Belinda Beckett discovers why, on the night of Saturday May 13, nations which don’t even compete in it will be tuned in to Eurovision, the 1950s Swiss song contest that has grown into a global obsession.
It was hugely ambitious for its time, a light entertainment programme to reunite Europe after WW2 in a celebration of musical talent, broadcast live to radio and TV audiences across the continent.
From a civilised contest between seven countries it has evolved into something more akin to international warfare in a concert hall setting, with nations ganging up in tactical voting blocs as unknown acts in outrageous costumes slug it out vocally with an arsenal of theatrical props, pyrotechnics lasers… although generally not much in the way of a song… Unless you count Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s Tè Deum Prelude, the theme tune that has announced the Eurovision Song Contest since its inception.
Nudity and same-sex snogging, fireworks and singing puppets, a band of baking babushka grandmas from Russia, a bearded transsexual songstress from Austria who outraged Vladimir Putin… over six decades, the Eurovision stage has seen it all.
Through ABBA highs and Jedward Twins lows, the show that launched the careers of a fortunate few (Celine Dion, Julio Iglesias and Riverdance in its first major performance as an interval act) inspires nearly as much patriotic fervour as the Olympics, and is watched by over 200 million viewers and three times that many online fans.
Launched by the Swiss-based European Broadcasting Union in Lugano in 1956, and inspired by the Sanremo Music Festival which is even older, the idea was for every network member to put up a singer and song, vote for the best and take turns to host and transmit it to everyone else – a hugely ambitious project in those pre-satellite TV days.
As Cliff Richard sang in 1968, Congratulations are due to a show that has aired for 61 years without a break. And it scores douze points for ingenuity, having replicated itself for a new generation of fans with Junior Eurovision, and several other music and dance contests including Eurovision Choir of the Year, premiering in Latvia this July…
Words Belinda Beckett