Norwegians take the Eurovision Song Contest very seriously indeed.
Imagine having someone like Cliff Richard or Sandie Shaw in the Cabinet. In Norway, they do. Ase Kleveland, a statuesque fortysomething in a leather three-piece, is Norway's Minister of Cultural Affairs. She is also, like Sir Cliff and Sandie, a former competitor in the Eurovision Song Contest, coming third as a 16-year-old with "Intet nytt under solen" ("Nothing New Under the Sun") in 1966. Her subsequent rise to power is just one indication of the awe in which Norwegians hold the Contest.

Norway, which hosts the contest next Saturday, is in the grip of Eurovision fever. Picture the FA Cup Final fervour in Liverpool or Manchester this morning, then double it, and you're some way to grasping the extent of the Norwegian passion for Eurovision. In other parts of Europe, it may be a rather comical competition between people with bad hair crooning different variations on the lyric "bing, bing, a-bong", but in Norway it is a vital assertion of national identity. They visibly bridle at suggestions that they are best known to the rest of the continent for a record-equalling run of nul points. Jahn Teigen, who netted two out of the country's three zero scores, has become a national hero in Norway.

People thronged the streets waving flags and tooting car-horns on the night Norway won last year with "Nocturne"; it was like Rio when Brazil took the World Cup in 1994. This year NRK, the state broadcasters, expect more than 80 per cent of the population to tune into the ceremony to see if they can repeat the feat. The contest annually attracts 30 per cent more viewers than the next most-watched programme in Norway. There has recently been a hotel strike in Oslo and locals were calling in, unbidden, to offer Eurovision competitors and delegates accommodation in their homes. A Eurovision Internet home page is being called up by 2,000 people a day. The 6,500 tickets for the ceremony at the Oslo Spektrum Theatre sold out in two hours, and NRK has also filled the house for the two dress rehearsals.

Kato Hansen, a neat, bespectacled translator who moonlights as president of the 150-strong Norwegian Song Contest fan club, thinks he's died and gone to Eurovision heaven. Taking periodic breaks from editing the Eurovision book, which lists every song since the competition's inception in 1956, he is entertaining journalists from all the over the globe in his immaculate central Oslo flat, which houses the world's most comprehensive collection of Eurovision memorabilia. He has a recording of every single contest - something not even the BBC possesses - and can reel off stats with the unerring accuracy of a Speak-Your-Weight machine. A man who would not look out of place at a trainspotters' convention, he reveals that Nana Mouskouri sang for Luxembourg in 1963 - "she came eighth" - before telling me that the official count of 138 la la la's in Spain's winning 1968 entry - entitled, you guessed it, "La La La" - is incorrect because the singer unexpectedly repeated one verse.

Although indignant that Terry Wogan's commentaries have "turned the Eurovision into a laughing matter in Britain", Hansen still manages to smile when assessing his own approach. "I do worry that it's taking over my life. I'm an academic, I know I'm not supposed to like the Eurovision, but it's about not giving in to the pressure to hate it because it's not politically correct. It's a question of not growing up, of allowing yourself the joy of remembering the fun you had when you watched your first contest."

The Norwegian Folk Museum at Bygdoy outside Oslo - where last year's winner, Gunnhild Tvinnrein, dresses up in national costume and works as a guide - is also rubbing its hands at the prospect of the contest. It has mounted a Eurovision exhibition which is attracting cult followers like a Star Trek convention. The displays include the original pink pyjama suit worn by Kleveland in 1966. "This used to be a very conservative country," she recalls, "and my grandmother was very upset. She thought my pink pyjamas brought shame on the family." On the wall of the museum is pinned a quote from a Norwegian remembering the first time Norway entered the Contest in 1960: "Eurovision was like Christmas Eve. No one was on the streets. It was a free evening for taxi-drivers."

So what is it about this arcane parade of terrible trousers and even worse tunes that so captivates the Norwegians? Your marks, please, Oslo. "The popularity of the Eurovision Song Contest is inversely proportionate to the size of the country," Hansen contends. "For Norwegians it's a way of seeing how we do on the international stage. Italy, France, Germany and the UK don't need that kind of confirmation because they already know that they're important."

Kleveland - a lookalike for the actress Shirley Anne Field - greets me in her spacious, wood-panelled sixth-floor office at the Ministry of Cultural Affairs in the heart of Oslo. Pushing aside a pile of state documents on her huge desk (not quite in the Michael Heseltine league, but getting there), she attempts to explain Norway's magnificent obsession with the Eurovision Song Contest. "It holds a very special place in the hearts of Norwegians because the interest is always greatest in the smaller nations, those countries which have an urge to show we can compete with bigger nations. For instance, there are suddenly a bunch of nations from Eastern Europe with a need to present themselves as able to compete with Western countries [this year's Eastern Bloc minnows are Estonia]. We don't really mind as long as we beat the Swedes." There was a diplomatic incident last year when the Swedish jury gave no points to the Norwegian song which went on to win. The Swedish ambassador in Oslo was obliged to apologise to the Norwegian people for slighting their nation.

A completely random sample of opinion in an Oslo bar the same evening confirms the significance of Eurovision to the Norwegians. Anna, a marketing manager with a shamingly good grasp of English, reckons that "in Norway, it is still a big deal. We do actually sit there and vote. Norwegians take themselves too seriously. If we could take a more satirical, more British attitude to it, it would be better. The problem is we're quite nationalistic." Anyone who remembers the tide of patriotic emotion that swept many Norwegians to victory in the 1992 Lillehammer Winter Olympics will concur.

Anna's companion, a civil engineer called Axel, takes up the theme. "We're not happy about having Europe dictate to us on anything - fishing policy, for instance. Norway has an inferiority complex because it's quite a new nation. [It only gained its independence in 1905 after five centuries of foreign rule]. We said 'no' to the EU in a referendum in 1994 because we felt we could do better on our own, without foreigners."

The Song Contest is an opportunity for Norway to present itself to the world as something more than just a country of fjords and flags. When Bobbysocks, the Norwegian duo, won in 1985 with "La det swinge" ("Let It Swing"), the Prime Minister held a state dinner for all Oslo's diplomatic corps in their honour, and they gained a government marketing award for their services to exports.

NRK's nerve-centre on the outskirts of Oslo is gearing up for the Big Night under the auspices of the executive producer of the Contest, the splendidly named Odd Arvid Stromstad, a stubbly man with rock-star looks who might also be known as "Mr Eurovision". He shows me a model of the set for the contest - a hockey-pitch-sized, hi-tech mock-up of an oil rig, Norway's major industry. "At the Olympics," he reflects, "you saw Norwegians as a strange people waving flags and wearing red national costumes. It was very folkloric. We're giving Norway a more modern image of a country good at providing equipment for the oil and electricity industries."

Kleveland agrees. "It's important to show we don't just play around in mountains and believe in trolls. We're a modern welfare state, and for 25 years we've been an oil and gas nation." Lars Otto Wollum, Eurovision's information advisor, asserts that the contest "is more socio-politically important than we realise".

Morten Harket - this year's co-presenter (with NRK's Washington correspondent, Ingvild Bryn) and the former lead singer with what is perhaps Norway's biggest export after oil, the pop group A-ha - evidently agrees. He maintains that the contest is "a step forward at the negotiating table. It does help with European unity."

Kleveland wouldn't go that far, but she is keenly aware of the PR benefits to Norway of a show broadcast to more than 300 million people in 42 countries (including South Africa, Australia and South Korea). All for a budget of just pounds 4m. "People's memories are very short," she muses. "We are a nation of four million people, so the funding to promote ourselves in the world is limited. If we had to buy the promotional package we're getting from the Eurovision, we could never afford it."

As we tot up the promotional marks for Norway, the country is very much in credit. "There's so much negativity from the media about Eurovision," Hansen protests. "It's like the West End theatre critics in London - they kill for pleasure. There's a stigma about the Eurovision Song Contest, a journalistic cliche that says it is per se bad quality. Maybe it's a case of political correctness. But the attraction of the contest is its excitement. Critics should acknowledge that."

Kleveland is equally robust. "In spite of all the criticism - not least from British journalists - you haven't been able to kill the Eurovision Song Contest. It's about innocence, fun and competition. Everyone sits at home giving points. Just as many mark the performers for their dresses as for their songs - that emphasises what it's all about."

She hopes the love affair between Norway and the Eurovision Song Contest continues to blossom. "Norway is really interested in music," she enthuses. "Everyone sings in a choir. On our National Day, we will have 110,000 kids playing in brass bands. It's a very strange country."

The Eurovision Song Contest will be broadcast from Oslo on BBC1 at 8pm next Saturday night.

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