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.

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