After two months of lockdown, I finally understand how the sports fans feel. Because tonight, the highlight of my entertainment calendar, the event around which my friends and I plan our spring social schedule, the night of intense competition and the battle of physical and mental strength that I have spent 364 days gearing up for, has become the latest victim of coronavirus.
I am talking, of course, of the Eurovision Song Contest.
The 65th annual extravaganza of vocal and theatric agility was due to take place in the Netherlands tonight. Alas, an arena crammed with 20,000 fanatic spectators crushed up against each other to jive in sweaty, synchronised inebriation doesn’t really jam with the spirit of social distancing. So this year, Eurovision is going virtual.
For those not yet inducted into the Eurovision cult, my obsession may seem difficult to understand. Isn’t it year after year of dated europop, tacky costumes and ear-splitting key changes, followed by a thinly-veiled political popularity contest in which the UK is inevitable punished by the rest of the continent?
To which the answer is yes – and that’s why it is so uniquely wonderful.
For Brits who are bitter that the UK last won in 1997 and have given up watching on the grounds that we never seem to rise above the bottom five, here are some of the bizarre twists and turns you have been missing over the last decade.
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Let’s start with 2010, when the Spanish act was gatecrashed by an audience member. That in itself might not seem particularly note-worthy, but so surreal was Spain’s entry anyway (it featured dancers dressed as nightmarish children’s toys jerking along to the beat as if possessed by demonic forces) that the gate-crasher managed to dance along for an entire chorus before anyone realised he wasn’t meant to be there.
The year 2013 was vintage. Romania entered an opera singer dressed as what can only be described as “Disco Jafar”, belting out falsetto while mostly naked dancers writhed like apparitions from hell beneath him. Not to be outdone. Azerbaijan’s singer was accompanied by a doppelganger trapped in a “glass cage of of emotion”, mirroring his movements in anguished unison. Ukraine’s performance had a cameo from the tallest living person, playing a fantasy giant. Why? We don’t know
Ukraine upped its game the following year by boasting a human-sized hamster wheel, although the highlight of 2014 was obviously the pornographic Polish milkmaid who captured British hearts and minds by suggestively licking butter off her spoon.
And who can forget 2012’s Russian grandmothers, who seemed to have mistaken a singing contest for The Great British Bake-Off (their entry including actual biscuits)? Or Moldova’s 2017 fusion of Draco Malfoy and Gangnam Style? Or Australia’s entry last year, which featured Glinda The Good singing opera on top of a giant pogo stick? (Don’t ask why Australia is in the “Eurovision” Song Contest, it will only make you more confused.)
If this all sounds far too absurd to be taken seriously, you’re beginning to get the point. If only the British acts – wonderful and talented though they have no doubt been through the years – could get the message and ease up a little.
Eurovision is not about having a great song. It’s not about hitting number one in the charts or bringing glory to your country. It’s about getting up on stage and daring the audience to have as much fun as you clearly are – the more latex, glitter, and pyrotechnics the better.
Is there a way to bring the spirit of Eurovision into our homes even in these extraordinary times? Fortunately, salvation is at hand.
Across Europe (well, a fantasy version of Europe that encompasses Israel, Georgia, and the aforementioned Australia), public broadcasters are stepping up to fill the void. The BBC has plans for no fewer than eight Eurovision shows across various TV and radio channels, full of highlights, lowlights, and even the all important public vote. The main one, on BBC 1 from 6.30, features the great Graham Norton himself taking us through “an eclectic short list compiled by experts and celebrity super fans”.
Devoid of the pressure and pettiness that surrounds the actual competition, and with Saturday night plans on hold for the foreseeable future, let me suggest to all your Eurosceptics that tonight is the perfect opportunity to join the fold and see what the fuss is all about.
Have your beverage of choice handy, and work out some drinking rules before you start. I tend to drink for every key change, every violin, every visual nod to BDSM, and every pair of impractically tight white trousers. It helps to keep a scorecard, and write a short description of each act as you go so you can keep track. Last year’s Dutch winner, for example, was branded by my team as “My Piano Can Control The Weather”. Points should be awarded based on bravery and absurdity – never on musical merit.
In short, this night should be a celebration of enforced quirkiness. Given that the main BBC show is a compilation of highlights through the ages, there should be much to celebrate. Don’t worry about the voting (although Iceland is this year’s clear winner for the matching tracksuits alone), focus on the immersive experience. We all need a night off from sanity at the moment, and Eurovision is a trip down the rabbit hole like no other.
And if you need some help getting into the spirit of things, the 2016 interval show from Sweden will set you straight. Love, Love, Peace, Peace – featuring drums, roller-skates, and a flaming piano – is a step-by-step guide to winning the Eurovision Song Contest that tells you everything you need to know about what this night should be.
See you on the other side.