Saturday, 16 May 2009

The torment of Terry

There is a strange fever in the air, and I'm not talking about swine flu. It is, as any wrong-thinking individual knows, the day of Eurovision, the original, and still the most absurd, televised talent contest. In its way, Eurovision is quite like alcohol, probably something quite strong, with a tendency to make you wake up in a ditch feeling like spent the previous night headbutting a statue of Clint Eastwood. Like alcohol, you should only partake of Eurovision in moderation, you should never, ever do it alone, and there's a reasonable chance of forgetting most of it by the morning after.

However, this morning I've been pondering last year's, which I actually ended up watching (not alone, not sober, and not in moderation, thankfully). Despite sitting through approximately a month of reprehensible cheese and a voting process that makes Zimbabwe look fair, Iraq look stable and America seem calm and restrained, I missed the important part: Terry Wogan's existential crisis.

The wailing and gnashing of teeth that accompanied the loss of the Wogan was drowned out only by the cavalcade of despair that broke out when people discovered that Graham Norton would be taking his place. This is the equivalent of declaring that the next Doctor Who will be Justin Lee Collins, armed with a selection of priapic jokes about his sonic screwdriver. The advent of a Woganless Eurovision should be a time of national mourning, like the death of a monarch. If dearest Bessie shuffled off, taking her hat collection with her, you wouldn't chuck the crown to Davina Mccall and open a telephone vote to decide the next Prince of Wales.

Apparently our Terry's departure was spurred by the realisation that Eurovision isn't about the music. Considering that he started presenting when we were still trying to coax the last few beasties out of the Ark, this is possibly the slowest dawning of understanding since the final episode of Roadrunner, in which, after forty years of failure, Wile E Coyote recognises that he'll never catch his prey, and sits in a darkened room sobbing for eight minutes. Even for a generation weaned on the vicious and victorious bullying of Morph, the gender repression of Mr Ben, the inexplicable chaos of the Clangers and the Lovecraftian horror of Fingermouse* this was deemed too harrowing, and the episode was never shown.

The wisdom of Wogan is, obviously, the truth – of course it isn't about the music. Even if each nation is voting according to the kind of song closest to its own national traditions of music, that means that most countries in Europe seem to have cultural traditions with a strong resemblance to cheesy pop circa 1995.

It's oft-muttered that it's all about politics, but I don't quite see how. I don't think anybody's out there scoring countries according to the order in which they acceded to the euro, or marking penalty points for countries that clearly aren't in Europe. To be fair, one of those is Israel, and I don't think they'd do terribly well in Middle-Eastovision. I just can't imagine any government discussing aid and trade and all that jazz, and having one of those everyday conversations that go:

'Fourteen million euro and the cabbage concession to Albania?'
'What? Are you mad? They gave us nil point. Fund Estonia instead – at least they had the decency to support us when it really mattered – Eurovision.'

So I don't believe it's politics either. I can't imagine anyone taking it seriously enough to get all political. People get angry about politics. They assemble posters, speeches and expense accounts. Doing that for Eurovision isn't democratic involvement – it's time for a trip to the asylum on the hill with the gothic towers and constant lightning. Perhaps that's why so many of the national presenters wear naff white coats?

But if not music or politics, what remains? Well, I reckon there's a very good reason that Eurovision's on the television rather than the radio: it's all about spectacle. Like Cirque du Soleil, but cheaper, and camper (which, incidentally, is the same relationship Graham Norton bears to Terry Wogan). As evidence for this, I've contemplated how much of last year I can remember:

- The Latvian pirates. This was so wilfully and fabulously absurd that I actually remember the country responsible. In fact, I'd even go so far as to say I remembered the chorus. I think they said 'yo ho' at some point.**

- The loopy one with the washing line, the guy with the wild, staring eyes (who round here would be arrested if he so much looked at somebody's washing, let alone sang a song about it) and the girl in the weird gravity-defying skirt that probably took a team of expert aerospace engineers three months to design. It looked like somebody had opened a golf umbrella, shoved her through it and then drenched the results in glitter. They were like Goldfrapp if they'd been brought up eating special mushrooms on a collectivised farm and never been told about sex.

- The one with the afro angels and the creepy greasy fellow who poured blood over one of his dancers. This was memorable chiefly because it was actually quite disturbing. I think it was an allegory of the growth of capitalist enterprise in ex-Soviet nations, but all I'm sure of was that it occupied the little-travelled space between Meatloaf and John Milton, with sillier costumes.

I don't think any of these won, or even did particularly well, but I think they truly summed up the spirit of the competition: really, really confusing people.


* This one may just have been me. Apparently it left me traumatised. But face it: it was a scary bearded man with a creepy voice and murderer's gloves, and one of his fingers was a mouse's head with ears like satellite dishes. What was there not to be afraid of?

** There has since been a genuine reputable piece of music with this chorus. Check out Alela Diane's 'The Pirate's Gospel'. It's actually brilliant, despite the bewilderingly moody video at

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