The ways the Eurovision Song Contest has been staged over the years tell us so much more than who had the most popular song.
As we look back over six decades we can tally up the fashion changes, the development of TV production and performance techniques, not to mention a bit of euro-politics for good measure.
We can also see how the wonderment of being able to link up countries was replaced by the desire of countries to show off to each other. It was a great substitute for fighting with guns, which had been a popular pastime in Europe for quite a while.
Let us wander through the archives and gaze lovingly at contests of yore.
ESC #2 was in Frankfurt in 1957. It looks like a combination of an RSL variety show on a wet Tuesday and a World War II movie about gallant lads about to fight the savage foe while their girls wait for them. But be patient with this compilation, the technical wizardry at the end with the voting is worth the wait! It’s cutting edge … for 1957. Yesterday’s phone operator is today’s Blackberry thumber.
By 1964 and Copenhagen the ESC had shaken off its humble beginnings. The Danes won in 63 with the sophisticated and haunting Dansevise and didn’t disappoint with its staging of the event the following year. The opening “Te Deum” segueways into a dramatic and effective opening. Host broadcaster DR is making a big statement – “we may be a little country, but we sure can put on a show!”. It’s a sure sign that the ESC was now one of THE events of the television year. And the Italian winner is a classic ESC ballad.
By the late 1960s colour television was spreading across Europe. In 1968 the BBC staged the ESC at the Royal Albert Hall, home of the classical “Promenade Concerts” and the odd professional boxing bout. A big venue to make a big (and colourful) splash. The mini skirted Spanish winner Massiel gave a feeling that the contest was right at the heart of the swinging sixties. It was a shame she was representing what was then a totalitarian country. As for the production values, note the small number of shot changes. The performer was the centre of attention, not the vision switcher! TV was thirty off years old in the UK, but still owed much of its look to the variety theatre.
By 1973 colour was well established and most European homes had got rid of their black & white set. That’s probably why dress sense went out of the window. Make a visual statement and that might win votes. The clip needs no comment on that score!! What is worth a mention is the triple decker orchestra! This was as bold and brassy decision by host country Luxembourg. A humongous orchestra stretched up to the rafters of the Nouveau Theatre. And in front of the band, the performers still ruled the roost in terms of what we saw on screen. The direction is simple leaving it all up to those on stage. A classic ESC which, as a 14 year old, made a huge impression on me!
To 1979 and Israel. Suddenly the venue was taking on the same importance as what was happening on stage. Previous shows had taken place in conventional theatres and concert halls as well as TV studios, this one was at a convention centre…and it looks like it. You almost expect a Powerpoint presentation on pyramid selling to pop up at any moment. The other notable development comes before the song. The “postcard” introduction used the latest techniques and some very old stereotypes. This is the beginning of the “event” overwhelming the concept. The cutesy down home music contest of the 1950s was becoming an entertainment SuperBowl!
To 1983 and the whole thing was looking like a Hollywood epic. An added bonus in this clip is the voice of Terry Wogan in the BBC commentary box. He is still finding his feet and style, but his cheekiness is not far away. Note his welcome to Australian viewers watching thanks to the marvel of the age…the satellite. As for the mass entrance of performers, this was an era when European unity was all the rage. Standing together in song … brings a tear to the eye.
By 1990 everything was a bit more frenetic. Cameras swooped, floors lit up, video screens flashed. The performers even moved around a bit !! The Yugoslav TV types were showing off every last bit of wizz-bangery that they could get their hands on. As for the orchestra, the Luxembourg multi-storey bandstand was a distant memory. The live musicians were left in the half-light, they would soon be gone for good.
Just a few years later, and the Irish broadcaster RTE gave big a whole new meaning. It was almost hysterical. The Point Theatre in Dublin made a very significant point. Ireland was more than capable of staging its third ESC in a row and yaa boo sucks to anyone (especially the BBC) who reckons it can’t. And there was even a bit of politics in the intro. The Dutch commentator completely loses it at about 3.30 into the clip and sends up the presenter. This is a sure sign that the contest is now a venerable institution that can (and should) be ridiculed.
To the new century and Sweden. The Ericsson Globe in Stockholm trumped the Point and then some. It could hold 16,000 spectators. Putting on the show had moved from being a proud little flag waving exercise for the host broadcaster and had turned into the equivalent of a full frontal military assault with a glitter ball attached. The backstage camera invaded the green room, while there were so many cameras around the stage it was hard to know quite what to focus on. The set ? The direction ? The outfits ? The size of the hall ? The technology ? Somewhere or other the songs managed to grab some attention, but it was a battle to be sure.
And last year it was Moscow. Moscow ! In 1956, when the ESC started, Moscow was the heart of an evil empire threatening Europe with nuclear destruction. In the intervening years communism had stood no chance against the lethal musical weapon of Eurovsision ! This production is breathtaking. Everything is supersized with extra fries on steroids. Not a moment is allowed to drag. Cameras twirl as well as singers and dancers. There are even fireworks. It’s as if the National Rugby League had taken the whole thing over. Can it get any bigger or bolder…of course it can!
Eurovision never stays still. It can’t afford to. Amazingly, the music still tends to win out. Mega venues, pyrotechnics, camera gymnastics, awful costumes and dodgy hair can’t stifle the heart of the competition.
It’s still the songs that matter.