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Friday 17 November 2017

Douze points: but can we win Eurovision again or do we want to?

A book by RTE's Julian Vingoles takes us behind the scenes at the Eurovision, a prize he says the national station doesn't really want to bring home again

Euro memories: Jedward on stage in Baku
Euro memories: Jedward on stage in Baku
Julian Vignoles gets a kiss from Linda Martin as he launches his book at PantiBar.
Brian Kennedy backstage with backing singers Una Healy (now Foden) and Fran King in Athens in 2006

The Eurovision Song Contest has a lot in common with the Rose of Tralee; it's live, it's competitive, it's unpredictable; the participants are vulnerable; they may make bad dress, or hair, or make-up decisions. They may get nervous during their big moment on the stage. Anything can happen. Who will triumph? Might somebody slip on the shiny floor? Are all the little details in place? There was one missing for the UK delegation in 2009 in Moscow; Andrew Lloyd Webber had forgotten his cufflinks.

I stepped in and watched the multi, multimillionaire songwriter wear mine as my shirtsleeves hung loose for the evening. I grew to admire the contest in my teens. I never even dreamed that I would some day work on it and then serve on its guiding committee, the Reference Group, for four years. I had that great privilege for a period I worked in RTÉ.

Last year, I decided to write a book about my time in the Eurovision. I also wanted to clear up some of the misconceptions about it. The Eurovision Song Contest, for many of us, is part of the timeline of our lives. In Ireland, those of us who are old enough to remember have pride in the achievements of Johnny Logan and others in those distant decades.

At a time when we weren't particularly making our mark in sport, at Eurovision, we were up there with the best. Although the glory years are behind us and we haven't taken the title since Eimear Quinn did in Oslo in 1996, we've participated with credibility on several occasions.

It was May 2012 in Baku, Azerbaijan. Ten countries were to qualify from our semi-final. Nine countries were already called out. There was only one name left.

Then the presenter paused and said: "And the last country to qualify for the final is… Ireland!' What joy, what relief. But it was Jedward who reacted memorably to the triumph; instead of walking up calmly to take their place with the other nine qualifying artists on the stage, they cartwheeled up the ramp to loud applause. Eurovision just loved their sense of fun and showmanship.

And the contest is part of Europe's timeline, too. Just look how the continent's map has changed since the first contest in Lugano, Switzerland in 1956? We all remember the fall of Communism and the effect it had on Eurovision.

In 1993, a country we'd barely heard of, Bosnia and Herzegovina, joined the competition. Eastern Europe had arrived, bringing a new hunger to win - and a little controversy too.

There are many reasons, I think, for Eurovision's survival for 60 years. The first is competition; winning and losing and watching others experiencing that fate compel us all. Secondly, the Eurovision has what I'd call a built-in dynamic; every country's broadcaster wants to show proudly that they can be as spectacular as the previous host. So the contest is always state-of-the-art television entertainment.

The Eurovision is exciting to be around; it's not just the bright lights, the spectacle and the music. It's the things that go with that - glamour, excitement and even intrigue.

Artists who come with a strong song can falter in the big arena with all the pressure that's on them. Elaborate and costly preparations can come to nought if the singer isn't up to the demands that the contest makes. I always recall the ease with which Ireland's singer in 2006, Brian Kennedy, took to the stage for his first rehearsal - he was totally at home with all the lights and cameras and attention.

Since I grew to love and admire it, I get annoyed when people put it down. Some don't like the music, but the songs are as good as most pop music we hear elsewhere?

Others think it's camp and over the top. But the fact is that up to 40 countries are trying to stand out and so go home with a good result. To do this, you make your mark in the three minutes you're given. How different countries have done that is what gives the contest some of its magic.

That's why some reach for outrageous stunts, fireworks coming out of guitars, singers sprouting butterfly wings, a singer hanging up washing on a clothesline. But that all just adds to the gaiety of the event. If songs were all performed 'unadorned', the Eurovision would not have survived.

It's an opportunity for theatricality unrivalled all year in television schedules in over 40 countries.

Can Ireland ever win again? Of course we can. Our time will come - though I don't know where or when. Look at Austria; they triumphed in 2014 after 38 years in the wilderness of poor results. But expectations have to be realistic. Ireland can't expect to do well or win if we don't send our best artists and invest more in our participation. And our seven-victory record is great, but irrelevant in the 21st century.

Our first victory was in 1970 when only 12 countries competed. Up to 40 countries, sometimes more, are competing now. We - and the UK - had an advantage in the pre-televoting era; we sang in English in the jury, when other countries were required to sing in a national language.

Now the playing pitch is level - nearly everyone sings in English. Also, RTÉ doesn't really want to win. The costs are enormous. But if we did, watch professional pride kicking in? And Fáilte Ireland and Tourism Ireland are great at seeing a marketing opportunity.

There's a 'but' however. We - and RTÉ - have to treat the Eurovision like, for example, the IRFU treat the Six Nations Championship. And let's not be complaining about the pitch or the referee, in other words, the voting?

It amazes me that people still talk about 'unfairness' and 'political voting'. I believe that the Eurovision voting system is as fair as any voting procedure.

Eurovision 2015: 29 bizarre facts from Eurovision history you need to know 

That's why I completely reject the allegation that there's 'bloc voting'. I take a chapter in my book to disprove it. There has never been any real evidence. The accusation was born, in my view, out of disappointment in some western countries. Rather than look to the performance of their artist, or the quality of the songs, they sought to blame others.

The reality is that seven out of the last 10 winners of the ESC came from western or 'old Europe' as it's sometimes called. Eastern Europe, the countries of the former Communist world, which make up almost half of the countries competing, is actually under-represented in the winners' list.

Neighbour voting undoubtedly does take place, but it happens right across the continent and it's perfectly understandable. But the crucial point is that it has little bearing on the result.

WATCH: 10 Irish Eurovision entries from the forgotten decades 

This is where politics comes into the Eurovision. Fans of the contest are people of the world. They have views on political affairs, on human rights and the sovereignty of countries. Remember how the Russia and their song were frequently booed in 2014 in Copenhagen?

If you're getting on in years, watching the Eurovision might make you feel young again. That's the way I felt working with Jedward in 2011 and 2012. Being around John and Edward was exciting in itself. Really, they personified one of the Eurovision's best qualities - fun.

Jedward's infectious merrymaking, from Dusseldorf to Baku, with other singers, press people and organisers, challenged us all to keep up with them. And that's a good thing.

'Inside the Eurovision Song Contest- Music, Glamour and Myth', by Julian Vignoles, with photos by Kyran O'Brien, is published by The Liffey Press. It's available from bookshops and from www.theliffeypress.com. The 60th Eurovision final will be broadcast from Vienna on May 23.

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