I sing for thee my country

Forget Wogan: the Eurovision Song Contest is all about national pride, says Philip Hensher. Just watch Saturday's 50th competition in Kiev
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The Independent Culture

All you really need to know about the Eurovision Song Contest is that "Volare" came fourth. Yes: the one time a deathless classic of pop music was entered, it was beaten by three songs, one probably from Luxembourg, called "Plip Plap Plop".

All you really need to know about the Eurovision Song Contest is that "Volare" came fourth. Yes: the one time a deathless classic of pop music was entered, it was beaten by three songs, one probably from Luxembourg, called "Plip Plap Plop".

In the year of the 50th Eurovision Song Contest, what on earth can be said for it? Five decades of Israelis jumping up and down in stripy sweaters; of Teutonic tarts singing soapy ballads about nuclear disarmament; of fat Liverpudlians half a tone flat; of "Bim Bam Bom" and "Long Live Love" and "Ping Pang Pong". Hasn't it all been done? And did anyone ever want to see any of it in the first place?

It seemed a good idea at the time. The continent was recovering from the Second World War, and endeavours were being launched to bring Europe closer together. A group of broadcasters agreed to take part in a cross-Europe song competition.

The first entrants were the members of the European Coal and Steel Community, plus Switzerland. If coal and steel could not forge harmony, the universal language of catchy little numbers about puppies would. The first contest, in Lugano, was a great success. The next year Britain, Austria and Denmark joined in. These early contests were very short, lasting only 70 minutes or so - hardly enough for the audience to get drunk and have a major argument.

These days it's easier: the show takes up entire evenings. But, in essence, the contests are much the same. There is supposed to be a spirit of European unity behind the event. The winners land the contest for their own countries the following year, with all the tourism and publicity benefits that entails. And the songs go on just as they ever did.

The major selling point for countries taking part is that, subsequently, tourism benefits hugely. Ireland, winners more often than any other country, has seen its tourism industry thrive in the past 10 years. The Baltic states have become favourite places for weekend visits. Ukraine is hosting this year's contest and, after its hotly-contested election, will seize the chance to bring in much-needed tourist money. For the host country, it's a chance to advertise to a worldwide audience in the hundreds of millions, which the smaller European countries cannot miss.

In the early days, there was a spirit of idealism behind the contest, but there was also a ferocious ambition to win the thing. Small countries have flown in big stars. Luxembourg seems to have had a free-trade agreement with Greece in the 1960s: Nana Mouskouri in 1963 and Vicky Leandros (with "L'Amour est Bleu", still a favourite) in 1967 were honorary Luxembourgeoises. Switzerland has to be blamed for launching the career of Canada's Celine Dion in 1988.

Gimmicks have always been relied on. In 1969, the official Eurovision history tells us, "the Spanish singer Salomé, caused uproar by actually moving during her performance: dancing at Eurovision was not allowed. Her dress - made out of porcelain - also caused a stir." Porcelain?

Performers have won by appearing barefoot (Sandie Shaw) or ripping their dresses off (Buck's Fizz). Statistics prove, however, that you are most likely to win by being a female singer, dressed in white, from Ireland.

Fashions come and go. The nonsense-syllable chorus stuck around for years after Lulu's "Boom Bang-a-Bang" in 1969. The Netherlands, having failed with "Ringe-dinge-ding" in 1967, evidently concluded that it was ahead of its time, and, ruthlessly rewritten as "Ding A Dong", something fairly similar triumphed for them in 1975.

A perhaps more amusing tendency of the contest is its habit of breaking out, from time to time, into sincerely-felt political statements. Of course, it has always been political: the Cypriot voters, notoriously, always make it clear they love Greece and think the Turks smell. The Nordic countries break into fits of complacent back-slapping, sharing the points among them.

From time to time, the entries themselves go hilariously political. Aficionados have a special fondness for the Austrian entry on the first occasion the contest was held in Jerusalem, when a lady called Christina Simon tried to apologise for the Holocaust in three minutes with a number called "Heute in Jerusalem" and came, deservedly, second-last.

In Britain, we have for years taken the contest less than seriously. The ringleader of mockery is the presenter Terry Wogan. It took some time for his irreverent comments to leak out to the rest of Europe, but when they did, a certain annoyance was evident. An Estonian newspaper wrote in 2002 that "this man is loved in Great Britain and hated in continental Europe. When commenting, Wogan will leave no stone unturned regarding the organising country, the presenters and their outfits, the songs and the final results of the show. He considers it funny, and so do the British." "No stone unturned" is nice, but "no turn unstoned" would be more accurate.

But, in many parts of Europe, the contest is treated with deadly seriousness. When the trans-sexual Israeli Dana International won it in 1997, it was considered to be a blow struck on behalf of those liberal parts of Israeli society that much of Europe didn't know about.

Winners since - Sweden, Denmark, Estonia, Latvia, Turkey and Ukraine - have taken the chance to show themselves off. The newly independent Baltic states took their victories as signifiers of cultural approval; Turkey was thrilled to be accepted in such a way. And you can bet that the show in Kiev this Saturday will not have a great deal of irony about it; it will be a national celebration we probably ought not smile about.

My most memorable Eurovision was spent in Kreuzberg in Berlin in 1998. The German entry was the eccentric aging glam-rocker Guildo Horn. The party to celebrate his coming eighth was probably the most seriously drunken of my life, but what I remember was the intense hush of the mostly Turkish neighbourhood, broken by mad cheers when anyone gave Turkey any points for a ludicrous number called "Unatamazsin". They, at least, took the thing seriously.

So let's not be too awful about Eurovision. I rather despise Julio Iglesias for, apparently, having denied that he was ever in it (he was, in 1970). It has made a lot of people aware, without watching the more boring parts of the news, that there are countries in Europe called Ukraine, Estonia, Malta or Slovakia, who feel very proud of themselves, sometimes for very good reasons.

Rather, let's enjoy it in our own way, remembering that, after all, it has sometimes produced someone rather good. Abba, after all, won in 1974 with "Waterloo". It's true that, for years afterwards, people kept entering with songs about Genghis Khan, but that is not exactly their fault.

The most wonderful fact about that Abba triumph in Brighton is that, the official history says, "much was made of the group's name, which was similar to that of a fish factory. However, the band announced they'd asked permission first and said everything would be OK so long as they did nothing with fish in future."

Sadly, this meant that Abba never did do anything haddock-related. Even so the Swedish foursome succeeded in lighting up a lot of people's lives with classic pop songs. We have the Eurovision Song Contest to thank for that, I think we can agree - and for quite a lot else besides.

'Eurovision Song Contest', BBC1, 8pm, Saturday