REVIEW / Republic of Ireland 226, Lithuania 0

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The Independent Culture
LOTS OF innovations at this year's Eurovision Song Contest (BBC 1, Saturday). Seven nations were competing for the first time, all bringing a little flavour of their country to the television studio - or at least, a little flavour of their countries' television studios to the television studio. Lithuania celebrated its debut by sending along a version of Phil Collins in a specially large pair of leather trousers. Poland nearly won. And it was a warm welcome to Eurovision for the people of Estonia (two points).

Now, by satellite link-up, we get to see the jury representatives during the voting section. Gone for ever is the old crackly phone line to Norway and the sound of the Cypriot juror ramming small change into a callbox before giving all her points to Greece. The show almost certainly loses something as a result: the disembodied voices used to make a refreshing change after the disemvoiced bodies of the performers. Called up by our presenters, Jerry and Cynthia, various retired weather girls greeted the cameras with the frozen smiles of those competing bravely against faulty ear-plugs and satellite delay. Jerry: 'May we have your votes, please?' Long pause. Juror: 'Yes.' But there was no stopping some of them once they got going. 'Just a tad slower,' Jerry urged the Lisbon juror. International communication has been so much simpler since the tad went metric.

Another Eurovision first: James Joyce was there. Or at least someone wearing a giant papier mache model of his head. This was during Dublin's special opening pageant - a dance past of people dressed as local cultural giants (Yeats, Joyce, Beckett, Bono). By the end of the evening, the hosts had romped home for the third year in succession and collected the extraordinary trophy. Win the World Cup three times and you get to keep the trophy for ever. If the same rules apply in Eurovision, Ireland is now the proud owner of a 24-inch silver-wrapped mailing tube.

Winning, they retain hosting rights next year. What with all the video inserts of Ireland's prime beauty spots, the contest was pretty much a cash-generating, three-hour tourist information film with occasional breaks for music. Iceland sounded horrible - but Dublin looked nice. No wonder the place went potty at the end.

The gigantic, glittering stage set (a skyscrapers at night scenario) looked like Houston, Texas, and most of the songs sounded like Houston, Whitney. Virtually everybody sent along a ballad. The trio of German girls in ridiculous hats did some of those synchronised head movements and bits of pointing at the cameras which made the contest fun in the old days. But virtually everyone else played it downbeat and dreary. You could understand why the people of Bosnia might not necessarily wish to cut a caper right now. But what has Spain got to be so miserable about? And Sweden, and Portugal and Switzerland, all of whom entered something that sounded like the last song at the disco.

This, we gather, is the mood of Europe right now: pensive, yearning and dressed in extraordinary clothes. It may be worth writing to your Euro MP to urge the implementation of a ballad mountain or some sort of set-aside policy for slow numbers. Meanwhile, all power to the United Kingdom's Frances Ruffelle whose 'We Will Be Free (Lonely Symphony)' was determinedly up-tempo and dancy. Unfortunately, it was also terrible. 'Sometimes it makes me feel naked like a tree in autumn,' she sang.

It was tough work singing along with Croatia's 'Nek'ti Bude Ljubav Sva' (by contrast with, say, Finland's 'Bye Bye Baby'). But Terry Wogan provided us with some useful pointers, warning us not to confuse the dancers on stage with the Finnish entrants: 'The two who are going to sing are wearing their mothers' underwear.' Later, he introduced the Maltese pair: 'Moira is 22 and Chris isn't' Moira and Chris then sang: 'Not Easy to Say There's a Will There's a Way'. There's no arguing with that.