Every year towards the end of May hundreds of millions of people across Europe (and since 2015 Australia) gather in pubs, nightclubs and living rooms to watch the annual Eurovision Song Contest. As with that other European mainstay, the nudist beach, it’s something we all secretly enjoy but would never admit to publicly.
Founded in 1956, and based on the previous Sanremo Music Festival, the contest appears simple. Each country submits an original song performed by a native singer or group, either in their mother tongue or in English, judges and the viewing public from each country vote (from 1 to 7, and then 8, 10, and the famous “douze points” of 12), the results get added up, and the country with the most points at the end of the night wins the coveted prize.
Over the course of the decades, the native singer concept fell by the wayside (French-Canadian singer Celine Dion represented Switzerland, for example) as has the native songwriter – Irish former winner Johnny Logan wrote for Norway. Abba leaped to mega-stardom after their win in Brighton in 1974 (we’re even due to get a blue plaque to commemorate this) and the show is famously LGBT-friendly with no less than two transgender winners to date, Dana International in 1998 and Conchita Wurst in 2014.
We’ve seen singing Russian grandmas, operatic Romanian vampires, puppets, milk maids, death metal, ska, wardrobe malfunctions, numerous technical difficulties, and four British wins. The whole thing is a ludicrous and camp endurance test and I love it beyond all reasonable thought. I spend all year looking forward to it, and did I mention that the whole thing is live?
And then there’s the voting.
Voting changed in 1970 after Lulu won for Britain in a four-way split with Boom Bang-a-Bang the previous year, to make it “fairer”. And every year, without fail, Norway give Sweden 12 points, and Greece give Cyprus 12 points, and France and Germany ignore each other completely, and the former states of the former Soviet Republic form a voting power bloc, and…
There’s where we have Eurovision’s skeleton in the closet.
Because between 1961 and 1980 amid all the peace and harmony and European unity and boom bang-a-ding-a-dong, the former Soviet Socialist Republic didn’t exist in the world of Eurovision, on account of that little Cold War thing with its spies and its Iron Curtains. Russia now takes part in the contest along with 17 million satellite states of the former East, and they entered the whole shebang in 1994 when all the school maps had to be redrawn because Russia suddenly existed again.
In 2010 a meme went around the Internet as memes have a habit of doing, a short YouTube video which featured a cheerful chap by the name of Eduard Khil who sang an equally cheerful ditty whose lyrics consisted of “lollollolaloll” repeated ad infinitum. It went viral and amused us all greatly but behind Khil’s smile lay the dirty secret of Eurovision.
In the Red Corner we have The Intervision Song Contest – the other Song Contest which included only Eastern bloc countries, was broadcast only to those Eastern bloc countries, and which waited patiently in the wings until various walls and regimes fell so that it could take its rightful place back in thick of European voting and annihilate the competition.
Intervision started life as the Sopol Music Festival, an inclusive gathering to celebrate songs and culture despite its launch date exactly one week after the Berlin Wall went up – one door closes, another opens, so to speak.
For the first three years, they staged it in a shipping yard, and you may laugh, but the 1998 Eurovision took place in Birmingham, so settle down at the back. They relocated – still in Sopol – but in more pleasant surroundings and the shenanigans began in earnest. Like the Western Eurovision, the Sopol Festival had its share of backstage in-fighting with one contestant sabotaged when rivals chewed through her microphone cable and caused an outage live on stage.
Authorities removed contestants if they showed any lyrical political dissension, and the television audience voted via the National Grid by watching the whole thing in the dark and only turning the living room lights on if they liked the song. The whole thing proceeded in a fairly routine way until the lure of the forbidden Eurovision reared its head – Communist big is still big, and the competition re-branded in 1977 as the Intervision Song Contest for its final hoorah. Like Eurovision, Intervision had loose definitions on who could participate, with the inclusion of Cuba and on a rather more bizarre note, Finland.
Finland had a history of spectacular failure at Eurovision with year after year of single digit tallies (although not as bad as Norway who managed a string of null points before they eventually reversed that in 2009 and won with Alexander Rybak) – they fared better at Intervision, and won in 1980 (the contest’s final year) with Where is the Love? although no Fergies or Will.I.Am’s were present.
But rumblings were on the doorstep – quite literally. With the uprising at the Gdansk shipyards, and the imposition of Polish martial law the political climate was about to change irrevocably. Intervision went back to being the Sopol Festival once more in 1981 and swift changes followed – the fall of the Berlin Wall, the dissolution of Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union, and more.
Cue 1994 and the Soviet return to the Western stage – anyone remember the faux lesbian duo t. A. T. u. in 2003 – and the block voting began in earnest. You could argue that when walls fall freedom and harmony reign, but in reality, those long-held pacts and alliances remain as solid, loyal, and inscrutable as ever. Douze points, anyone?