dane and his uptight, socially inept female Swedish counterpart. I think the BBC should revive Juliet Bravo and have Saga Noren dispense some of her logic to the fat, northern policemen. And remember - don't call her ma'am.