Eurovision: a rather peculiar contest

Posted on May 6, 2014 by Eleanor McKenzie
Eurovision song contest

In 2003 I was on the UK Eurovision back-up jury. This is in case the computers and telecoms go wrong, as they did in Ireland that year.  This quite unremarkable biographical detail is usually consigned to the back of my mind and only slips out when someone mentions Eurovision. The number of people who are excited by this snippet of information never ceases to amaze me. It’s also the year that the UK got its worst-ever result. Nothing to do with me, your Honour!  And don’t ask me how I voted; I really can’t remember.

My granny’s favourites

But I do remember the Eurovision of my childhood, once I was old enough to stay up that late.  In the early 60s my mother and grandmother raved about local Northern Irish singer Ronnie Carroll, Matt Monro and Kathy Kirby, whose fluffy blondeness drew comparisons with Marilyn Monroe.

Barefooted Sandie

But, it was bare-footed Sandie Shaw who brought the UK its first win in 1967. At last, something reasonably modern, I remember my 11-year-old self thinking. She seemed to set off an avalanche of wins for the UK, because the score sheet for the mid-Sixties looks is 1-2-1-2 until Clodagh Rodgers broke the rhythm with fourth place for “Jack in the Box.” But, until 1981, it has to be said, the UK was always in the top 5 with only 1978 and 1979 results being lower. Of course, 1981 was the year of Bucks Fizz.

Occasionally there’s a hit

The UK won again in 1997 with Katrina and the Waves “Love Shine a Light.” I prefer “Walking on Sunshine,” but Eurovision would never showcase such a good song. Actually, that’s not true: there was “Waterloo.” Yes, Eurovision gave us the band that keeps on giving: ABBA in 1974.

Eurovision presenters

For my younger self, Eurovision was all about Katie Boyle. To me, she was the star of the show. I thought her incomparably glamorous. She had an Italian aristocratic background and had modelled for Vogue before making her name on “What’s My Line?” and “Juke Box Jury.” She also had a cut glass delivery of French that anticipated Angela Rippon’s precise pronunciation on the news.

The Borgen effect

This year in Copenhagen, fans of Danish TV series “Borgen” can delight in watching actor Pilou Asbaek who played spin doctor Kasper Juul. Reviewers suggest this will be interesting because Asbaek has never worked as a TV presenter, even if his TV character has. Perhaps the producers got confused?

The phenomenal Riverdance

One strange side effect of Eurovision is what can only be called the Riverdance Phenomenon. Being Northern Irish, I’m very familiar with Irish dancing, but who could ever have guessed that the 1994 Dublin show’s interval act would turn into a global sensation that is still going 20 years later.  It was also the year that Ireland gained its sixth Eurovision victory and the first time any country had won it three years in a row.

Eurovision’s whacky acts

Eurovision does tend to throw up some whacky acts as well. Who could forget Finland’s one-and-only winners Lordi, who I am reliably informed by a Finnish contact have a square named after them in their hometown of Rovaniemi. Lordi looked like escapees from Star Wars, but somehow or other “Hard Rock Hallelujah” won Europe’s hearts in 2006.

A UK change of fortune?

In a list of the Worst Eurovision Songs Ever, the UK sadly has three entries in the Top 5, although thankfully we’ve been pipped to the No.1 spot by Switzerland. Let’s hope that this year, Molly’s “Children of the Universe” changes the UK’s fortunes. A record number of bets placed with UK bookmakers suggest the country is getting behind her on 10 May. Are you?


by Eleanor McKenzie

Eleanor McKenzie is a Northern Irish writer with a passion for art, literature, and red wine. She's worked at advertising agency JWT, edited a journal for a European social policy think tank and tried to teach teenagers the difference between "there" and "their". Being 50+ has not significantly changed Eleanor's life, although she finds it a handy excuse when she wants to avoid anything too energetic.