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Lack of vulgarity turns off Italians

ITALY'S annual exercise in shameless kitsch is in big trouble. The San Remo music festival, a homespun variant on the Eurovision Song Contest but without the breadth of talent, always used to puzzle foreigners because its parade of platitudes and artificial glitter glued tens of millions of viewers to their television screens for an entire week.

This year, though, audience figures have hovered somewhere around the 11 million mark - not exactly a bad showing, but nothing compared to the 18 or 20 million who have faithfully tuned in, in years past. By the standards of Italian television, the drop is little short of a social revolution.

What has happened? Have viewers finally sickened of ageing music hall acts crooning endlessly about full moons, the wistful passing of time and the immortality of love? Has the country grown tired of the traditional rivalry between the two beautiful female presenters who are obliged to flirt with the ugly male one?

The reverse seems to be true. "The festival is losing viewers because it is not disgusting enough," speculates the cultural critic Curzio Maltese. "It is not sufficiently vulgar and violent to satisfy an audience corrupted by years of gameshows, perverted sentiments and cynicism." In other words, in the lurid modern world of Silvio Berlusconi's television empire - all bulging breast implants and straight-to-camera humiliations - San Remo, which goes out on the RAI state broadcasting service, has simply become too twee.

For many years, the old-fashioned flavour was part of the appeal, a throwback to the innocent days of 1950s beach holidays and good Catholic family values. But clearly audiences will no longer accept the likes of Umberto Bindi, who looks like Yasser Arafat in a ponytail and sings his sub-airport lounge material in a voice like rancid treacle. "Everyone lies in the bed that they deserve," was the refrain of his eminently forgettable song.

The festival's master of ceremonies, Pippo Baudo, has blamed his bad week squarely on Berlusconi's private channels. "We're under constant ambush," he complained. "They'd like to see me in my underpants, or completely naked, or even dead."

That is certainly the career path taken by many of his erstwhile co-presenters. The voluptuous model Cannelle went on to be hypnotised live on television and induced to take off all her clothes. One of last year's belles, Anna Falchi, was recently reduced to tears on the Italian equivalent of Beadle's About when the programme makers made her believe she was responsible for wrecking a friend's new Ferrari.

This year, by contrast, San Remo has shown worrying signs of political correctness. One song spoke frankly about homosexuality for the first time in the history of the festival and two singers, previously shunned because of their sexual orientation, were given a warm welcome. Moreover, the proceedings were kicked off with a guest appearance by Bruce Springsteen, no less, who lent an unaccustomed touch of class with a performance of the title track of his new album The Ghost of Tom Joad.

Only the opening credits really got into the kitschy spirit with any enthusiasm. "If you want to sing then sing, because San Remo is the thing," went the jingle. Now that's more like it.