Monday 18 December 2017

My Eurovision hell

As he recalls some of the horror he has seen over the years working at Eurovision, insider Will Hanafin casts a cold eye over Ireland's chances and says that if we crash and burn again this year, we should make like the Italians and get out

Hair-raising prospect - Jedward, Ireland's Eurovision hopefuls
Hair-raising prospect - Jedward, Ireland's Eurovision hopefuls

Where did it all go wrong? It's easy to ask yourself that question when you're surrounded by people -- mainly gay men -- clad in tricolour feather boas and zogabongs, cheering on a singing turkey in a supermarket trolley in a Belgrade Communist-era basketball arena, best known for hosting Slobodan Milosevic.

I've been to the Eurovision three times in recent years -- for work, I hasten to add (That's my story and I'm sticking to it). As the country goes once more unto the breach with Jedward, it's timely to warn the Grimes twins about what awaits them in Dusseldorf in May.

The zoo that is Eurovision participation is a far more hair-raising prospect for John and Edward than anything they've ever summoned their fringes to do. A partisan crowd from more than 40 nations screaming in a German auditorium will make The X Factor look like Would You Believe.

Nothing is out of bounds on the Eurovision stage, except for animals, and Lordi even confused that rule. That's why I've seen white-painted Russian ballet dancers emerging from grand pianos with heaps of rose petals. I've dodged sparks from Lordi's angle grinders. I was there when that Moldovan granny leapt out of her rocking chair and banged a drum. I've endured a Hungarian entry where the most interesting things were the washing-line and bus-stop props.

Even more startling than some of the national performances are the dreaded interval acts. Because they've only a year to pull it together, most host countries just dust off the old Riverdance tape and recreate some national cultural smorgasbord. The interval act in Serbia in 2008 was the most painful, throwing in everything from Serbian choirs, Baltic bodhran belters and a finale of a Christopher Walken doppelganger playing a boob-shaped-bagpipe. Throw in a mismatched guy/girl presenting duo with as much chemistry as the surface of Mars and you've got Eurovision in full flight.

With the Eurovision, you have to see it to believe it. The competition is now divided into two semi-finals and a final, and the only way to get the full impact is to attend one of those shows. When I saw the vista at the Belgrade Arena before the 2008 semi-final, it was finally confirmed to me that the Eurovision is a United Nations of crazed campness. There were cross-dressing Greeks, Amazonian Azerbaijani women and bemulleted Moldavians, and that was just in the media bus on the way to the venue. If Colonel Gaddafi walked up to the ticket checker in the full Star Wars-extra gear that he has favoured of late, the Serbian security guards wouldn't have even batted an eyelid. You know that guy in your home town who is labelled colourful? Well, a Eurovision show is a continent-wide gathering of such people.

But never make the mistake that Eurovision is a kitsch joke, because it's a cold country for irony and cynicism. In recent years, winning the competition has become a real goal for countries throwing off the yoke of oppressive dictators or banjaxed political systems. Maybe that's why we could be in with a shout again.

To paraphrase Bill Shankly: if you're anywhere near the Caucasus, the Eurovision isn't a matter of life or death, it's much more serious than that.

In fact, the UN should use the Eurovision as an early-warning system for nations that are due to go off the deep end. After the 2007 Eurovision in Helsinki, I was convinced Georgia was trouble with a capital T. Their delegation were more terrifying than a Phil Hogan-led Fine Gael election machine on the hunt for three seats. In the run-up to the 2007 semi-final, whenever the Georgian singer Sopho Khalvashi entered a room I saw her being trailed by dozens of loud, flag-waving compatriots offering bystanders free bottles of Georgian wine. For even greater dramatic effect, the national flag is a blood-red cross with a smaller red cross in each quadrant. Sultry, black-haired Sopho blew everyone away with her passionate performance in the semi-final, and Georgia finished eighth overall in the final.

I kept a curious eye on developments in Georgia after encountering their full-on assault on Eurovision 2007. Another big clue of future Georgian intentions was the title of their 2008 Eurovision entry Peace Will Come. Note the use of the future tense. It might have shocked the world, but seasoned Eurovision watchers weren't surprised in the least when Georgia ended up at war with the Russians in August 2008. The scrap over disputed territory in South Ossetia triggered a major international incident, which dragged in the US and Russia. Because of the South Ossetia war, they ended up being booted out of the Russian Eurovision in 2009 for submitting a song which was allegedly derogatory to Vladimir Putin, entitled We Don't Wanna Put In. They were back last year and are also competing in Dusseldorf. Their wine is very nice, by the way.

The nascent countries aiming to win big are easily spotted. They usually combine four crucial elements: presidential-style campaigning; an Amazonian big-haired diva with a wind machine; a ridiculous dance routine; and plenty of fireworks. In 2008 Armenia deployed this scorched-earth policy with their singer Sirusho and her song Qele Qele. She ticked all the four boxes plus bizarre full-body gyrating. It was quite a sight. The Armenians finished a respectable fourth that year.

If there's any justice, Armenia will have to win the Eurovision soon. Last year Eva Rivas sang Apricot Stone and along with ubiquitous fireworks, Amazonian wind-blown singer and weird dancers, they had a giant apricot stone on stage that turned into an apricot tree, and an 83-year-old man playing a traditional Armenian flute called a duduk. If they don't give it to them soon there's bound to be trouble over some disputed territory. You heard it here first.

As you can gather, the Eurovision is taken very seriously by people who want to win, even when they're singing about a giant fruit stone. That's why the Irish approach has been tragically out of step for several years. Like the country at large, when it comes to Eurovision, we've lost our competitiveness.

In fairness to RTE, they have thrown practically everything at the problem. Venerable former winners; a turkey with a toilet seat; sexy female vocalists and an ethereal folk group. But nothing's worked. They all start with the same blind optimism, but it always ends in tears. We finish at the bottom of the heap with the indignity of Albania giving us votes because they only have a jury rather than a text vote as their phone system isn't up to it.

We're always playing catch-up with the countries that actually want to win the Eurovision. In 2008, when we sent out Dustin the Turkey, Russia won it with white-clad blokes ice-skating around each other. He really couldn't compete with that. Last year our veteran winner Niamh Kavanagh had a disastrous result in the final which was won by a kooky, Lily Allen-lite German teen called Lena. In 2009 we sent a young female vocalist, Sinead Mulvey, but they went wild for a chiselled Norwegian bloke singing and playing a violin. Other countries didn't get the Irish entries in recent years either -- Dervish, the aforementioned Sinead Mulvey and Niamh Kavanagh -- or didn't get the joke, in the case of Dustin.

This year Jedward are in the firing line and they're at a real risk of being in the 'don't get the joke' category. The bookies favourite is Lena, who has chosen to defend her title in Dusseldorf. Ominously, the most decipherable line from Jedward's Lipstick song is: "We're heading for a car crash."

We last had a modicum of Eurovision success with Brian Kennedy five years ago in Athens. He reached the final and finished in the top 10, singing his own song Every Song is a Cry for Love. Brian is the last contestant who had any sort of wider appeal to a European audience. I saw one of the receptionists in the Eurovision press centre in Athens doing an indecipherable Greek version of "Phwoar!" when she saw him in the flesh. One bitchy commentator even called him Andersonstown's answer to Tom Conti.

You can only represent Ireland at the Eurovision these days by getting through The Late Late Show's Eurosong. The generally older Late Late audience are thus entrusted with picking the singer to represent the country -- and appeal to a 13-year-old in their bedroom in Malta. This has to be one of the reasons for our lack of success.

The demographics were thankfully skewed this year by Jedward's entry, as their younger fans definitely watched the Late Late because they were on it. But despite their youth and popularity here and in the UK, it's unlikely the twins will make much of an impact with other European countries. Both Ireland and England have been consistently getting the tone wrong for years. While newer countries are throwing everything at it, including giant apricot seeds and drumming grannies, the UK and Ireland are still offering Europe a kitsch/pastiche-y vibe.

I knew the UK would never win the Eurovision again when I had to line up interviews with Scooch -- four men and women in cabin-crew uniforms. The most memorable lines from their song Flying the Flag for You included "Some salted nuts, sir?" and "Would you like something to suck on for landing, sir?" The UK haven't really recovered since, and last year teenager Josh Dubovie scored just 10 points and finished last. Terry Wogan has even thrown in the towel, as his Eurovision nihilism wasn't suiting the current vibe.

A good Eurovision song is hard to get right. The Eurovision is camp and the best songs may look camp, but the singers believe that they're deadly serious performers singing for the honour of Armenia or wherever. I think the believability of the songs is a much bigger vote-getter than geographical favouritism. Anyway, there's been no real geographic pattern to the winners of late, which include Germany, Norway, Russia, Finland and Greece. So even though the countries who vote are diverse, the audience easily detects the difference between a demented woman singing her heart out about Armenian apricots and a tongue-in-cheek ditty about salty nuts from a UK bubblegum-pop outfit. I can't see Scooch stirring up any UK nationalistic fervour.

Besides doing badly, there are two other inevitabilities about Ireland's Eurovision entry. First, there'll be a storm-in-a-teacup controversy about who was picked; second, and most importantly, Johnny Logan won't be happy.

This year JoLo complained about Jedward before they were even selected on the Late Late. But there's one golden rule when it comes to being attacked by Johnny. You don't argue back -- because he's God. Jedward have broken that rule badly by claiming they don't know who he is and saying he does strange things with horses.

"Who's Johnny Logan? Is he a jockey?" said John in a newspaper interview.

"I think that anyone who hates on people that are younger than them, they just want to be younger," his brother Edward added.

Johnny Logan is not the David McWilliams of the Eurovision. He doesn't just grumble at the periphery and then refuse to get directly involved. It's more complicated than that. It's similar to the explanation for the Holy Trinity. The Eurovision essence is made up of different things and Johnny is part of that.

If you've been to the Eurovision a few times you'll know he only mysteriously appears when the time is right. Waiting for the flight to Helsinki, it was impossible to miss him in the newsagents in Dublin Airport. While other passengers opt for loose, comfortable clothing on a flight and maybe some flight stockings if they're feeling mad, Johnny dresses like he's going to a rodeo. He certainly stood out in the Sudoku section with a white cowboy hat and elaborately embroidered leather jacket.

While he's an object of curiosity in Ireland, the man is a superstar in continental Europe, and no, it's not just in his own head. I saw an unassuming middle-aged Belgian businessman shuffle up to him on the flight to ask for his autograph. At customs he attracts a lot of attention, and I don't think it was because his rodeo gear upset the scanning machines.

You do have doubts about Johnny when you first meet him, because he does tend to go on a bit about his albums that are charting in Denmark and Germany, and suchlike. It's only when you get to these places that you realise he's telling the truth. I met him in Helsinki at the Eurovision arena, and when he appeared he was immediately mobbed by journalists and invited to do a press conference. Then he was off to do a jammed open-air concert in the centre of Helsinki with what appeared to be the army orchestra accompanying him.

When I was in primary school, the old state company, Irish Shipping, used to send school kids a map and some pins so we could follow the progress of all their ships, which were all named after trees. Johnny should send a map of Europe to primary schools and get them to follow his annual wanderings. It'll mean straight As in geography later on. For example, Johnny made his comments about Jedward while backstage at the Romanian version of Eurosong. He celebrated St Patrick's Day this year with a gig in Munich and he is singing the part of King Arthur in a Celtic rock opera called Excalibur, which is touring Germany. He has also gigged on a boat in Sweden, as well as being spotted in Austria, Switzerland and Belgium.

Johnny's pronouncements can be a bit odd, but I'm sure there are plenty of Old Testament passages that also sound strange. Here's his reasoning for not liking Jedward: "I found a pair of shoes in Munich and they have wings on them and I believe Jedward have them. I wear these to embarrass my 18-year-old," said Johnny. OK!

Like Johnny, the Eurovision can end up anywhere in Europe on any given year. In Ireland we have a certain black humour about the Eurovision. We say the succession of really bad acts spares us the expense of having to stage the thing. It's good to know that we haven't become recession-addled cynical grouches, because every Eurovision host city I've been to thinks the same.

The locations are always incongruous -- everything from a disused Olympic stadium to a communist-era basketball arena. Host cities mainly regard the Eurovision as a large conference -- albeit a colourful one -- that has to be endured.

The gloomy Finns were probably the worst. We stayed in a hotel that doubled as a roundabout in the Helsinki suburbs. When we got back to the hotel after the semi-final the whole bar was glued to the telly. I asked one of them: "Is this the Eurovision highlights?" "We hate that! Why did Lordi have to win? This is ice hockey!" he said. When the ice hockey was over the Finns then scattered to the hotel's three nightclubs: a country and western disco, a karaoke bar and a pole-dancing venue/casino.

Belgrade was still too wrecked after the war to really summon up any enthusiasm for the Eurovision. The event was stuck in the Belgrade Arena, a concrete monolith that hosted Slobodan Milosevic's last public speech before Nato attacked.

At the Athens Eurovision, they were just glad someone was paying the lighting bill at the Olympic stadium.

Dusseldorf seems to be keeping up the dynamic standard of Eurovision host cities. The Eurovision production team's press release could only come up with six fascinating things about the city, including the TV tower, which has the largest digital clock in the world. It also states that Dusseldorf has the longest bar in the world, which will come in handy after witnessing some of the performances.

This year is a big year for Ireland's Eurovision hopes because we've been in a period of decline and fall since 2007. After Brian Kennedy, we've had nothing but bottom-of-the-table performances from Dervish, Dustin, Sinead Mulvey and even Niamh Kavanagh. We can't even plead unfairness anymore. Since 2009, the voting system has changed, so it's now a mix of televoting and jury voting, which eliminates the perceived bias towards Eastern European countries.

Again, we're the Johnny Come Latelys; the Jedward novelty-act shtick might have worked two years ago, but this year the favourites are all serious singers with serious songs. Strong female vocalists, such as last year's winner, Lena, and Norway's Stella Mwangi, are the bookies' favourites. The contingent of Azerbaijan, Turkey and Georgia are also in strong contention.

Europe and bailout has a familiar ring to it, but if Jedward crash and burn this year it might be time to bid adieu to the Eurovision. The Italians threw in the towel some years ago and other countries, such as Austria, also gave it a break. Think of it as the musical equivalent of bailing out the money markets because if we experience another null-pointer our Eurovision credit rating will be downgraded beyond repair.

No pressure, John and Edward!


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