From its humble beginnings in 1956, with just seven participating nations, to the global phenomenon of the 2007 contest, with forty-two songs spread over two nights and an audience of 300 million, dear old Eurovision has come a long way. Twenty years ago, the contest looked like a dying anachronism and a tired old joke – but since the collapse of Communism and the stampede of newly emergent Eastern European nation states, all clamouring for inclusion, its future looks more secure than ever.
It is therefore high time that a comprehensive history was written, detailing the highs and the lows, the triumphs and the tantrums, the classic moments and the long-forgotten monstrosities, that have entertained many of us for as long as we can remember. First published in 2006, John Kennedy O’Connor’s remarkably well-researched book has been updated and re-issued, just in time for the fifty-second finals which take place in Helsinki tomorrow night.
The format is a simple one, as O’Connor takes you through the contest in strict chronological order – picking out the key events, listing the final scoreboards, and illustrating each year with a splendid selection of images. Before you even start to tackle the text, there’s much fun to be had in randomly flicking through the pages, and spotting your favourite personalities: Clodagh Rodgers in hotpants; Dana International in peacock plumage; Katie Boyle in a full-length salmon pink evening gown (and, as we were later to discover, no underwear).
For all its visual lavishness, the book flounders somewhat with the text itself. There’s simply no way of describing fifty-one successive contests without lapsing into repetition, and it’s difficult not to feel your eyes glaze over as you learn that “Belgium had gone for a more modern sound” in 1977, or that the 1989 contest marked “the first time since 1980 that writers had provided songs for two different countries in the same contest”. Fine if you’re a fanatical Eurovision fan, but a bit of a slog for the less committed.
Clearly a fan himself, O’Connor’s overly reverential tone also disappoints. A few more forthright, even controversial opinions would have livened things up no end. Half of the fun of Eurovision is the passion that it inspires, and it’s a shame that the author’s own passion has been hemmed in dry details, solemn statistics, and a cautious reluctance to offend.