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Eurovision: The first semi-final  
Mark Cook is in Moscow for Eurovision week. Read Mark's report on the first semi-final, which decides which countries will be competing on Saturday.
Romania at Eurovision 2009

So we’ve had out first taste of the Moscow Eurovision experience – a blini or borscht appetiser to whet our appetites for the main course of Saturday’s final.

And so far it’s all looking good for the UK’s Jade, in terms of the performances thusfar, and, more crucially, where the 10 qualifiers from Tuesday’s semi-final have been placed in Saturday’s running order.

Jade will be singing 23rd out of 25 entries (while it’s good to be towards the end of the running order, you don’t want to be Spain in 25th because people are already going out to make the tea). And the all-important position of 24 has been taken by Finland, with a technopop number from the Nineties that failed to deliver on stage and was lucky to qualify on Tuesday.

Just before Jade comes Romania with “The Balkan Girls”, a generic pop number that got to the final merely by virtue of having the singers dressed in  contrasting colours to the hard-working backdrop.

This simple task, some countries, strangely, seemed unable to manage. Why were the snappy Armenian sisters with their infectious pop in dark clothes against a dark background, and Sweden’s blonde operatic diva Malena Ernman bleached out against a white background for most of her BA theme meets Hooked on Classics number “La Voix?”

The stage is the big star of this contest, with its shifting panels and broad panorama conjuring up a myriad colours and fantastic images. Some countries, though, are being dwarfed by the pyrotechnics.

Poor Andorra, who have yet to qualify for a final, had no chance with a pleasant mid-tempo number against a distractingly strident acid-colour backdrop. That said, Portugal’s entry was a dazzling array of rainbow colours perfectly complementing the gentle, sweet-sounding entry. The lead singer was reduced to tears at the end of her performance. Bless. And the panorama for Switzerland’s New Order/U2 indie pop number was stunning, going from cityscape to a revolving planet. Shame it couldn’t lift the Swiss into the final. Poor old Switzerland.

There were some low points that you couldn’t blame on the scenery: people on stilts, chain mail, and Czech Republic’s Mr Muscle (as in the cleaning products ad) in a red superhero outfit. Belarus’s rock entry featured a lot of hair and a woman struggling against a huge sheet in a high wind.

The ‘postcards’ shown between the songs were fun and funky, with many images of the current Russian Miss World, the face of the contest. But why do Eurovison comperes have to shout so much in trying to convince us that they’re we’re all having a REALLY GOOD TIME! This year the announcement of the ten qualifiers was done by the presenters with “virtual” animated envelopes on screen rather than the real thing.

The BBC3 coverage was fun, though I wished Paddy O’Connell had done some research to pronounce correctly the Russian words that flashed up between each song. To cover the ad breaks, Sarah Cawood enthusiastically interviewed participants backstage, even giving Greek hunk Sakis Rouvas a plate of fairy cakes. Nice touch.

Highlights of the night were Malta’s Chiara making her third bid for Eurovision glory and Icleand’s haunting ballad, though singer Yohanna’s frilly dress made her look like a bit like a loo-roll cover. The much-vaunted Bosnian entry, another moody Balkan ballad very reminiscent of its entry three years ago, was, for me, a bit of a let-down despite the beautiful visuals. Think Les Mis done in cream.

So more of the same on Thursday night, and a probably stronger semi-final. Watch out for Ukraine, whose frantic staging brings to mind the words kitchen sink, and the hot favourite Norway and its crucial placing in the final. Top half please!

One down and two more shows to go. It’s tough for the hosts these days to come up with three TV spectaculars. I just hope they don’t begin Saturday night’s final, as they did on Tuesday, with what seemed like a rather boring episode of Jackanory.

Mark Cook (watching Eurovision since 1967)

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

Posted on: 14th May 2009

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