Eurovision Song ContestTonight, RTE1, 8pm
Although we're all fond of sneering at it in an affectionate sort of way (unless there's any chance we might win, in which case it becomes a deadly serious contest), it's worth remembering that the Eurovision Song Contest was founded with the loftiest of motives.
Back in the 50s, in the aftermath of the bloodiest conflict mankind has known, there was a general belief that the continent could only be healed by increased cultural and political integration. The concept of a European Union was already being developed, as were various sporting and cultural initiatives aimed at finding and cementing common European ground. And it was in this spirit that the European Broadcasting Union came up with notion of an international song contest.
The idea of the 'Eurovision Grand Prix', as it was initially known, was that every country in the broadcasting union would submit an entrant to sing in a programme that would be transmitted live across Europe. At the first contest, held in Lugano, Switzerland, on May 24, 1956, seven countries participated, with each contestant singing two songs (imagine how bad the second ones were). Switzerland won.
By the following year, there were 10 countries involved (including Britain), and the song quota had sensibly been reduced to one per country. Ireland first contested in 1965, and after the fall of the Iron Curtain in the late 80s, the contesting countries expanded to such an extent that semi-finals were introduced (in 2004) to cope with up to 50 entrants.
Song-wise it all started out sensibly enough, but in the 70s the Eurovision really came into its own, as daft costumes and silly songs that might have got an act killed if attempted anywhere else became the order of the day. The word 'boom', sometimes repeated, began to appear with alarming regularity in Euro compositions, and a contestant not encased in something sparkly was considered something of a frump. There was the occasional good song, of course (Abba's Waterloo, for instance), but entering a competent act was poor form, and even most of the winners sang numbers of staggering banality.
Which is kind of the point, really. The Eurovision has become a kind of mad microcosm in which anything (except, perhaps, something good) is possible and the normal rules of popular music simply do not apply. This has never been truer than in recent contests, when the advent of mass Eastern European involvement has produced acts of terrifying crapulence.
Recent winners have almost been aggressively bad, as the Eurovision mutates into ever more unsightly forms. But it's still great fun if taken in the right spirit, and the cynical block voting of recent years should be tempered somewhat by the reintroduction of national juries.
After last year's truly mortifying Dustin experiment, Ireland will this year be represented by air hostess Sinead Mulvey and her all-girl band Black Daisy, following the recent Eurovision trend for strapping girls in small dresses. We wish them every success, but whether they'll be competing at all tonight will depend on whether they got through Thursday's semi-final.
And finally, it's with regret that we notice that Terry Wogan will not be providing his priceless voiceover of the contest on the BBC this year, the baton having passed to Graham Norton (right), who certainly has a hard act to follow.