The Critics Radio: Eurovision? Pass the stewed slugs please
Sunday 19 May 1996
Broadcasters, of their nature, abhor a vacuum, but sometimes it happens, generally when a tape or a temper snaps. The previous evening, I'd heard about two other kinds of radio silence: one had lasted throughout a thrilling Radio Lincoln darts match - yes, darts by radio. The other was weirder still. It happened last Christmas and it accompanied an Irish radio psychic sitting alone in a studio silently, um, psyching.
Finding these reflections refreshingly surreal, I returned to Wogan (R2), where surrealism is poured over the cornflakes. What a week Terry's been having, trying to educate his listeners in the arcane niceties of the Eurovision Song Contest before leaving for Oslo to commentate. His irreverent mischief is a little restrained on television, on the night, but in his own studio nothing stops him, and his vast, crazed audience cheerfully collude.
And they are deranged: deranged and devoted. One of them, goodness knows why, was setting out with the last two hundredweight of Matron's Christmas cake to discover the source of the M25; another was making Viking helmets for his chickens. You can hear the Wogan eyebrows registering the lunacy, but you'd never hear him, for a second, being superior. He is like the genial head of an infant school: tolerant and incredulous. Citing Sam Johnson, a sycophant oozed that the man who is tired of Wogan is tired of life. Some mistake, says Terry, that was Sam Goldwyn. Another fan asked him to play a record for her eight-year- old son: he did, but he warned the child that he'd rue this day, when a very old broadcaster ruined his street cred for life.
Back to the Song for Europe. By the end of Thursday's show, with Wogan poised for departure, his audience was braced. We had been taught the Norwegian for "I'm very much looking forward to the Slovakian entry"; we'd been assured that, bad as our song was, others would be much worse; and we knew that the whole contest was to be played in order to win back the ashes of Katie Boyle.
Alas, poor Katie. But no, the doyenne of "Norvege, nul points", who hosted us through childhood, is alive and well, more glamorous than ever and ready to defend the Eurothon to the World, or at least to the World Service. John Peel presented 40 Years of Eurovision (WS), an enjoyable history of the songfest. Like Wogan, Peel revels in its gauche innocence. He dug up some great old ditties, including the one that beat Cliff Richard and contained 138 repetitions of the word "la". To win the contest, he discovered you'd do best to field a girl singing a soppy love song: to lose convincingly, you'd never beat a team of boys singing "The Beatles gave us all their songs. Yesterday's a lovely one. Like all the others they have done. Yeah yeah yeah." Oh yeah. As Peel said, that bunch deserved a term of imprisonment. It was unnerving to learn that there is a flourishing fan-club whose members spend country weekends watching videos of past contests and awarding points for each song. Dear God, I'd rather eat stewed slugs.
Eric Robinson was for some years the resident Eurovision conductor. He and his more highbrow brother Stamford (did the parents guess at the potential height of their brows before christening them?) were the subject of The Robinsons at the BBC (R2). It looked to be a pretty dull hour, but it wasn't, partly because it offered a chance to read between the lines intoned by a respectful Ian Wallace. The unspoken, unavoidable fact was that those two conductors were insufferably conceited. Eric appeared to be burly and genial but he made people cringe at his unwelcome chumminess with the likes of Menuhin and Tito Gobbi; the tape of him getting his come- uppance from Jack Benny was wickedly funny. Stamford, suffering from the same condition, simply bossed everyone about. That damning expression was used of him, that he (unlike Terry Wogan) "didn't suffer fools gladly".
There were some glorious old recordings, particularly of the soprano Gwen Catley, but even she remembered that the haughty Stamford had made faltering performers cry with his sarcasm. It is a horrible thing to do. Another offender was the doughty and humourless Clara Schumann, High Priestess of the Keyboard (R3), who died 100 years ago. Her pupils, recorded in old age, remembered how she would fidget while they played until they ground to a halt. One recalled an English student composing ribald verses about her, rhyming Brahms with potted palms, but, alas, not giving the full text. Yet she performed for decades to support her family and to keep alive the music of her beloved husband, and she passed her technique on to these old ladies. To hear their restrained, flawless performances was to relive the music-making of the early l9th century, a strangely moving thought.
If Robert Schumann cast a long shadow over Clara's life, it was as nothing compared with the effect Picasso could have. Every evening this week, fine actresses have performed powerful monologues in the characters of some of Picasso's Women (R3). Brian McAvera's intention was to allow these much-reviled consorts to defend themselves. Sadly, as each of them berated the "libidinous dwarf", all we could do was to marvel at their tragic gullibility, and at their voluntary martyrdom on the altar of fame. Poor fools. Not one of them had the sense to cut and run.
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