Eurovision’s Greatest Hits, Eventim Apollo, Hammersmith, 31st March 2015 – BBC1 Good Friday, 3rd April 2015

Eurovision's Greatest HitsThis year marks the 60th anniversary of the Eurovision Song Contest. Yes, it was in 1956 that the 32-year-old Lys Assia won the first contest for Switzerland, with the song Refrain. Since then our beloved contest has been through many phases: in, out; defining popular music, irrelevant to popular music; formal, fun; professional-based, fan-based; orchestra-led, backing track-led; respected, disrespected. But it’s survived 60 years, and no matter what your reservations are about it, it’s here to stay because it changes with the times. It’s war without tears; it’s live and unpredictable; it’s a remarkably inexpensive entertainment that fills a number of TV and radio slots for the broadcasting companies; and, on a personal level, it’s something I started following when I was 7 years old and I’m not going to stop now!

Hammersmith ApolloTo mark the event, the BBC have produced Eurovision’s Greatest Hits, recorded yesterday at the Hammersmith Apollo and being shown in 26 countries around Europe (and in Australia). In the UK and Ireland it will be shown on Good Friday; other countries may vary. There was a 50th anniversary celebration programme called Congratulations, which was never shown in the UK. I managed to obtain a DVD of it, and I thought it was rather good. However, last night, we spoke to some friends who attended both and thought that this 60th anniversary show was way better.

Graham Norton and Petra MedeI was joined by Northampton’s own Mr Flying The Flag himself for the trek into London. We were going to start off with an early meal and drink at a nearby pub, which was quiet when we arrived but was soon teeming with Eurovision fans. Never one to miss out on a social Eurovision occasion, Mrs Chrisparkle joined us once she had finished work. I just about had time to say brief hellos to a number of friends scattered around the place, and also had a good long catch up with Ray Caruana, lead singer of Live Report, who performed the UK’s entry in 1989, the 2nd placed Why Do I Always Get It Wrong. If you want to hear raw and hilarious anecdotes about the highs and lows of the music industry, Ray’s your man!

Electro VelvetThe layout at the Apollo was primarily standing places downstairs but with seating in the circle. Always a front stalls man, I instinctively went for the standing option, and we got reasonably near the stage so that we could at least see the faces properly, although the rake benefited you standing a little further back than you might imagine. My initial impression of the stage was that it was full of colour and light, and that it promised much in the way of excitement. As the show progressed, the backdrop changed for each act and many of the accompanying images and patterns were totally stunning.

Emmelie de ForestThe show was presented by Graham Norton (most of us know who he is) and Petra Mede, host of the 2013 Song Contest in Malmo. They worked together brilliantly. Of course, their badinage and comments were all scripted but nevertheless they are naturally funny people and managed a perfect blend of paying respect to the skills and achievements of the performers whilst taking the Mick out of other performers, themselves, each other, the audience and everything else under the sun.

Anne Marie DavidSo what of the performances? Well before the recording actually started we were treated to a very special warm-up, this year’s UK entry by Electro Velvet, Still In Love With You. This song has had a rather inauspicious first few weeks, being snuck in to the British viewing public’s attention with a quick push of the Red Button, not even having a proper TV programme to launch it. Initial reactions, as far as I could make out (we were on holiday at the time) were not great. Mrs C and I logged on to the internet on the Sunday morning in a park somewhere in Tenerife to have our first listen. Her first reaction was that it was not bad. My first reaction was that it was not good. Since then I have warmed to it slightly, but I still have considerable reservations about it. There’s no doubt it’s a jolly tune, and a good pastiche of the 1920s sound. It would be perfect for the Strictly Come Dancing Charleston round. But it’s a long way from being a credible,Herreys contemporary piece of music, which is what I was hoping for and which nowadays is the key to Eurovision success; and although the words are in keeping with the music and style, they are drivel. They make Eric Saade’s rhyming possible with impossible of almost Poet Laureate status. When Alex starts doing the scat sounds I just cradle my head in my hands with embarrassment. Nevertheless, in a year of worthy ballads, it’s different. I think it will be on the right hand side of the scoreboard at the end of the night, but it’s not a nul-pointer; just can’t see the international juries being impressed though. In order to give it any chance at all it needs a great performance – and, last night, you have to say, it got one. I was very impressed at their singing, their confidence and their style. You could feel the wave of relief working its way through the Hammersmith Apollo as you realised they actually knew how to perform.

Brotherhood of ManSo, onto the show proper. If you don’t want to know what happens, I suggest you skip reading the rest of this blog until after you’ve seen the TV show, as it’s full of spoilers. Forgive me, I can only part-remember the order in which these performances took place! We started off with Emmelie de Forest and Only Teardrops; it’s not a song I’m that fond of, but she did a great job. From where we were standing, I couldn’t see her during the first verse – she may just as well have been singing off stage. Suddenly she emerged from below the heads in front of me for the chorus. NicoleSuffice to say, everyone received rapturous applause throughout the whole show (with one exception, more of which later). First of the real big-hitters next, with the diminutive Anne-Marie David, giving us a multilingual version of Tu Te Reconnaitras/ Wonderful Dream, with immense power and emotion. That one really hit the spot. No need for gimmicks and sideshows with this one; a true classic. Next, and looking so different from 1984, came the Herreys with the irrepressible Diggi-loo Diggi-ley, recreating all their original dance moves, although they’re dressed in business clerical grey now. I think their performance surprised a lot of people by how perfectly they’d rehearsed it – the audience loved it.

Olsen BrothersBrotherhood of Man were the only performers from the UK’s illustrious past, with their 1976 winner Save Your Kisses For Me being the biggest selling British Eurovision single ever; as a single it even outsold Waterloo. Before the group came on to perform, the production team wanted to find if someone really knew the dance moves to the song, so that the cameras could linger on them. My competence in this department is restricted solely to the line “Bye bye baby bye bye”, so I kept my hand down. It will be interesting to see how it looks on TV. Mrs C and I met the Brotherhood of Man a few years ago when we interviewed them in Gateshead. It was so bizarre, sitting on their dressing room floor to ask them questions and they were so welcoming and helpful. Of course, Save Your Kisses went down a storm. Nicole, another master (mistress?) of the multilingual Eurovision hit, came out on stage to represent both Germany and Ralph SiegelRosa (prolific Eurovision composer, Uncle Ralph to us all) with A Little Peace/Ein bißchen Frieden, her 1982 winner. Like Tu te reconnaitras, the power of this song is in its simplicity, but whereas Anne-Marie David is an emotional belter of a performer, Nicole still seems part of a more innocent age, all quiet and demure. Prolonged applause at the end of her number caused Nicole’s eyes to get all misty. A Facebook friend described it perfectly as Ein bißchen Weepchen. The Olsen Brothers took to the stage to give us a rendition of Fly On The Wings of Love, their 2000 winner for Denmark, a song we are particularly fond of as we had a sneaky bet on it that won us hundreds of pounds at the time. I think the odds were something like 60/1. It’s still an uplifting number and they perform with an honest charm, and with a great connection to the audience.

Dana InternationalRosa from Spain might seem an unusual choice for someone to perform at this concert, as her song Europe’s Living a Celebration only came 7th in the 2002 contest. However, Rosa sang a medley of Spanish entries, including Massiel’s 1968 winner La La La and Salome’s Vivo Cantando which drew 1st with nearly everyone else in 1969, and she definitely pleased the Spanish contingent in the theatre. Memories were evoked by the presence of Dana International, winner of the 1998 contest in Birmingham, at which Mrs C and I were present in our dinner jacket and evening dress. BobbysocksMs International gave us the crowd-pleasing Diva (ignoring her less stunning entry Ding Dong), and, whilst I thought her vocals in the verse were a tad on the soft side, she still has enormous stage presence, and, predictably, everyone went wild. More memories surfaced with the appearance of Bobbysocks, Elizabeth and Hanne from Sweden/Norway but who won for Norway in 1985 with the unforgettable La Det Swinge. Again we met them at Gateshead, where I discovered just quite how flirtatious Elizabeth can be (as Mrs C frequently reminds me). They still come out and perform as though it was 30 years ago. Full of fun, and I really enjoyed the backing performers swinging away on their saxophones in the background.

RiverdanceEurovision Song Contests can be made or lost by the quality of the interval act. There have been some stinkers. In recent years the only one I really enjoyed was Madcon with Glow in Oslo in 2010. I can’t hear it without engaging in my own “bow and arrow” routine. However, there’s one notable biggie that everyone remembers – no, not the Wombles – and what a delight it was to see a fresh performance of Riverdance, 21 years on from its original appearance in Dublin. Bill Whelan’s music, and the contrasting styles of the girl’s soft shoe and the boy’s hard shoe elements are just so exciting to watch. It’s no longer the wonderful Jean Butler and the flamboyant Michael Flatley on stage – what a chemistry they had – but the tradition lives on with each new casting. It sent us into our interval with our toes tapping.

LordiThe second half started with Lordi, the Finnish monsters who won in 2006, and they must have been moisturising because they haven’t aged a bit. We were always grateful to Mr Lordi and his team, as they helped us to another successful betting experience, and our winnings paid for a week’s holiday to Spain. Hard Rock Hallelujah remains one of the most tuneful examples of Hard Rock ever, and the act is still enormous fun. Another non-winner, Natasha St-Pier, came to sing Je n’ai que mon âme, 4th for France in 2001. It’s a big fan favourite, and Mr Flag loves it; I must confess its tender mercies slightly pass me by. But then I do tend to prefer my Eurovision songs to have as little subtlety as possible.

Natasha St PierDiscord broke into our serene ranks with the announcement of Dima Bilan from Russia, as the majority of the crowd started to boo. Booing is one of those marmite activities, many people detest it absolutely, others (myself included) see it as a manner of making a protest that can be justified under certain circumstances. Yes, it’s disrespectful to the performer, but sometimes it can be the only way to make important feelings known. Anyway, they weren’t booing Dima Bilan himself, they were booing the whole abstract concept of Russia, from human rights to activities in Ukraine and everything in between. Well maybe some were booing Dima, I’ve not met him but everyone I know who has, doesn’t have a good word to say about him. Dima BilanAt his best he is an amazing performer and entertainer – I loved watching him at the ESC Winner’s tour party at Scala back in 2008 – but at yesterday’s show he slightly over-egged his pudding and put just a bit too much into his Believe/Never Let You Go medley. Maybe it was an understandable reaction to the booing. Weep not for Dima, he’s doing just fine. After a couple of retakes and some strong admonition from Mr Norton, I doubt whether you’ll hear the crowd’s boos on the TV anyway. It was all just a moment of pantomime really.

LoreenThings hotted up for our final three acts. Loads of sheets suddenly appeared at jaunty angles on the stage as though some manic painter and decorator had prepared the area for slapping on some emulsion. Maybe there would be a surprise appearance from Sertab? But no, it was to get ready for the one and only Loreen, and a magnificent performance of Euphoria that had everyone riveted. Then “Mr Eurovision” himself, Johnny Logan, came on to do a three-part mixture of What’s Another Year, Why Me and ending up with Hold Me Now. Johnny LoganHe’s another performer with an amazing stage presence. Finally, it was the person I reckon at least half the audience had come to see – Conchita Wurst, last year’s winner, in a stunning dress and bearded like the pard. Rise Like a Phoenix was a very suitable way of drawing this fantastic celebration of 60 years of Eurovision to a close.

Conchita WurstBut not quite – as there was a final flashback of a few other amazing winners. Anne-Marie David gave us some Hallelujah (nearly – but not quite – my favourite Eurovision winner of all time), the Herreys sang that old Italian favourite (that didn’t win) Volare, Bobbysocks did their version of Making Your Mind Up (and yes, it did involve Velcro), and Conchita and Dana paired up to end the evening with a rendition of Waterloo. What a show it was – exhilarating, moving, funny, and yes, even musical too. Congratulations to the production team – as the old Not The Nine O’Clock News guys would have said on Points of View, “Well done the BBC. Another winner!”

I took the first two photos and the Riverdance one.

The other excellent photos from last night are by courtesy of Dizzdjc on Flickr.

Eurovision 2011 – Semi Final Two

Barely two days after the rigours of Semi Final One we return fresh-faced and expectant at the Fortuna arena for more delights. Let’s go through them again one by one in order, together with the largely pointless range of betting possibilities, brought to you by oddschecker.com correct as at 31 March.

Bosnia Herzegovina – Dino Merlin – Love in Rewind

BosniaDino’s a big star in downtown Sarajevo, and has an excellent Eurovision record as being writer of Sva Bol Svjeta and singing half of Putnici (not sure if he was Put or Nici though). Is this another notch on his bedpost or a blotch on his escutcheon? A notch I think. He looks like he could be a contemporary of the original Merlin, and their performance appears to have been choreographed for a completely different song. I feel it lacks something somewhere – I wonder if in a few months he’ll discover a few missing odd notes that fell down the back of the sofa. 8-1 to 14-1

Austria – Nadine Beiler – The Secret is Love

AustriaThe first few notes make you think you’re in Whitney Houston I Will Always Love You mode, but actually it’s not quite as disastrous as that. When the song can be finally arsed to get going, it’s not a bad tune, but it’s very heavy going, more posing than imposing, and it does get on my nerves by the end. She’s had a couple of top ten hits in Austria and is a TV talent show star. Her hairstylist is obviously a fan of Aneka’s “Japanese Boy”. 33-1 to 50-1

Netherlands – 3J’s – Never Alone

NetherlandsIt’s a middle of the road, guitarry, plaintive, serious-ish song which is pleasant in parts. It’s the kind of song you know you ought to appreciate because they doubtless put a lot of hard work into it. However, it’s got none of the attack of the Lovebugs and their Highest Heights of a couple of years ago, and we know what happened to them. I find it very difficult to take seriously a song with the lyrics “there are golden gardens at the sweet end of your trail”. 66-1 to 200-1

Belgium – Witloof Bay – With Love Baby

BelgiuamNo, it’s not the return of the Flying Pickets – no such luck. When does acapella become simple showing-off? At about 1:40 on the accompanying youtube, when the admittedly skilful but tiresome singing is interrupted by a jerk with oral explosions. It’s the kind of noise a six year old makes when playing with guns. If you have to listen all the way through, (not recommended) you can enjoy mild diversion by pretending they’re singing “White Loaf” instead. 50-1 to 300-1

Slovakia – Twiins – I’m Still Alive

SlovakiaAnother song that fails to live up to the promise of its first fifteen seconds. And what’s with the “ii” in “Twiins”? Are they specifically targeting the Finnish market? It’s vacuous lowest-common-denominator Atomic Kitten/ All Saints/ Girls Aloud soundalike stuff, that goes nowhere and takes ages not getting there. The Twiins were backing singers for Tereza Kerndlová when she had some fun in 2008. Didn’t like that much either. 40-1 to 100-1

Ukraine – Mika Newton – Angel

UkraineFresh from a selection process that Mugabe would have been proud of, the upshot isn’t a bad song from Mika Newton. She’s got quite a nice voice, quite a pretty face, and it’s quite an enjoyable tune, even if it doesn’t linger in the brain too long afterwards. She’s an Avril Lavigne-type rock chick who came to prominence during the Orange Revolution and I expect we’ll see her in Düsseldorf on Saturday night. 25-1 to 100-1

Moldova – Zdob si Zdub – So Lucky

MoldovaI was quite pleased when I realised the Zdobs were back in town, as Boonika had a certain charm about her – for me it succeeded where the Babushki of last year’s Russian National Final totally failed. However, then they presented us with “So Lucky”. Three different tunes with no apparent dovetailing to unify them into one song. None of the three tunes makes for enjoyable listening. It’s all very raucous for raucous’ sake. I guess it has an element of anarchy but that dream in our hearts that one day we will all meet in Chisinau seems even further away. 40-1 to 125-1

Sweden – Eric Saade – Popular

SwedenA slick act and a creative musical arrangement make this a memorable performance, but I do have problems with it. Much has been made of the apparent rip-off of the drum opening to “Rasputin” and frankly they’re guilty as charged. The rhyme of possible with impossible is unforgivable – yes it rhymes, but you might as well have “I’m not going to Kings Cross Station, I’m going to Euston Station”. (It just about scans). The man likes a gimmick and I understand he is single-handedly responsible for rescuing the glaziers of Stockholm from recession. I predict Sweden’s best result for years. (Bold, aren’t I?) 8-1 to 12-1

Cyprus – Christos Mylordos – San Aggelos S’Asapisa

CyprusWords fail me, it’s so boring. It’s so boring it makes me angry. With any luck you might drift off before he starts singing. If you don’t, you might care to notice that the chorus appears to have no lyrics. But who cares. 40-1 to 300-1

Bulgaria – Poli Genova – Na Inat

BulgariaDisappointed to discover that “na inat” doesn’t translate as “nah, innit” but as the more prosaic “for spite”, and having read the lyrics I now understand why she sounds as miffed as she does. I don’t mind this. It’s got a bit of attack, and the tune is ok. You’d be nervous if you bumped into her in a dark alley, mind. Ends very suddenly. I think they just ran out of minutes. 80-1 to 200-1

FYR Macedonia – Vlatko Ilievski – Rusinka

FYR MacedoniaOne of those rare occasions where Mrs Chrisparkle and I completely agree on a Eurovision song. We both think this is pretty ace. It’s fast moving, jolly, unpretentious Russkipop, the age-old story of “we don’t speak each other’s language” and with an amusing nod to Kalinka to boot. Check out the video to see the two least convincing Russian dancers within 50 miles of Skopje. I hope it gets through to Saturday night, but I fear it won’t. 100-1 to 300-1

Israel – Dana International – Ding Dong

IsraelAnd here’s a classic example of where we don’t agree – the return of Ms International. How well we remember her feathers flapping in Birmingham all those years ago – but that was then and this is now. Mrs Chrisparkle can’t get past the first “Ding Dong” without reaching for the mute. DI’s voice continues to be on the tentative side of weak; the English words of the song verge on the risible; and yet, you know, I really like this! The tune just carries me away. Wouldn’t it be fun if just once Dana International sang the “Ding Dong” bit in the style of Leslie Phillips? 25-1 to 100-1

Slovenia – Maja Keuc – No One

SloveniaWritten by the same creative team who wrote “Energy” and “Mr Nobody”, and one of the co-writers of “Stop”. You wouldn’t credit it, would you? I think it’s a lot of caterwauling over nothing. 33-1 to 50-1

Romania – Hotel FM – Change

RomaniaOne of the UK’s “satellite” entries as the boy David Bryan is originally from Newton Aycliffe. As soon as the plinky plonky pub piano starts up it’s instantly appealing, with its nice tune and singalong easy to follow lyrics. Romania have come close in recent years and I think this has got to be in with a good chance. Just don’t mention the webcam. 25-1 to 100-1

Estonia – Getter Jaani – Rockefeller Street

EstoniaAlready a fan favourite, here we go with another strong song, a punchy tune and performance with a memorable hook. But is there any significance to the “1273” or would any old number have done? A quick spot of research reveals there’s no such address. Pity. Still I like it. I kind of wish it didn’t have that quieter slower sequence in the middle. You’re going to be hanging around like a lemon at the Eurovision disco during that bit. Sure to qualify though. First mention of diamonds and pearls of the evening. 5-1 to 13-2

Belarus – Anastasiya Vinnikova – I Love Belarus

BelarusIf you can’t get quicker than a Kwik Fit Fitter, you can’t get camper than a Belarussian Eurovision song, which is another of life’s little ironies. I can’t help but think the lovely Anastasiya will belt out her paean of her nation on Thursday night and millions of people all round Europe will just roll their eyes and say “yeah, right”. The song couldn’t be Russkier, and there’s a lot of fun to be had with it, but I think at the end of the evening Anastasiya will be getting into her Trabbie and toodling off back to Minsk. 66-1 to 200-1

Latvia – Musiqq – Angel in Disguise

LatviaAnother example of where Mrs Chrisparkle and I seem to be completely out of kilter with the rest of Europe, in that we really like this one too. Sensually alliterative lyrics, a thoughtful arrangement, it’s kind of softly contemporary if you get my drift. These two guys have been together for a couple of years now and have had a few hits in the Latvian charts. I don’t mind the rap section but it does go on too long. Must remind them how to spell “Music” some time. 66-1 to 150-1

Denmark – A Friend in London – New Tomorrow

DenmarkA bit boring to watch, but very anthemic; could be the dark horse, if they put lots of 50p’s in the meter and they’ve still got a packet of the Olsen Brothers’ fireworks left. It’s a comfortably unchallenging feelgood song, the musical equivalent of a favourite warm old cardy. Andreas Johnson must be furious. Second mention of diamonds and pearls of the evening. 14-1 to 22-1

Ireland – Jedward – Lipstick

IrelandAnd finally, a subtle way to wind up the evening. Hair styled by Edvard Munch, John and Edward cavort and vocalise their way through the routine with all the musicality of Janet Street-Porter. The song is disgustingly catchy but I think it’s going be way off radar of everyone east of Ostend. Definite 12 points from the UK if it gets to the final. 20-1 to 40-1

So I’m going to have a lie down in a darkened room now and will be back soon with the five finalists plus the songs I think will join them on the Saturday night. Thanks for reading!