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The Eurovision zoo…  
Who can cope with the pressure of being the UK entry in Moscow?
Andrew Lloyd Webber and Graham Norton, host of Your Country Needs You

The Eurovision Song Contest a zoo? Well that’s how Lord Andrew described it on Saturday night. Not the show you see on TV, you understand; nor is he equating the contestants with animals (though there was a large penguin in Luxembourg’s 1980 entry). But he’s right, and having been to the past seven contests, I would agree that it has become something of a circus.

Even at my first Eurovision in Tallinn in 2002, where 24 countries took part, it still had that innocence that we have come to know and love over the years – one of the reasons the late John Peel was such a surprising fan of the contest. Eastern Europe had then started to make its presence felt in the form of the Baltic states but today there are 43 countries taking part and, as of last, year, three live shows – two semis and  the final.

What was an event that, with rehearsals, lasted just a week now takes a fortnight. As well as the rehearsals and press conferences, there is all the attendant brouhaha – a  round of parties hosted by different countries, PAs and performances. Every singer is treated like royalty but for those who have to perform in the semis it’s an exhausting – and occasionally surreal – experience.

As one of the BIG Four (UK, Germany, Spain and France) who automatically qualify for the final – a double-edged sword that counts against us in terms of votes – the UK act faces less of all this. Though with Andrew Lloyd Webber and Diane Warren writing our song, this year there will see a high level of interest.

And then there is the big night itself. The singer has to connect with the 100 million viewers watching TV as well as the 20,000 or so in Moscow’s huge Olympic stadium. The camera may be where the votes are but the stadium audience is crucial, too. If the song goes “big in the hall”, as Mr Wogan was wont to put it, that enthusiasm will be communicated to those with their fingers poised on the phone dial.

It’s a lot to ask of a young and inexperienced performer – and it was  largely for this reason that Andrew saved Emperors of Soul and voted 17-year-old Charlotte off the second Your Country Needs You show on Saturday.

Put your arms in the air for the UK

So there we were in the studio waving our arms aloft to the chorus of “Save Your Kisses For Me” – rather unwise given that I’d been under my osteopath earlier that day with a dodgy neck and shoulder. But it was the least we could do as the five remaining acts warbled their way through the treacly 1976 winner (the most successful ever in terms of the percentage of votes gained) and did some of the goofy Brotherhood of Man dance.

It was a cheesy start but it soon become apparent that the performers had upped their game this week, and in the case of sheep farmer’s son Mark, “raised the bah” (nice one, Andrew).

For twins Nicola and Francine there were more tears in rehearsal but they acquitted themselves with “The Promise”. Duncan James said they sang the number better than Girls Aloud.

Emperors of Soul looked and sounded more contemporary with Prince’s “Kiss”. Andrew said they would be great for dinner theatre but Lulu questioned whether they were quite right for Eurovision.

With Christina Aguilera’s “The Voice Within”, Jade had the most difficult song, said Andrew, but dealt with it impressively.  Duncan  was “blown away” by her and Lulu called her “the whole package”.

Charlotte’s version of Duffy’s “Gonna Rain on Your Parade” showed a different side to her, said the panel, but Andrew wondered if she could cope with the Eurovision experience. She would certainly have a singing career, though, he added. Finally, Mark gave us “Me and Mrs Jones”, though the fresh-faced Welshman might have been better singing about Mrs Robinson. Said Lulu: ” You are Prince Charming and you have the voice.” Duncan praised Mark’s range.

An excellent week all round, summed up Andrew, part of which was spent working on the UK song with lyricist Diane Warren (about whom more later this week). So, much anticipation for next week’s semi-final, when four will become three.

So far the Beeb has got the tone of YCNU absolutely right – coupling the serious aim to send a great entry with a touch of the tongue in cheek (still loving those Dad’ s Army Union Jack arrrows), all helped by shiny Graham’s witty hosting. Eurovision is supposed to be fun, after all.

Mark Cook (watching Eurovision since 1967)

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

Posted on: 19th January 2009

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