The Long Read: Political intrigue added to musical drama at Eurovision 1968

Allegations that the 1968 Eurovision Song Contest was rigged at the instigation of Spain’s General Franco have dogged the winner ever since, says Richard Fitzpatrick

ON the Channel 4 News of May 7, 2008, Jon Snow followed a frontline report from Israel with a story about the 1968 Eurovision Song Contest. News had filtered through from Madrid that General Francisco Franco had allegedly rigged the contest, at the Royal Albert Hall, ensuring Spain pipped the UK’s entry, ‘Congratulations’, by a point. Snow was giddy at the thought, even doing a little sing-a-long in the middle of the expert opinions he had canvassed: “Comm-is-er-a-tions, and all-e-ga-tions”.

Sir Cliff Richard, who sang ‘Congratulations’, had mixed emotions when he was asked about the allegations on his way to a gig in Paris: “Well, when I came off stage that night, I thought to myself, ‘I was robbed’! But I’m finding it hard to take the whole thing seriously, but if they do find that I won, that would be wonderful.”

It was a preposterous story. The allegation was raised in a documentary, 1968: Yo Viví El Mayo Español, which dealt with momentous Spanish social events in the spring of 1968.

During a four-minute clip about that year’s Eurovision Song Contest, José María Iñigo, a legendary Spanish broadcaster with a glorious moustache, and who will do the commentary for Spanish television at next week’s Eurovision finals, in Vienna, made an off-the-cuff remark: “Everyone knows, and it has been published, that directors of Televisión Española, and record companies, travelled around Europe, offering to release albums of different Bulgarian singers, Czechs, or, you know, bring them to Spain.

“And Televisión Española bought series they were never going to get and never got, in exchange for votes, as long as they gave us the votes to try to win. Because of this, it was very good for Spain, and it brought a certain prestige abroad.”

The press in Spain was given preview screenings of the documentary and seized on Iñigo’s comments. Iñigo was caught off guard. He was inundated with phone calls from journalists quizzing him about the allegation.

Alarmed by the media frenzy, he said his words were taken out of context. During the documentary, he implied the bribery rumour didn’t refer to Massiel’s win in 1968.

The Long Read: Political intrigue added to musical drama at Eurovision 1968

Singer Massiel, and composers Ramon Arousa and Manuel de la Calva, after winning the 1968 Eurovision Song Contest, with Cliff Richard.

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This clarification was never mentioned, however, in press reports. Iñigo said the rumour referred to earlier years of Spain’s involvement in the Eurovision, which it first entered in 1961; although this was an odd point to labour, as Spain’s points tallies in the years before it won, in 1968, with 29 points, were as follows: 8 (1961), 0 (1962), 2 (1963), 1 (1964), 0 (1965), 9 (1966), 9 (1967). He also reached out to Massiel, offering an explanation, and to clarify he had been misquoted.

The hacks in Spain had fun picking holes elsewhere in his allegation. Iñigo had cited Bulgarians and Czechs as targets for bribery. Bulgaria only entered the Eurovision for the first time in 2007. The former Czechoslovakia never competed in the Eurovision.

These days, several years after all the hullabaloo, Iñigo discounts the notion that the Eurovision was rigged in 1968, saying that it was only “speculation” he heard. He had been regurgitating a rumour second-hand. “It was nothing, nothing at all. It’s impossible to manipulate the Eurovision Song Contest. It’s too complicated. You cannot just go and fix the voting, just because you’re Franco,” says Victor Escudero, who will do the co-commentary, alongside Iñigo, for Spanish television during next week’s Eurovision, “but, to be honest, you always have these little thoughts, no? Spain, at this time, was this country that wanted to show to Europe that we were not like a country from the past, that we had this technology — that they could host this contest and show to Europe that we were at the same level, maybe, and, of course, to do that you had to win first, right?”

During the 1960s, Spain was a pariah in the international community. Since General Franco had grabbed power in 1936, he had left a trail of blood in his wake. His dictatorship’s systemic murder of political opponents, according to Paul Preston’s The Spanish Holocaust, warrants comparison with the purges of Hitler and Stalin.

The Long Read: Political intrigue added to musical drama at Eurovision 1968

General Franco

Even within the gilded confines of the Eurovision Song Contest, which was a posh, dress-dance affair during the 1960s, his dictatorship aroused suspicion. At the 1964 final, in Copenhagen, for example, a protestor dramatically walked on stage carrying a banner calling for a boycott of Franco, and when Madrid hosted the Eurovision Song Contest final, in 1969, Austria boycotted it because of Franco. The Eurovision had huge cache at the time. It was one of the biggest TV shows of the year, and the world’s most famous singers participated, including Cliff Richard, and artists like Dean Martin and David Bowie covered its winning songs.

The staging of the final was an ideal vehicle for Franco to ameliorate Spain’s oppressive image abroad, especially as it was slowly opening up and cashing in on its potential as a tourist destination. Or so the theory goes.

On the night of the final at the Royal Albert Hall, ‘Congratulations’ was the runaway favourite. Phil Coulter — one of Ireland’s most famous songwriters (he has also written ‘Ireland’s Call’, the anthem played before Ireland rugby internationals — and a Scot called Bill Martin had composed it.

The pair had triumphed a year earlier, in Vienna, with Sandie Shaw singing ‘Puppet on a String’.

“Going in as favourites didn’t make me very comfortable,” says Coulter, “because, I suppose, being from Derry, I’m more naturally an underdog, but it was a home game. We’d won the previous year. Cliff Richard was a hero, so we were buoyant and optimistic and I remember the big, banner headline on the front page of the London Evening Standard that night: ‘Can the Irishman and the Scotsman pull it off again’?”

Katie Boyle, the grand dame of the Eurovision, was compère for the evening, one of four finals she hosted. She was having marital troubles, and has since revealed that she spent the final few hours before going on stage lying down with cuts of raw potato over her eyes to reduce their tear-induced puffiness.

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Cliff Richard, who took advantage of the Eurovision’s first transmission on colour television, arrived on stage dressed like Austin Powers, with a blue, velvet suit and white, ruffled shirt.

He was greeted by shrieks of excitement. Norway’s singer was next to take the stage, with a song called ‘Stress’. He was called Odd Børre, although there was nothing boring about his performance style.

“He was certainly quite an interesting character,” says Dr Paul Jordan, aka Dr Eurovision, an expert on the history of the competition.

“He looked a little bit like Norris from Coronation Street, with a pair of glasses on. His performance was quite strange, in how he sold the song, but also interesting, in that he did use the cameras. At that time, performers weren’t using cameras, whereas he was making sure he was looking into the camera, turning around. Really, it was quite a polished, professional performance of a bizarre song.”

The song’s repetitive lyrics (“Ma, ma, ma … Sa, sa, sa … Pra, pra, pra…”) were a taste of things to come. Like whistled melodies, the words ‘la, la, la’ have been a staple of many, many Eurovision songs, but never to the extremes of Spain’s entry in 1968, which was entitled, ‘La, La, La’.

Were the song’s lyrics infantile or a brilliant, minimalist sleight of hand? Escudero sees little difference between ‘La, La, La’ and its rival, ‘Congratulations’.

“I don’t think they are that different. They’re both bouncy pop songs of the time, and, of course ‘Congratulations’ is in English. Most people would understand that. ‘La, La, La’ was in Spanish. Not that many people in Europe could understand Spanish, so this little trick of having the chorus in simple language, just saying ‘la la, la’, I dunno, 120 times, something like that, it kinda worked.”

Dúo Dinámico, the composers of ‘La, La, La’, were one of Spain’s most popular groups in the 1960s. Bert Kaempfert, the German composer who wrote the music for Frank Sinatra’s ‘Strangers in the Night’, arranged ‘La, La, La’.

A 20-year-old singer, Massiel, was drafted in as a last-minute replacement, after the Catalan singer-songwriter, Joan Manuel Serrat, the original choice, had pulled out because he had refused to sing the song in Spanish.

Massiel bounced on stage, her shoulders swinging from side to side. She was wearing an eye-catching mini dress from Courrèges, the Parisian boutique.

Coulter, who was sitting about 10 rows back from the stage on the night of the final at the Royal Albert Hall, was unconvinced, however, about its chances when he heard it. “I didn’t even think it was a contender. I thought it was very average. I thought the lyric, ‘la, la, la, la, la…’ isn’t going to win any Grammy awards, and also I thought it was a bit of a rip-off of ‘What would you think if I sang out of tune/would you stand up and walk out on me’?”

The Long Read: Political intrigue added to musical drama at Eurovision 1968

Phil Coulter

The voting system was different than today. At the time, the winner was decided by a jury of 10 members, chosen by their television stations, from each of the 17 participating countries. Each member awarded one point to their favourite song, so 10 points was the maximum a jury could award.

When the votes started rolling in, France led until almost halfway, but then the UK took the lead, and galloped ahead of its rivals.

A debonair Michael Aspel called in the UK’s votes. He got a flirtatious giggle out of Katie Boyle, when he introduced himself speaking Franglish: “Allo, Katie, dees is Londres.”

Spain was the third-last country to vote. Its jury overlooked its rivals at the top of the leader board — Ireland, France and the UK — when sharing out its 10 points.

Still, the UK’s lead looked unassailable, so much so that an usher from the BBC asked Coulter and his song-writing partner to leave their seats and go backstage, so they would be ready to accept their award.


“It made me feel great,” says Coulter. “Bill Martin didn’t want to leave his seat. He’s very superstitious: ‘No! No! Not going up there.’ He didn’t want to leave, because he thought it was tempting fate, and he was proven to be right, but I was kind of carried along: if the BBC think we’re that clear, they must know what they’re talking about, so let’s go for it.

“We dragged Bill Martin out of the seat. We’re standing in the wings, and as we’re standing in the wings … wallop, bing. Spain goes wallop.”

Germany awarded Spain six points, which put Spain a point ahead of the UK. There was an element of farce to the last round of voting. The votes from the Yugoslav jury — which awarded points to neither Spain nor the UK — had to be re-called. Its jury doled out 11 points instead of 10. Clifford Brown, the Eurovision’s scrutineer, was pressed into action, while Katie Boyle used a selection of languages to coax the Yugoslav jury into correcting their sums.

Massiel was oblivious to the drama. “I remember walking around the corridor of the Royal Albert Hall, looking at all the pictures of the famous people who had played there, because it was my defence mechanism for nerves.

“I didn’t want to think about the voting. And then Dúo Dinámico came running to find me. ‘Massiel! Massiel! You must sing, you must sing again!’ I was in another world. I said, ‘What for?’ They said: ‘Because we have won!’ ‘Really? OK, let’s go’.”

“I was just kind of stunned, at the time, to think the carpet had been pulled out from under us,” says Coulter. “From being ‘the reigning champions have done it again’, at the side stage, all of a sudden we were banished — pushed out of the way. ‘Get the Spanish!’

“We were actually standing ready to walk on stage, so it was kind of devastating. I remember it was one of the first times in my life that I smoked a cigarette. It just seemed like something I should do.”

Back in Spain, people were going loco. On her return home, Massiel was paraded through Madrid’s streets in a vintage car.

“A lot of people came out. I was in an open-top, 1914 Dion Bouton car. I said ‘Hello’ to all the people who were lined up from the old Barajas airport to the Prado del Rey. There were television cameras. It was raining, raining, raining, but all the people were crying, crying, crying, and clapping their hands.”

The win made Massiel a star in Spain, although she was unloved by the Franco regime. She had the wrong politics. She was a Republican. She refused an invitation to go to El Pardo, General Franco’s residence, to receive the country’s award for distinction, the Orden de Isabel la Católica. The Catalan song-writing pair, Dúo Dinámico, was also beyond the pale. Even though they had several number-ones, they were never invited for an audience with Franco.

Massiel went on to become a star in Spain.

Were they patsies, dupes in a larger scheme? Alfonso Ussía is a star columnist with La Razón, one of Spain’s right-wing newspapers. He’s what the Spanish call enchufado — he’s connected. His uncle, Jaime Miláns del Bosch y Ussía, was one of the generals who tried to overthrow the Spanish government in a coup d’état, in 1981. He was related by marriage to Juan Antonio Samaranch, the former, long-time president of the International Olympic Committee.

In early January, 1980, Ussía had dinner with Juan José Rosón, the chief of Televisión Española at the time of the 1968 Eurovision.

They ate at the Horcher restaurant, in Madrid, one of the city’s most historic restaurants. It’s like something you’d find in Vienna at the turn of the last century.

It serves German food, pressed partridge and the like, and the waiters put little pillows under your feet while you eat.

During the dinner, the talk turned to the 1968 Eurovision and Massiel’s victory.

According to Ussía, Rosón told him: “We won this festival in the meeting rooms. A victory was necessary in an international event, and we bribed various juries. It was clear, and it was simple.”

Ussía made this claim in his newspaper column in May, 2008, at the time that the Spanish television documentary first publicised the 1968 Eurovision rigging allegation. He had kept it private for 28 years.

In 2013, in another one of his newspaper columns, he wrote that Franco had threatened the minister of information and tourism in 1968: “If we don’t win this year, yourself and Rosón will be out on the street!”

Rosón, as head of Televisión Española, was in one of the departments that reported to the minister. It was the minister’s job to select the singer, and the song, for the Eurovision Song Contest.

Do you remember Joan Manuel Serrat, the guy who refused to sing ‘La, La, La’ in Spanish? Serrat was a huge star in the 1960s, and still is around the globe today. He’s like a Leonard Cohen for latinos, and something of a reluctant revolutionary. He was exiled by the Franco regime in the early 1970s.

Serrat was chosen by FC Barcelona to sing the club’s anthem for its centenary in 1999, a song that is played at all their games at the Camp Nou stadium. It was no surprise that Barcelona’s football club, which is a beacon for Catalan separatism, chose him.

Serrat had wanted to sing ‘La, La, La’ at the Eurovision in Catalan, a language that was repressed by General Franco.

José María Lasso de la Vega was Serrat’s manager in 1968. He had close ties with General Franco. He was from an important Spanish family; his brother was governor of Granada.

Lasso de la Vega arranged with the Ministry of Information and Tourism that Serrat would represent Spain in the 1968 Eurovision Song Contest. In the weeks before the final, at the Royal Albert Hall, Lasso de la Vega and Serrat did a publicity drive around Europe for ‘La, La, La’.

“They went around all the European radio and television stations,” says Claudi Martí, who co-managed the record company Serrat sang for in the 1960s.

“We know this promotion exercise involved buying votes. In those days, the voting was made by the television stations of each country. It’s not like nowadays, where a part of the voting is done by the public; it was the countries’ television stations that were casting the votes. So we found out, we know, that while promoting a song in each country, votes were bought. There was a commitment of voting for that song or not.

“So when this was done, it was known which television stations would vote for the song. Therefore, at the time of the promotion campaign, they already knew the song, ‘La, La, La’ was going to be the winning song.” Josep María Massip, Martí’s partner at their record company, EDIGSA, confirms his allegation. “When Serrat’s manager, Lasso de la Vega, told him ‘You have to sing in Spanish,’ he also said to him: ‘Because we have bought the votes, so Spain will win’!”

The European Broadcasting Union, which founded the Eurovision Song Contest in 1956, has never investigated the voting process of the 1968 Eurovision Song Contest, to see if it might have been rigged.

“We discussed it informally, among the members of the Reference Group,” says Julian Vignoles, who sat on the Eurovision’s governing body in 2008, when allegations of a fix were raised publicly in the Spanish television documentary, 1968: Yo Viví El Mayo Español.

“As far as we were concerned, it was unproven. It was theory. I think there was an element of what’s done is done. If Cliff Richard or Phil Coulter or the BBC said: ‘By the way, we were robbed. We would have had another victory in the Eurovision Song Contest’. If they made it, but nobody did.”

For now, the record books still record that Massiel won the 1968 Eurovision by a point, ahead of the song, ‘Congratulations’.

Rosón, the head of Televisión Española in 1968, is dead. Lasso de la Vega, Serrat’s manager, also died many years ago, as did General Franco. And with him went the secret of the biggest controversy to rock Europe’s biggest song contest.

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