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Ireland and the Eurovision

David Blake Knox
New Island Books



When I mentioned to some friends that I was writing a book about the Eurovision Song Contest, it produced a range of reactions. One of them asked me if I were writing an autobiography. Another asked why I was wasting my time with such rubbish.

This book is certainly not intended as an autobiography. However, it does concern a number of events in which I was closely involved, and it features a number of individuals who became my colleagues and friends, in part, as a result of that involvement. To begin with, I became connected with the Eurovision on a purely professional basis, but, over a period of years, I grew more engaged with the contest on a personal level, and that is reflected in this book.

For many years, both amateur and professional critics have enjoyed lamenting the banal melodies, the trite sentiments, the cliched lyrics, and the vulgar displays of this song contest. According to Marcus Berkmann, writing in the Spectator magazine, the contest is an annual event that is unredeemed by 'style, flair, intelligence, wit or even the sniff of a good tune.' I don't believe that is a fair or an accurate assessment. But even if it were, it would not explain the persistent appeal of the Eurovision to many millions of viewers around the world. If it is not the songs that draw such large audiences, it must be something else. I hope this book will help to provide some explanation for its success, and its longevity.

I was fortunate to be supervised at university by the novelist and critic, Raymond Williams. He taught me that culture has a wider and more popular dimension than traditional concepts allowed. By any standard, the song contest is an extraordinary phenomenon in popular culture: it is, after all, not only the biggest, but also the most enduring live entertainment show in the world. It has been written off many times, but still manages to bounce back — bigger and bolder than ever.

In the past decade, it has begun to be taken more seriously. The contest has attracted the attention of academic analysts, and there has been a host of papers published in scholarly journals that have explored such issues as the 'Conundrum of Post-Socialist Belonging', 'The Return to Ethnicity', and 'Switzerland's Identity Struggle' — all in the context of the Eurovision contest. This book is not written from an academic perspective, but I hope that I have also taken the event seriously - though not excessively so - and have treated the performers with the respect they deserve.

The rules of the contest have changed a great deal over the years, but the fundamental elements have remained much the same. The music that introduces the event is still the Prelude to Marc-Antoine Charpentier's "7e Deutn . There is always a presenter, or presenters, to introduce the Grand Final. One song still represents each of the competing countries. After they have all been performed, there is some sort of entertainment - usually referred to as the 'interval act'. There is still a vote to determine the winning song, and there is still no prize for the winning act. The winner of America's Got Talent pockets a million bucks, but coming first in the Eurovision is deemed to be reward enough. Although it is not obligatory, the winning country is always invited to host the following year's contest.

New technology has been introduced over the years — but, sometimes, it has been viewed as counter-productive. I remember in 1992, when I was serving on the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) Entertainment Committee, we struggled with the problem of how to integrate the large number of new Eastern European entries with a contest that was not supposed to last more than three hours. The Swiss delegate pointed out that it took almost one hour of television airtime to record the votes of every national jury. He suggested that - thanks to modern technology -we could announce the result within a few minutes of the vote ending, creating space for other countries to perform. His proposal foundered when he was reminded that the viewing figures for the last hour of voting were invariably much higher than the preceding two hours of the actual performances.