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Double whammy Grammy  
Award-winning songwriter Diane Warren joins Andrew to write our song and Damien leaves the show
Damien, Your Country Needs You finalist

I know this year’s Eurovision experience is all about change, looking forward and forgetting the so-called decade of shame since we last won. But I was transported back to Eurovision days of yore when I walked into the Your Country Needs You studio on Saturday night.

Oh joy, a live band, and everyone was –  sorry, Prince – partying like it was 1998 –  the last time a live orchestra was seen on the Eurovision stage, in Birmingham in fact. It’s all backing tracks these days.

It brought to mind all those conductors who took to the podium for their country, some catching the eye with a snazzy jacket or jaunty tie, or sporting a pony tail.

There was  the UK’s Ronnie Hazlehurst conducting  Rock Bottom in 1977 with a rolled-up brolly and wearing  a bowler. And  in 1974 there was the dressed-up Swede who conducted Abba’s Waterloo. “Oh it’s Napoleon!” exclaimed the commentator, showing  a remarkable grasp of history, having assured us at the top of the show that our host for the evening at the Brighton Dome was George IV!

More memories – this time of Top of the Pops – were evoked on Saturday by the expectant audience standing around the sparkly red, white and blue stage with its rippling slo-mo Union Jack at the rear. Suitably, Andrew entered to Rule Britannia, giving us a shy, regal wave. So far so uplifting.

But what did we hear from our Lord through the programme as he faced the six acts he has chosen.” I’m genuinely scared… It’s keeping me awake at nights…..It’s poleaxingly worrying…..” Has ALW suddenly realised what he’s taking on, writing a world-class song in record time, or is he  just upping the dramatic tension?

Confidence was certainly buoyed by the news that the songwriter for the UK entry will be multi-Grammy winner Diane Warren, who penned such stunners as LeAnn Rimes’s How Will I Live, Toni Braxton’s Unbreak My Heart and The Sugababes’ Too Lost In You.  And before someone points out that amid all this Union Jackery she is actually American, last year’s Russian winner was produced by Timbaland, so if the Russkis can snag a bit of US musical know-how, so can we.

Any fears that we might end up with the vocal equivalent of John Sergeant in Moscow this May were soon banished as the acts faced Euro advisors Andrew, Strictly’s Arlene Phillips and 1969 Eurovision winner Lulu.

Of Emperors of Soul’s version of Love Train, Andrew praised their individual singing and remarked: “I’ve never seen anything quite like this on Eurovision. I’m not sure if that’s a good  thing or a bad thing to say.” “They can deliver the whole package,” added Arlene , who knows about these things.

Twins Nicola and Francine, with James Taylor’s You Got a Friend, were praised for their warmth and  humour. “I  wouldn’t be surprised if the British public fell in love with you but will  the rest of Europe?” mused Andrew. “Not the strongest of voices,” said  Arlene.

Jade, who, thrillingly for Euro fans, looked like last year’s Ukrainian runner-up, the fabulous Ani Lorak (she wuz robbed),   was described as remarkable by two judges after singing Deja Vu. “Most of the people on this show are great but you are exceptional,” enthused Lulu. “You are the new Beyonce,” said Arlene.

Wales, of course, is voting for Mark, who is clearly a Prince Charming on and off stage and a shoo-in for the girly vote. His  rendition of Will Young’s Your Game was praised as charismatic by Andrew, while Lulu said he gave his all and would have no problems on the big night.

But the two acts  left in the danger zone by the voting public were the youngest, 17-year-old Charlotte, who overcame crippling nerves to, as Lulu put it, pull a performance out of the bag, and the oldest, 36-year-old Michael Bolton soundalike Damien. A safe pair of hands remarked the panel but this was a contest to launch a new career as well as represent the UK, said Andrew.

And that, ultimately, marked the exit for Damien as Charlotte was saved to sing another day.

For the remaining five acts the hard work is just beginning, and having seen one Eurotask, where they were required to sing at the O2 arena in preparation for the Olympic Stadium in Moscow, I look forward to more such trials. Like testing out their ability to handle Velcro in the manner of Bucks Fizz or learning the goofy Brotherhood of Man dance.

Bring it on, I say.

Mark Cook (watching Eurovision since 1967)

Mark Cook is a journalist and theatre critic for the Guardian Guide and The Big Issue

Posted on: 12th January 2009

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