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Exclusive! Journalist Mark Cook on Your Country Needs You
Mark Cook

I‘ve been mildly obsessed with the Eurovision Song Contest since I was 10 years old.

It was 1967 when, on a grainy black and white TV set, I watched Sandie Shaw tiptoeing to barefoot victory with Puppet on a String. Since then I‘ve only missed one Eurovision – Brotherhood of Man winning in 1976 with Save All Your Kisses for Me, dammit.

As a child I even used to make my family hold up scorecards for the voting. One year I watched it it all alone on a portable TV in my student room in Leeds (another year in the uni TV room). By 1988 I was hosting my own Eurovision parties, with guests bring themed food and drink for each country. I always ended up with a lot of rollmops and large bendy sausages I didn‘t need.

Then in 2002 I actually went to the contest in Tallinn, Estonia (you never forget your first time). It was so exciting being in the audience and hearing the countdown as the whole of Europe tuned in. Marc Charpentier‘s Te Deum fanfare that precedes the contest always gives me goosebumps. Since then I‘ve been, as a freelance journalist, to the contest in Riga, Istanbul, Kiev (just months after the Orange Revolution), Athens, Helsinki and Belgrade.

I have faithfully waved my Union Jack for our entry, even for those tuneless nuls pointers Jemini. Rather embarrassingly, I ended up on the same plane home as Jemini – it was like intruding on someone‘s grief.

Among my personal kitsch favourites over the years are a rather-past-it Yugoslavian singer by the name of Baby Doll in 1991 shimmying away in an excitable flurry of peroxide, blue chiffon and matching eye shadow singing about Brazil (imagine my excitement when I saw her at the contest in Belgrade last year!) And I‘ll never forget Gildo Horn,a German contestant in Birmingham in 1998 who made the Hunchback of Notre Dame look attractive as he clambered about the set in turquoise crushed velvet. Or Paul Oscar, the Icelandic PVC enthusiast who writhed suggestively on a sofa surrounded by Amazonian blondes in fishnet. Only in Eurovision.

We all have memories of the contest, it‘s part of our cultural heritage, something we watched as children with our families, and which we continue to watch every year (viewing figures are now increasing each year). The thrill I had as a child of being allowed stay up late to watch a seemingly glamourous spectacle has never quite left me.

Of course the contest has changed enormously. most obviously in size, with two semi-finals and more than 40 countries taking part. Even since my first trip seven years ago, it seems to have lost a certain innocence that was always appealing.

My enjoyment of the show has been tempered, too, by the poor performance of the United Kingdom in recent years (we last won in 1997), partly because of the Eastern European block voting, but also the lacklustre entries submitted by this country.

So, like many Eurovision fans, I was thrilled by the news that our foremost theatrical Lord, Andrew Lloyd Webber, is to write this year‘s UK song. Even if we don‘t win, this will at least restore some musical pride for the country that gave the world The Beatles and send a message to the rest of Europe that we are taking this most treasured of musical institutions more seriously.

So this year promises to be the most exciting for UK fans in a long time. Follow the journey to Moscow‘s Olympic stadium in May with the behind-the-scenes blog on this site.

Mark Cook (watching Eurovision since 1967!)

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

Posted on: 29th December 2008

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