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The birdman of Belgrade


The all-round entertainer Noel Coward forged his reputation as a playwright on scandalising polite society with stage displays widely slammed as crude and tasteless.

Coward would surely have approved of the scenes at Limerick's University Concert Hall last weekend, when phone texters selected Dustin the Turkey to represent Ireland at May's Eurovision Song Contest in the Serbian capital of Belgrade, despite the boos and heckles of a largely hostile in-house audience convinced they were witnessing a travesty.

A celebrated songwriter, Coward coined many famous sayings. Amongst the best known was his observation that: "It's extraordinary how potent cheap music is."

If we insert the word 'Eurovision' for 'opera', another nugget of Coward wisdom goes: "People are wrong when they say Eurovision is not what it used to be. It is what it used to be. That is what's wrong with it."

The enduring truth of both insights became clear this week in the wake of Dustin's provocative victory. Cheap and tacky as a pound-shop at Christmas, the glove-puppet's winning racket, Ireland Douze Pointz, has been strikingly potent in dividing public opinion between those who think it's a national embarrassment, those who think it's a harmless bit of craic, and those who wish it would all just go away.

But it won't go away, because despite a doubling in size, and changes in style and technology, Eurovision is exactly what it always has been -- a forum first and foremost for stirring up festering feuds, settling old scores and having a laugh at the expense of others. This week, as newspapers and TV from Tallinn to Tel Aviv splashed large on Dustin's dismal din, it's become apparent that rumours of Eurovision being in its death throes have been greatly exaggerated.

Set to a jarring Euro-disco beat that was stale and irritating 15 years ago, Ireland Douze Pointz includes the line "Drag acts and bad acts and Terry Wogan's wig". More in hope than expectation, hardcore Eurovision purists are claiming the words bring the contest into disrepute and warrant the turkey's disqualification under Section 4 Rule 9 of the regulations.

Assuming that this won't happen, 2008 looks set to be another bountiful year for John Morrison, the 37-year-old Wicklowman who has spent his whole adult working life playing the unlikely role of a motormouth turkey.

Just over 20 years ago, two bug-eyed loofahs styling themselves Zig & Zag made their TV debut sparring with Ian Dempsey on RTE's afternoon kids' show, The Den. Within months, the puppets were getting more fan mail from adults than children, thanks to a novel line in off-the-cuff banter and mouldy old jokes (Q: What do you get when you cross a skunk with a boomerang? A: A nasty smell you can't get rid of).

Zig & Zag were the creations of design students Ciaran Morrison and Mick O'Hara. At Christmas 1990 they needed a turkey for a brief stint on The Den and they turned to Ciaran's youngest brother, John. Dustin was initially to end up as Zig & Zag's Christmas lunch, but he got a reprieve on the grounds that he was only half-turkey and half a scrawny, unappetising vulture. When Zig & Zag left to pursue success in Britain, Dustin grabbed his opportunity to fill the vacancy.

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In turn, John would extend the family franchise by recruiting the middle Morrison brother, Joe, as the puppeteer behind Socky, Dustin's nice-but-dim pet. Just as Zig & Zag had given Dustin his break in television; they also alerted him to the lucrative merchandising advantages which puppets can have over mere mortals.

One executive who has worked closely with puppets says: "The great thing about them is that you can do anything with them. If you pitch it right, they can market products aimed at both children and adults. They don't carry any baggage of race, creed or colour. They're not going to be photographed snorting lines of cocaine at backstage parties, or punching photographers outside clubs. It's tempting fate to say it, but once there's a momentum going, there's almost nothing a puppet can't sell."

Almost, but not quite. Zig & Zag drew the line at a proposal to market their own brand of toilet paper, although that project might be due a revival in the pair's latest guise as the foul farmers Podge & Rodge.

Already millionaires from Zig & Zag's foray into Britain, Ciaran Morrison and Mick O'Hara developed Podge & Rodge once again from The Den, where Podge initially featured as an evil puppet brought to life by a magician. Too bawdy for kids' TV, the twisted twins migrated beyond the watershed for A Scare At Bedtime in 1997, and have lately become a money-making machine.

It's estimated that Podge & Rodge generated over €1.6m in earnings last year through DVD sales and a sell-out run in Dublin's Vicar Street. This excludes RTE broadcast fees, promotional appearances and profits from a range of merchandising. Their page on the online store (www.bandmad.com) offers 'Farmer Chic' T-shirts, hoodies, y-fronts, mugs and theatre programmes for sale in pounds, dollars and euros.

Dustin, perhaps surprisingly, doesn't have any merchandise currently available online, although this is likely to change in the light of his newfound Europe-wide notoriety. Over the past 18 years, an extensive selection of Dustin cash-ins have turned up for sale, from baseball caps, to football mascots, to turkey-sized latex dolls that belch out his catchphrases.

Even more elusive than current merchandise is the puppetmaster himself, John Morrison. For 18 years, Morrison has imposed an unbreakable rule that Dustin never gives interviews out of character, and that John Morrison never gives interviews at all. The polar opposite to his abrasive creation, the soft-spoken and reclusive puppeteer lives in his native Greystones, where the domestic success of Dustin has enabled him to settle into a detached period des-res.

Dustin's first Christmas on Earth, where he dodged an appointment with the basting spoon, set the pattern and the season has regularly brought good cheer by way of a handsome musical bonus. A string of Christmas albums have topped the Irish charts, while in 1996 he reportedly outsold Boyzone and Daniel O'Donnell to finish the year as Ireland's top selling artist.

A four-year break between album releases from 2001 to 2005 fuelled a perception that the one-trick turkey was about to do the decent thing and call it a day. His latest assault on Eurovision won't change the minds of those who believe he's well past his best-by date, but it might generate the momentum for a belated shot at a British TV slot and the big commercial opportunities that would come with it.

Or maybe it would be better all round if Dustin finally comes to rest in the dustbin of Eurovision history.

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