No wonder no one knows where we stand with Europe. Two European club competitions and the finals of both are being contested between English teams – Liverpool Vs Spurs in the Champions League (formerly known as the European Cup) and Arsenal Vs Chelsea in the Europa League (formerly known as the UEFA Cup), the first time four teams from the same nation have filled the two European finals of what those nice people at the BBC and the Grauniad insist we refer to as ‘the men’s game’; and yet none of the four teams in question are our peerless domestic treble victors, Manchester City. On the same day City thrashed Watford 6-0 – registering the largest winning margin in an FA Cup Final for over a century – the man flying the flag for the UK on the Continent crashed and burned all the way to the bottom of the heap in Tel Aviv.
Earlier in the day (maybe as a means of subconscious preparation), I watched the 1974 Eurovision Song Contest in full on YouTube – yes, and I have indeed lived to tell the tale. Held at the Brighton Dome, 1974 was the year four Swedes famously captured the crown; but over-exposure to Abba’s win with ‘Waterloo’ had made me ignorant of other entries that would perhaps have won in any other year, such as the exquisite ‘Si’ by Italy’s Gigliola Cinquetti, up there with ‘L’amour est bleu’ by Vicky Leandros in 1967 as arguably the best Eurovision song never to have won the Eurovision.
1974 was a time when the Eurovision was still an MOR showbiz showcase for all the family, held in theatres in which evening dress appeared to be compulsory, and presented by a middle-aged lady looking like a Home Counties hostess at a W.I. Tory Party fundraiser. But the tournament was very much in transitional mode 45 years ago – trapped between the post-‘Puppet on a String’ oompah formula whilst simultaneously trying to capture the Glam Rock spirit of the moment, falling into a strange limbo with one foot in both camps yet being at home in neither. Despite this uneasy mix, the 1974 contest when viewed in its entirety remains a relentlessly entertaining way to spend a couple of hours.
At some point in the 90s, the Eurovision finally surrendered its last lingering pretensions to be taken seriously, with the rather stiff commentary of David Vine in 1974 superseded by the increasingly arch observations of Terry Wogan. But in losing its terminally unfashionable image, it was gradually reinvented as a camp, kitsch (and rather gay) carnival. The 1998 transgender triumph of Israel’s Dana International, paving the way for the 2014 win of Austria’s ‘bearded lady’ Conchita Wurst, was a landmark example of the event’s repositioning as a celebration of pan-European ‘diversity’. Those whose previous platform could have been the likes of the Alternative Miss World drag-fest or Channel 4’s late-night 90s cult hit, ‘Euro Trash’, now had a near-global outlet in which a style of outré entertainment that had always inhabited the fringes could be belatedly normalised.
Regardless of the contest’s eternal irrelevance in the USA, the huge viewing figures it can command across Europe (and, lest we forget, Australasia) were tempting enough to persuade long-time Dorothy acquaintance Madonna to take part as an interval act last night. Having lost touch with the career of an artist I once kept tabs on for decades, I watched Madonna’s somewhat shaky performance of ‘Like A Prayer’ with interest, and despite the dodgy ‘Sunday Night at the Palladium’ effect of a once-important act reduced to reliving past glories at a glitzy variety show, Madonna actually appeared to have found her natural (rest) home, like Elvis settling in Vegas when the 60s were at their revolutionary height.
The voting section of the programme used to be my favourite part, but the sheer volume of participating nations today has cut short requests for the results of the respective juries; the show seemed to quickly zoom through presenter banter with satellite-linked announcers standing in front of a superimposed capital city backdrop and headed straight onto the outcome of ‘The People’s Vote’. This new innovation saw the pattern of the ‘professional’ juries turned upside down as the viewer’s voting significantly altered the scoreboard when it was added to those votes already counted at the climax of the programme. North Macedonia had built up a good lead that was then completely overturned while the UK’s representative, Michael Rice, stopped hovering hopefully above the relegation zone and sank to rock bottom. At least Lynsey de Paul and Mike Moran finished runners-up with an entry of that name in 1977 rather than 26th out of 26.
One would imagine Europe had learnt not to sanction any form of ‘people’s vote’, as such gifts bestowed by rulers upon ruled have a habit of deviating from the script; but the outcome of Eurovision 2019 was very much decided by ‘The People’ – and they chose the Netherlands for the first time since 1975. Bar the traditional Greece/Cyprus love-in, there didn’t appear to be much of the political bias that has marred the voting procedure in recent years; even Russia received a cheer this time round, but it paid to remember the precise location of this year’s Contest and the contentious issues outside of the Eurovision bubble. Perhaps everyone was more than a little sensitive to these issues to resist using the event for making a point – with the exception of Iceland’s bizarre entry flashing a few Palestinian scarves in the green-room.
Another interesting difference between the Eurovision of 45 years ago and today was the way in which every measly point tossed in the direction of the UK last night was received with somewhat pathetic gratitude. The British entry in 1974 – Olivia Newton-John – finished fourth with the dismally plodding ‘Long Live Love’, yet this result was no doubt greeted at the time as a national humiliation for a country accustomed to at least managing second place (as we have on fifteen separate occasions). In 2019, the ‘plucky Brit’ bollocks that has its roots in Eddie the Eagle means we settle for finishing in last place with a shrug of the shoulders; we expected no better even before the latest ‘X-Factor’ leftover delivered his forgettable ditty like a shy child hoping for relieved parental applause when overcoming nerves to mumble his one line at the school nativity play.
So, we are simultaneously the masters of Europe (in football) and its laughing stock (in pop). There’s a point to be made somewhere in there when it comes to this country’s attitude towards the Continent and Europe’s attitude towards us, but I fear it could be lost in translation; perhaps Massiel, the Spanish entry of 1968 – whose controversial win over Cliff’s ‘Congratulations’ was allegedly aided by General Franco – got it right when she kept it simple. La, la, la…
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