There’s an old song in the Stephen Sondheim/Jule Styne musical Gypsy called “You Gotta Get a Gimmick”. It could be the mantra or motto for Eurovision.
Over the years we have seen the weird and not so wonderful come to the stage in a bid to stand out among the musical crowd – and these days there are even more nations – 43 this year – slugging it out for attention. Last year saw Russian winner Dima Bilan perform as Olympic gold medallist skater Evgeny Plushenko twirled around him on a tiny patch of ‘ice’. I have already suggested that we might get cyclist Sir Chris Hoy to do a few laps around the UK entry this year.
But it was ever thus and even the UK has been responsible for a few memorable moments in the Eurovision annals, one of the most iconic being Bucks Fizz’s tribute to Velcro with “Making Your Mind Up in 1981”. And who could forget the dance that accompanied Brotherhood of Man’s “Save Your Kisses for Me” in 1976?
Others you may, or may not, remember: the Swedish entry in 2000 with Native Indians stomping around the stage in a haze of smoke (hosts Sweden were clearly trying NOT to win the contest two years in a row). With more of a lifestyle statement than a gimmick, Israel’s Dana International made a stand for transsexuals when she won in 1998; the same year, Germany’s Gildo Horn, a grinch in green velvet, made the Hunchback of Notre Dama look attractive as he clambered all over the set in Birmingham.
There have been been giant penguins, spot welding, PVC and fishnet, gold boots… the attempts to persuade us to vote have been many and surreal.
A few years back there was certainly a trend for the big stage number: witness Ukraine’s “Wild Dances”, a riot of whips and leather led by Warrior Princess Ruslana and some long-haired chaps whose stomping actually broke the stage. But that same year a 16-year-old British girl called Lisa Andreas represented Cyprus with a simple classy ballad. Looking like a young Barbra Streisand, she stood alone, bathed in light, to mesmerising effect.
Ok, so Ruslana romped to victory and Cyprus came 5th but the past couple of years have seen the rise of the ballad again. With entries throwing everything but the kitchen sink at the stage (and I think Switzerland actually used that and other implements in 1979), it is sometimes better to go for less is more. With “My Time”, the UK entry written by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Diane Warren, at last we have a classy song; it’s time to forget the cheesefest of Eurovisions past and send a class act.
And so to this week’s TV show. Is it me or is Andrew’s entrance getting bigger? First a shy regal wave to Rule Britannia, then he was flanked by two spangly lovelies reminiscent of Gina G in her groin-length sequin number. And on Saturday there were four young ladies decked out in red, white and blue.
This was the crunch week, the semi-final, the so-near-and-yet-so-far show that no one wanted to leave. Over the past three weeks we have become familiar with the acts’ strengths and weaknesses, and on Saturday all sought to show another side to their talents.
In this, Mark probably succeeded the most. With Justin Timberlake’s “Rock My Body”, a more stubbled, laid-back Welshman ditched his musical theatre veneer in favour of something more contemporary. After his performance of Rod Stewart’s “I Don’t Want To Talk About It”, Andrew said it was clear Mark had finished playing panto – he connected with the audience and gave his best performance so far.
Birthday girl Jade performed Celine Dion’s “All By Myself” and Aretha Franklin’s “Think”. “Truly extraordinary” was Andrew’s comment and Emma Bunton agreed that Jade was brilliant and exciting.
With the Emperors of Soul – singing Take That’s Patience and Billy Joel’s “Uptown Girl” – the panel again raised questions about the group’s suitability for Eurovision. “But I have no doubt about your talent or your future,* said Andrew.
Finally, twins Francine and Nicola gave us The Everly Brothers’ “All I Want to Do is Dream” and “About You Now” by the Sugababes, after yet more tears. “It’s the Eurovision Sob Contest,” joked Andrew. “There is something very special and unusual when they sing together in harmony,” he added. “It wouldn’t surprise me if Britain fell in love with them – but will the rest of Europe?”
It was a shock when Jade was put into the danger zone alongside Emperors of Soul but no surprise that Andrew saved her, and we are set for a nail-biting final on Saturday. It’s now make-or-break time for the UK reputation at Eurovision. We have a top-notch song – but will the voting public pick the right act to perform it?
Mark Cook (watching Eurovision since 1967)
Mark Cook is a journalist and theatre critic for the Guardian Guide and The Big Issue
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