Still singing after all these years of Eurovision

Eurovision is 60 years on the go and there’s no sign of its popularity waning. How did it become a cultural juggernaut and how can we get back on top, wonders Arlene Harris.

Still singing after all these years of Eurovision

It hardly seems possible that this month will see the 60th anniversary of the Eurovision song contest. With so much entertainment choice available nowadays, what is it that keeps this truly, madly kitsch contest going? The songs aren’t always up to much, the outfits and special effects are becoming more outlandish every year and the voting system has become such a joke that commentators can spot the ‘douze points’ before votes are cast.

And then there’s the geographical anomaly – over the years the map of ‘Europe’ has been redrawn by organisers to include countries from various far-flung corners of the globe – this year the border and our collective imagination has been stretched all the way to Australia.

So yes, it is fair to say the current competition bears little resemblance to the original line up – but despite all its frustrating oddities, it still attracts 180 million viewers and most of us will tune in to some of the broadcast, even if it’s just to shout at the TV during the voting process.

Julian Vignoles was a member of the contest’s ‘board of directors’ for four years so has more of an insight than most into the workings of the world’s longest running singing competition. In advance of the 60th anniversary he has just published a book Inside the Eurovision Song Contest where he reveals the squabbles behind the glamour, the reasons behind the many rule changes and also the voting system.

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“I wanted to detail my experiences but I also wanted to clear up some myths about the contest - like the voting,” he says. “I felt that people thought there was a conspiracy against the West, for some reason and that the voting system wasn’t fair. I think it’s completely fair. Because the truth is that the Eurovision Song Contest has made us redefine what Europe is - it’s not just France and Germany and Italy. Now half of Europe is made up of former communist countries.”

Vignoles, who took charge of Ireland’s entries on seven occasions, explains why he believes the contest is still going strong after six decades.

“The Eurovision has remained popular over the years because it’s state-of-the-art television, partly because each host country wants to show their TV station off and secondly, the jeopardy; people like to see who might mess up, or sing off-key.

Jedward and Linda Martin

“Some countries are trying to stand out so they try all kinds of things - like fireworks coming out of guitars, ice rinks on the stage or butterfly wings coming out of costumes. The contest has got bigger, more competitive and more technological over the years – but it has also remained the same in that every country gets their three minutes to shine – or falter.”

Ireland still holds the accolade of having won the most times and the RTÉ journalist says while we have had many ups and downs over the years’, some things need to change if we are to regain our previous winning streak.

“My favourite Eurovision moment was watching Jedward cartwheel up the ramp to the stage when they qualified for the final in Baku – but the lowest point for me was coming last in Helsinki in 2007,” he says.

“We are not doing as well as we did in the past because we don’t take it is as seriously as other countries and also we don’t invest in our selection or the act itself, like some Eastern and Scandinavian countries.

“When we were winning, there were only half the countries competing that there are now. For example, when Dana won, there were only 11 other songs. That’s not taking away from her achievement; it’s just that the odds were better.

“Also, some Irish wins were against the ‘run of play’.”

Luckily for Linda Martin, the jury did just that when she sang and won for Ireland in 1992 with her entry Why Me. She says while Ireland still has the highest success rate at the contest, there have been some low points over the years.

“As far as I’m concerned, the best Eurovision moments were obviously my win and the subsequent wins by Niamh, Charlie and Paul, and Eimear,” she says. “We were doing so well at that stage that the contest was dubbed Irishvision.

Johnny Logan with Niamh Kavangh

“But sending Dustin to represent us was a big mistake which started the downward spiral as the diehards were appalled. Another reason we haven’t been doing so well lately is because of the absence of the wonderful orchestra and because there are now at least 43 songs involved in the contest – which in my opinion is way too many.”

But despite its recent shortcomings, Martin is still a big fan of the contest. “I think the popularity of the Eurovision is steeped in the “fun” factor,” she says. “It offers family viewing and is a great excuse for a party. But regardless of the frivolity, it’s a great platform to be seen and heard by millions.

“I don’t live and breathe the Eurovision but it’s been incredibly good to me. So I will continue to support this unique and colourful extravaganza.”

Eurovision stalwart, Marty Whelan, agrees and says despite advances in technology there is something about the contest which continues to bring Europeans together year.

Marty Whelan with Lordi

“The original aim was to find a song to unite Europe and, apart from sporting events, the contest is still the only entertainment which goes out across the Continent,” he says.

“Of course today it is slightly odd as we have countries participating which aren’t even in Europe; some of which people haven’t even heard of. But it’s always a bit of a laugh. Many of us have grown up with the competition and while the world has changed dramatically in the last six decades, with people expecting instant entertainment and tweeting their thoughts as the drama unfolds, I still think there is plenty of life left in the Eurovision.”

The presenter says while many of us mock the frivolity of the contest, we are still interested in the outcome and deep down are rooting for another Irish win.

“The first time I presented the Eurovision, Johnny Logan won for the second time and it was an amazing night,” he recalls. “I was high as a kite with excitement and we all felt so proud of him.

“Over the years we have done badly and that was hard as I had to continue commenting on other countries while trying to keep the mood light. We can pretend that we don’t care about the winning, but there is no getting away from the fact that we won seven times and want to do it again – it’s a matter of pride. Who knows, we may do it this year. Molly (Sterling, from Tipperary, this year’s representative) is a great singer and no-one knows what will happen on the night.”

Too true Marty and despite fervent denials, I’m sure the majority of the population will be glued to their sets for the songfest which wouldn’t be complete without a few hiccups, a moan about the voting system and a secret hope that we will one day regain our former Eurovision glory.

The Eurovision Song Contest 2015 will take place in Vienna —with semi-finals on Tuesday and Thursday —and the final on Saturday May 23.

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Memorable moments from Eurovision

Johnny Logan, still the undisputed king of the Eurovision stage belted out not one but two winning songs — ‘What’s Another Year’ in 1980 and ‘Hold me Now’ in 1987. And in between those dates, he wasn’t sitting on his laurels as his composition ‘Why Me’ performed by Linda Martin in 1992 earned us another accolade thanks to the white-suited performer.

Paving the way for Eurovision interval entertainment for ever more, Michael Flatley and Jean Butler, together with the cast of Riverdance, managed to stun both the unsuspecting audience at the Point in 1994 and also the millions watching at home with their now world-famous dance routine — it was spine-tingling stuff.

Ireland’s first win by Dana in 1970 with ‘All Kinds of Everything’ gave us our a taste of success and whetted our appetites for future glory.

The 1990’s were our most successful years which saw us winning the title four times — in ’92, ’93, ’94 and ’96. Sadly we haven’t won since.

No list of memorable Eurovision moments would be complete without mentioning Dustin the Turkey. Sending him to represent us in 2008 was perhaps not the wisest choice as we came 15th in the semi-final.

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