Friday, 25 April 2014

The Strange History of The Eurovision - War, Revolution, Terrorism and Vladimir Putin

Dana - The Pride of Derry

* The Eurovision! The annual music competition where Europe gets to work out its ancient ethnic and political conflicts via the medium of terrifying pop songs - has always fallen on our around my birthday. And I love it, with a strange and occasionally horrified fascination.

Like a lot of Irish people, I have a complicated relationship with Europe (and Israel's) annual Festival Du Fromage. Ireland has a long a proud history of Eurovision wins. It has gotten us through some very tough times. We're all secretly kinda proud of Johnny Logan, Linda Martin and our other brave warriors in white, gold, silver and occasionally, what looks like tin-foil. 

It also gave us Riverdance. I was there in the Point Theatre in Dublin on the night that was unleashed on an unsuspecting world. 

And it was breath-taking (Irish dancing could be sexy? Who knew?) 

Sadly, one of the unforeseen consequences of the break-up of the Soviet Union was the ending of Ireland's Eurovision dominance - how could we hope to appeal to Eastern European Voters and compete against crack squads of ruthless Balkan Turbo-Folk Amazons? We couldn't. We will never win again.  

I play a game every year when I predict who will vote what for whom. It's not hard. Watch Greece, Cyprus & Turkey stick the boot into each other. Or Macedonia and Greece. The British (Gawd bless 'em!) always give Ireland a big vote, we always give them a derisory Une Point. 'Cos giving them nothing would look like we forgot to give them a dig. One point does the job better.

So as this year's Eurovision is about to delight, enthrall and baffle us once again (ice-dancing on stage? Giant Slavic warriors carrying around Moldovan songstresses? Has anybody checked the sell-by date on this Value-Brand Vodka?) I want to take a look at the long and bizarre history of politics and the Eurovision.... 

This man got us through TWO recessions - Beat That, Singing Nun!

War, revolution, terrorist threats, fascist dictatorships and transgender pop stars warbling about the Israeli-Palestine conflict....

Don't tell Johnny Logan, but when it comes to the annual cheese-fest that is the Eurovision, the real drama is often happening off-stage and occasionally involves scary men with guns.

The Eurovision has been used to signal the start of a revolution (in Portugal) and help academics gauge the effects of ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia (seriously, a study in the early noughties used eurovision voting patterns - which had always divided along ethnic/political lines in the Balkans, to track population movement).

It has been targeted by terrorist groups including the Red Army Faction and Black September and boycotted by the Greeks, the Turks, Georgia, Italy, half of the Balkans and all of the Arab-speaking world. Except for the Moroccans, who took part in 1980 (possibly by mistake).

Billed as a festival of culture that brings Europe together - the Eurovision has in reality spent the past five decades highlighting ancient feuds and ongoing political tensions. Orwell said sport was "war minus the shooting". He could have been talking about Eurovision.

Orwell - Bucks Fizz Fan

The voting almost always mirrors ethnic, regional and ideological divides and alliances.

Four years ago, the contest in Moscow was marred after Vladimir Putin decided to send the tanks in against a small, troublesome neighbour (it's the same old song?) 

The Georgians, still angry after the previous year's conflict with Russia in South Ossetia, had planned to fight back via the medium of song in Vladimir Putin's own backyard.

They selected a catchy little number titled We Don't Wanna Put In (PUT IN - PUTIN! GEDDIT?) by Stephane and 3G and awaited their chance to strike back at their giant neighbour in front of the world.

However, song contest chiefs, nervous about yet another political row overshadowing their annual festival du kitsch, hastily ruled that the song had "a clear political meaning" and told the Georgians to go for a tune that would not enrage their hosts.

The Georgians withdrew altogether, claiming the Russians had pressured the European Broadcasting Union.

And they went back to their bunker to plan their next move, which could possibly involve entering a rude puppet show into Russia's Got Talent.

Boom Bang A Bang 

For seasoned observers of the Eurovision, the row was a return to the good old days when the annual contest was not so much about music as political conflict.

Just ask the grand old man of Eurovision himself, Terry Wogan.

The Limerick man, who several years ago wearily handed the BBC commentary mike to (the brilliant) Graham Norton, has less than fond memories of Luxembourg in 1973.

Tension was running high after a series of terrorist attacks by groups like Black September as Terry arrived into town. 

"I remember being in Luxembourg when Black September were at their worst," he later recalled.

"We made our entrance into the hall past armoured cars, machine gun nests and fellows holding Kalashnikovs.

"Then, just before the performance, the floor manager got up and said to the audience: 'When your national song is played, do not stand up to applaud, otherwise you may be shot.'

"That put a bit of a dampener on the atmosphere."

The ultimate nightmare for music fans like Terry, having to endure a Eurovision at gunpoint.

However, trigger-happy Luxembourgians apart, there have been other, no less dramatic Eurovision moments, including:

* Brighton 1974 - The Revolution Will Be Televised .

                                              This Song Brought Down a Fascist Dictatorship

Portugal's entry "E depois do adeus" was used as one of the two signals to launch the Carnation Revolution against the sixty-year fascist dictatorship established by Antonio  Salazar (Old Sally had died four years previously).

The very first performance of the song on national radio was the signal alerting the rebel captains and soldiers at home to begin the coup and the tanks of the left-wing military junta to move in.

Eurovision historian John Kennedy O'Connor describes it as "the only Eurovision entry to have actually started a revolution".

ABBA won with the appropriately militaristic Waterloo.

Meanwhile! Italy refused to broadcast the televised contest on state television channel RAI as their entry coincided with the intense political campaigning for the 1974 Italian referendum on divorce .

RAI censors felt the song which was titled "Sì", and which contained lyrics constantly repeating the word "SI" could be accused of being a subliminal message and a form of propaganda to influence the Italian voting public to vote "YES" in the referendum.

The song remained censored on most Italian state TV and radio stations for over a month and the move to allow legal separation was defeated . 

Those Are Some Seriously Tighty Whiteys 

* Madrid 1968 - Cliff Richard Vs Generalissimo Francisco Franco

In May 2008, a documentary by the Spanish film-maker Montse Fernandez Vila alleged  the 1968 Eurovision Song Contest was rigged by the Spanish dictator Francisco Franco.

Franco was said to have contacted state television officials across Europe offering cash and promising to buy television series in return for votes for the Spanish entry.

The documentary claimed that the contest should in fact have been won by the United Kingdom's entry "Congratulations" performed by Cliff Richard, which came second by 1 vote.

Spain won with the seminal "La, La, La" but Cliff would have the last laugh, Franco died in 1975, some say broken by his failure to record a Christmas Number 1.

* Stockholm 1975 - Portugal Goes Boom Bang a Bang 

The Portuguese entry "Madrugada" was an unabashed celebration of the Carnation Revolution - started the year before by their 1974 entry.

According to author and historian John Kennedy O'Connor in his seminal book The Eurovision Song Contest - The Official History, the Portuguese performer had to be dissuaded from wearing his Portuguese army uniform and brandishing a gun onto the stage.

You can't blame the organisers for being a little gun-shy - intelligence reports had warned of a possible terrorist attack by the Red Army Faction.

The RAF didn't hit the Eurovision, they instead targeted the West German embassy in Stockholm a month later.

In other Euovision/Armed Conflict developments, the Greeks withdrew from this contest in response to the 1974 Turkish invasion of Cyprus.

The Greek Jury Prepare to Vote for Turkey

* Stockholm, 2000 - Syrians Give Nul Points to Gay Snog Of Peace

The Israel entry opened the contest with their dancers waving Syrian and Israeli flags advocating peace between the two nations.

It was going well until the two male singers in the group decided on a brief but passionate kiss, sending blood pressure levels through the roof in Syria.

Cue yet another Eurovision-related international incident and death threats issued against the Israeli band who had decided on snogging for peace.

Gay Snogging? NUL POINTS! 

* 2002 - Sweden and Belgian Commentators Stand Up for Palestine.

The Israeli entry was hit by blowback from that year's invasion of the West Bank by the Israeli Defence Forces.

Controversy erupted during the competition over remarks by commentators on Swedish and Belgian TV, both of whom told the audience not to vote for the Israeli singer Sarit Hadad.

Hadad received zero points from the Swedish audience but earned two from the Belgians, finishing 12th overall.

And peace in the middle East continues to elude us.

***** So there you have it. Hopefully this year will go off without too much politics -but with tensions running high in the Ukraine - you wouldn't bet against it. 


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