Tuesday 27 November 2012

Eurovision in (economic) crisis?

The Eurovision Song Contest has hit the headlines again. This time it’s serious. Austerity in Europe is apparently forcing countries to withdraw. Could this be the end of Eurovision as we know it?
Last weekend it was reported that Poland and Portugal have withdrawn from the 2013 Contest due to the ongoing economic crisis. True, the recession has had an impact on national broadcasters across Europe, however, is it really all down to economics?  Money is an obvious issue since participation itself in the competition is an expensive business let alone winning and hosting the event. Poland withdrew in 2012 since the national broadcaster TVP were concentrating on Euro 2012. However the economic crisis has not deterred all of Europe’s most cash-strapped countries, Greece being one example. There are other issues at play here.
Crippled financially by spiralling debts, Greece have continued to appear at Eurovision (and qualify to the final) every year. Greek participation in the event is paid for through private sponsorship – the record company picked up the bill in 2012 and not the public. Eurovision is one of the biggest shows of the year in Greece – participation in the event is almost a matter of national pride. This is also true of Estonia which faced with possible withdrawal in 2010. Enterprise Estonia, a government agency responsible for promoting Estonian interests abroad, stepped in and paid for the country to appear on the Eurovision stage. To some countries Eurovision is more than a song contest; it is an opportunity to promote themselves internationally, an opportunity that we take for granted in the UK.
Why didn’t Poland and Portugal follow the same blueprint then and get private enterprise to pay the bill? Could it be that their ratings were down which perhaps prompted this action? Poland’s best placing was 2nd in 1994 and Portugal has never made the top 5 despite entering since 1964! Poland and Portugal aren’t the only countries to have withdrawn recently though. The Czech Republic, Andorra and Monaco have all walked away from the Eurovision stage in recent years. Again, given the financial climate in Europe this is perhaps unsurprising. However these are also countries that consistently failed to qualify from the semi finals. When there isn’t much of a new story, the viewers tend not to follow.
In the summer of 2012 it was reported that the BBC spent £350,000 on entering Eurovision. This might seem like a lot but in the context of primetime television broadcasting this is not a gigantic sum, it is all relative. One hour of Dr Who or Strictly easily runs into the millions. For its £350,000 the BBC got over seven and a half hours of live, primetime television and some of its largest audience shares of the year.
In terms of staging Eurovision, of course it is an expensive programme (costing in excess of £25 million). In 2010 Norwegian broadcaster NRK forfeited their rights to the World Cup in order for them to host Eurovision. In 2001 the Estonian government stepped in to guarantee funding for the 2002 contest in Tallinn after it was reported that the country was “too poor to host Eurovision”. Ireland’s RTE were rumoured to have faced difficulties in the 1990s after winning and staging four out of five contests and yet they did it, and they did it well. Why? Good old fashioned national pride. This is not something that will just totally diminish in a recession. In fact that resolve might even be strengthened as Greek tenacity exemplifies.
Eurovision is undoubtedly changing. Gone are the days of lavish parties and massive LED stages ala Moscow 2009. The Swedes are working on a more streamlined format, back to basics. It is first and foremost a television show. The contest in 2013 is unlikely to rival Azerbaijan’s show in 2012 or Moscow’s in 2009. In the past countries have tried to beat the previous host and produce ever more lavish contests. In the current economic climate this is simply not sustainable. Eurovision will however, ride out this storm, as it has every storm since 1956. It continues to draw in viewers and capture the public imagination like no other format. People love it or they hate it. There is no apathy when it comes to Eurovision and that is what is really powerful. It is unlikely that formats such as X Factor will still be around in 50 years.  Surely we need Eurovision just now as much as we did in 1956? It unites us like nothing else and given the scale and the severity of the economic crisis in Europe, the contest provides us with some much needed light relief. Recession or no recession Eurovision will endure.

Friday 16 November 2012

There must be another way, surely?

Social media is a funny old world isn't it? Facebook, Twitter and everything else in between really does put us in touch with the world like never before. We now see so much of each other's lives and seem to know more about each other than ever before. Politics is one example. Before social networking took off I didn't really have much of a clue about who my friends voted for, what their thoughts on abortion are or indeed their views on gay marriage. It's a totally different ballgame now. People often seem so willing to share their thoughts on the issues of the day (myself included at times). However all too often people fly off the handle and resort to personal remarks or even fall out when they don't agree on something. If it wasn’t for Facebook then they might never have had that conversation, either online or in person. Politics is a tricky business and outlets like Facebook and Twitter have brought this into our lives like never before.

The current escalating conflict between Israel and Gaza highlights this perfectly. It's not something that I know a great deal about to be honest, nor is it something I wish to discuss in great depth for that very reason. It is interesting reading the posts on Facebook though; the apartheid of opinion is striking. These are certainly troubling times for the people in the region and indeed for the world as a whole. The on-going tensions and violence in the Middle East has also had an impact on Eurovision.

Controversy is never far away from Eurovision in any given year and even more so when Israel's participation is considered. Israel debuted in the Eurovision Song Contest in 1973 and over the years their appearances have often been politically sensitive. Several Arab states do not enter Eurovision despite being eligible to do so. Israel is undoubtedly the main reason. Many Arab states do not recognise Israel as a sovereign nation state. Eurovision rules state that each country must broadcast the contest in its entirety, for many of these countries this would mean broadcasting the Israeli song and therefore providing a platform of sorts for Israel. Take 1978 for example, when it became clear that Israel were winning, Jordanian television cut the transmission. Indeed Morocco is the only Arab and African state to enter Eurovision, in 1980, when Israel was absent. In 2005 Lebanon were due to make their Eurovision debut yet when it emerged that they would screen commercials in place of the Israeli entry they were forced to withdraw. The controversy between Armenia and Azerbaijan in Eurovision highlights the difficulties of enemies coexisting on a Eurovision stage and if Israel's neighbours were to enter then Armenia-Azerbaijan issue would seem miniscule in comparison.

Even Israel's Eurovision entries have proved to be hot potatoes over the years. In 1983 Israel's Ofra Haza performed "Hi" which is widely interpreted as a metaphor for Israel. Despite the attempts to destroy the modern Jewish state or the Jewish community, Israel is still alive. This was a significant entry not only because it was performed in Germany, for obvious reasons, but also because the Eurovision stage was in Munich, the scene of the 1972 massacre of Israeli Olympians. Remember though, Eurovision is not a political contest according to the European Broadcasting Union.

In 1998 the Israeli Broadcasting Authority (IBA) selected a trans-gendered artist, Dana International to represent Israel at Eurovision. This caused uproar in the country with ultra-Orthodox Jews, who considered Dana International to be peripheral to their ideal of national identity. Others such as composer Svika Pikk highlighted the fact that it was a chance to promote Israel as a liberal and tolerant country, changing the way the Middle East is imagined. Politician Shlomo Ben-Izri claimed that the decision“symbolised the sickness of a secular Israel”. Such discourses show how seriously some nations approach the Eurovision Song Contest; a Eurovision entry is seen as representative of the entire nation.

The 1999 Eurovision Song Contest in Jerusalem was also dogged by controversy. The interval act featured Dana International singing below Jerusalem’s historic city walls caused further outrage to ultra-Orthodox Jews, who were also incensed at religious lyrics being used in the performance. The rules of the Eurovision Song Contest state that a full dress rehearsal must take place on the Friday evening before the contest. This violated the traditions of the Jewish Sabbath where all activity is forbidden from sunset on Friday through to Saturday evening, again provoking angry reactions from conservatives regardless of the fact that Israelis officially a secular state. A compromise was reached, the IBA held the rehearsal in private. The Israeli entrants of 1999, four-piece boy band Eden, with the song, “Happy Birthday”, was a celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the foundation of the state of Israel.
At the 2000 contest Israeli representatives, Ping-pong, waved Syrian flags during rehearsals. Israel and Syria were officially in a state of war at the time and Israel’s then Deputy Education Minister, Shlomo Yahalom called for the group’s participation to be banned claiming that they failed to represent national values. The waving of the Syrian flag during rehearsals on Israel’s Independence Day May 10th, in particular, caused further upset to officials who publically boycotted the group leaving them to cover their own expenses. Despite threats from Israeli broadcasting officials to ban the group from performing altogether, they appeared at the 2000 ESC and waved the Syrian flag along with the Israeli flag in a call for peace. Again, Eurovision isn’t a political contest…

The case of Israel has shown how the Eurovision Song Contest often touches on sensitive subjects such as gender identity, sexuality, religion and politics. Indeed in Israel and Jerusalem, these issues often intrude in even the most unlikely of situations. The reaction of some officials in Israel has shown how seriously they regard Israel’s image. Such controversies therefore represent a struggle in Israel between secularism and religious freedom.

In 2009 Israel's Eurovision entry was called "There Must Be Another Way" and was performed by an Arab-Israeli duo, Mira and Noa. This was the first time an Arab singer had represented Israel and the first time Arabic had been performed under the Israeli flag at Eurovision. Whilst critics can argue that this was merely a clever public relations exercise, it is a significant entry for Israel and indeed for Eurovision. In particular the line "When I cry, I cry for both of us, my pain has no name", struck a chord with me when I saw the news this week. Given the current conflict in the region, which seems to be escalating by the hour, the message in that song is now more pertinent than ever.

Thursday 16 August 2012

You've got a friend

People often ask me why I like going to Eurovision and why I'm interested in it. It's funny, when you think long and hard, what is it that appeals? The music? Sort of. The excitement of visiting new places? Absolutely! The low costs? Absolutely not! The friends made along the way? Bingo! It's funny, Eurovision really is an exciting and interesting world. I managed to do a whole load of research for my PhD on the back of my attendance at the Song Contest. It's not just about that for me though. Yes it was a site of fieldwork, it was also a hobby, a bit of fun, an excuse to visit countries that perhaps I might not have otherwise. I do like a lot of the songs of course. However it's not really about these things when it comes down to it. It's really about the company. If I didn't have such fun with the people there, then I doubt I would enjoy it really. It's not about where you are, but who you're with. 

Eurovision is changing. The EBU have hinted that adjustments to the format may well take place in the future. To put it bluntly, Eurovision has grown too big for it's boots. Whilst the number of countries competing will undoubtedly still remain large, the length of rehearsal time (two weeks at present) and the scale & cost of the event (Baku will have that record for a while) look likely to be curtailed. This may well have an impact on the level and amount of media accreditation available for the contest as well. It looks like the days of lavish welcome receptions for all, aftershow parties and dare I say it, Georgian parties, are numbered.

2011 already saw a different approach to the party circuit at Eurovision. Accreditation did not guarantee entry to the Euroclub and certainly not to the official welcome reception. Many fans and journalists felt disappointed and at times, because of the actions of others who would have sold their grannie to get to the ball, I too felt a little frustrated. At the end of the day did it really matter? Not really. Having been one of the fortunate few to have attended the opening reception, as lovely as it was, I didn't have the usual banter with those around me, the vast majority of people I know were not there. Dusseldorf showed that it doesn't really matter what party you attend, it really is who you're with that counts. 

In July I was honoured to attend the civil partnership of Diarmuid and Willie, Irish friends of mine who held their celebration in Waterford castle. It just shows you that Eurovision really does unite people. It was a truly special occasion and I felt humbled to be a part of it. On the Friday the main reception was held with over three hundred guests. So many of the Eurovision gang were there and what a blast! I have honestly not had that much fun or laughed so much in a long time. A week later my throat was still sore from all the laughter. Of course it wouldn't a be Eurovision wedding without Eurovision stars performing! Niamh Kavanagh was the compere for the evening and what a fine host she made. Of course the lovely Nicki French was there and put on a superb set that had everyone on their feet. It was so lovely to see people outside of the Eurovision bubble, have conversations about real life and to meet so many of Diarmuid and Willlie's family and friends. It truly was a special event and the memories of which will last for a long, long time.

So basically going to Eurovision is really like going on a trip with a hundred mates. If you're with your friends, you'll have a good time. What's the point in being at a party with nobody to talk to when you could be down the pub enjoying the craic? As people turn their attention towards Sweden 2013, that might be worth remembering. When it comes to Eurovision, you've got a friend...


Tuesday 24 July 2012

It's not about the money, money, money...

Oh dear. The cat is out of the bag. The BBC have revealed how much it cost for the UK to enter Eurovision this year. £310,000. The British media can always be trusted to report in a balanced manner of course. Hmm. The Daily Mail and The Mirror led with the "story" yesterday. You can almost hear the letters of complaint being written in haste to Auntie Beeb from Outraged of Tunbridge Wells. The Mirror even showed a deep analysis of the spending and divided this lump sum by the amount of television hours that the BBC had by screening the semi finals and grand finale. "The cost to licence fee payers works out at around £45,000-an-hour". Thank goodness that they're keeping watch! Funnily enough - they didn't report another fact, that it costs just 1.2 pence per licence payer. That doesn't sound as exciting as £45K does it?

Such coverage is yet another example of the cynical  and dismissive British attitude towards Eurovision.  Much was made of the fact that Engelbert Humperdinck finished in second last place. Does that mean that the amount spent and the value for money is only proportional to the UK placing on the scoreboard? That screams sore loser to me! Is the money really that much? Well since the articles in question do not provide a point of reference, most readers will probably have read them and been outraged at such vast amounts of money being spent in the midst of a global financial crisis. However the BBC are right, is IS extremely good value for money. A single episode of Dr Who is said to cost well over £1 million and just one hour of Strictly Come Dancing waltzes in at a whopping £370,000. Are there calls to cancel these shows? No. They are popular with viewers and so too is Eurovision. The Song Contest as a whole isn't cheap but it's international, primetime television so when it's broken down, like The Mirror so cleverly did, it is actually not so frivolous after all. 

Eurovision has also reflected a lot of the wider austerity going on in the rest of Europe. Long gone are the days of lavish parties and freebies paid for by national television stations. If countries do treat delegates to a party or a promo CD, the funding comes from sponsors and private donors, not the public purse. 2013 is rumoured to be on a smaller scale and the EBU stated in the 2012 press conference in Baku that the contest has become too large and too expensive. Should the BBC host Eurovision again I dare say that the costs will be scrutinised, just like they are with the Olympics. Of course this should be the case, they're a national broadcaster funded by the public. However, in the bigger picture of international, primetime broadcasting, these costs are not excessive. No broadcaster could afford to buy the amount of global airtime that hosting and taking part in Eurovision offers. It seems like it was yet another slow news day on Fleet Street and for the Daily Mail, yet another excuse to attack Auntie Beeb.

Thursday 5 July 2012

It's going to be a hot summer...

Well certainly not in terms of the weather that's for sure!

After the dust has settled on Eurovision 2012 it appears that the authorities in Azerbaijan are starting to take action against those pesky human rights campaigners who were part of the Sing for Democracy campaign back in May. After the contest, Ali Hasanov, released a statement condemning those who had been involved in several peaceful protests during the run-up to Eurovision in Baku. "Such people shouldn't feel they can dare to go out in the city; they should feel ashamed". Hasanov had previously stated that there would be no retaliation against protestors, something which seemed to appease the EBU at least. However this seems to be nothing more than lip-service, as expected. On 13 June Mehman Huseynov, media coordinator of the Sing for Democracy campaign, was arrested and detained for "acts of hooliganism" (didn't the authorities pay attention to the antics of many Euro fans during the week??) Whilst Huseynov has now been released, he faces a criminal case which could see him serving a lengthy prison sentence. Meanwhile journalists who criticise the government continue to be arrested. It's situations like this that remind me personally that we are very lucky in the UK (and other countries) to live in a society free from fear of persecution and intimidation. Sing for Democracy were, in my opinion, fine ambassadors for Azerbaijan. The people I spoke with were eloquent, informed and more importantly, used peaceful means to spread their message. As far as protesters go, they could teach our lot a thing or two about dignity!

Does all this mean that Eurovision should never have been in Azerbaijan? Not quite. For the first time ever a huge spotlight shone on Azerbaijan's human rights record. This was specifically because of Eurovision. The contest allowed the pro-reform protesters a voice and a platform. For civil society in a young democracy this is surely a good thing. It's saddening to hear that those who worked so hard to raise awareness of the situation in Azerbaijan are now facing repercussions. However I genuinely hope that the seeds of change have been planted and that maybe Eurovision did have a positive impact in terms of raising awareness and opening a dialogue in the country. There were calls for the boycott of Eurovision this year. This sort of misses the point. The EBU is not a political organisation and amongst the list of members are countries which have a dubious record on human rights at best. The time for questioning Azerbaijan's eligibility to be a part of Eurovision was back in 2008 when the country joined the contest. It'll certainly be a tricky time for the EBU should Belarus win in future! 

Sing for Democracy made major strides in those few weeks in the run-up to the contest. Baku may have lost out on the 2020 Olympic bid but I dare say that there will be other opportunities for that spotlight to shine in the future. The everyday people I met in Baku were absolutely delightful, for that reason alone, 2012 could quite possibly be my favourite Eurovision ever and I hope for their sake that basic human rights are upheld in Azerbaijan in future. 

In other news (or not news as the case may be) in June the Daily Mail reported that the BBC were embroiled in a "Eurovision race row" and that several "senior figures" connected to a number of previous UK entrants had gone on the record to state that they thought racism was a factor in Britain's recent flops at Eurovision and that the UK should withdraw from the competition altogether. The (poorly written) article alluded to racism behind the scenes of the contest itself. If racism is alive and well at Eurovision then how did Estonia win in 2001 with a black singer? How did the UK finish second in 1998 with Imaani (the first black UK representative)? How did the Netherlands end up in fourth place that year? How did Sweden's Loreen, who has Moroccan heritage and performed with a black dancer, storm to victory in 2012? 

Only this week Andrew Lloyd-Webber waded into the row by stating that the UK was the victim of racism in 2009. His argument holds no water. Jade Ewen came 5th out of a field of 42 in 2009, our strongest showing in the best part of a decade. Her placing can hardly be seen as a failure and she received votes from both East and West. Lloyd-Webber's comments personify and embody all that is wrong with the British attitude towards Eurovision. Why do we arrograntly assume that we are the best? Andy Abraham had a very weak song in 2008 and was rewarded with just 14 points for it. The UK public didn't buy the single either. Like Josh Dubovie in 2010, Jade Ewen in 2009 and Engelbert this year, if the British public can't get behind the song then how can we expect our cousins on the continent to vote for it? We shouldn't be so arrogant to assume that it must be someone else's fault, that we deserve to do well just for showing up. Maybe, just maybe, the likes of Javine and Andy Abraham just weren't good enough. Quite frankly Lloyd-Webber was lucky to finish 5th with such a bland, clich├ęd and repetitive song! Jade Ewen, a fantastic singer and wonderful ambassador for the UK, deserved better. 

Such reporting and blanket statements from unnamed sources do not add anything to a serious debate on a pertinent issue. On the one hand it could be argued that overt racism does appear to be a major problem, perhaps more so in the East, if recent concerns over Euro 2012 are anything to go by. Certainly Gaitana, the Ukrainian singer in 2012 faced racism from her own politicians when one minister stated that she shouldn't performing in Eurovision because she failed to represent "organic Ukrainian culture". However TV bosses stood firm and Gaitana represented her country with the anthemic, "Be My Guest". Her selection as the face of Ukraine at Eurovision was certainly an interesting one in the year that racism in Ukraine was in the spotlight as a result of the country hosting Euro 2012. In a field of 42, Gaitana finished 15th. Is this racism? I doubt it. Something like this can never really be proven which is the difficulty in having a sensible debate about it.

The article from the Daily Mail and Andrew Lloyd-Webber's comments have merely turned something which wasn't news (it only appeared because it was a slow news day) into something which is even less than a storm in a teacup. If anything, rather than racism, it screams of good old-fashioned sour grapes to me.   

Thursday 7 June 2012

Eurovision 2012: La Fiesta Termino

Just two weeks ago I was in the middle of the Eurovision bubble, in Baku. Now, it's like it never happened. Eurovision 2012 may be over but it won't be easily forgotten by those who were there.

Something interesting happened this year though, the big fan favourite of the contest actually won! Sweden's Loreen was riding high in both the betting odds and fan polls and yet somehow I didn't think she would actually take the trophy. There have been too many times when a big fan favourite has failed at the final hurdle; Hungary in 2011, Iceland in 2010, Sweden in 2008 and of course two of the most spectacular flops: Belgium in 2006 and Cyprus in 1999. Personally, I didn't mind the song, I thought it was ok and still do. It wasn't my favourite (good old Eesti was, and still is!) but I am happy that Sweden won. Why? Well two reasons: firstly, it's a massive hit all over Europe which is good for the contest. "Euphoria" is currently sitting at number three in the UK top 40. This is an amazing achievement and means that the 2012 Eurovision winner is the biggest non-UK Eurovision hit since Germany's Nicole hit the top spot 30 years ago! The second reason is a purely selfish one; Sweden is easy to get to and accommodation will be (hopefully) pain-free to arrange! Now the beer prices, well, that's a whole other matter!

Hard luck to the UK, finishing second last was certainly disappointing. I thought the BBC made a brave decision to choose The Hump and in terms of UK audience, it was a stroke of genius. When it was announced that Engelbert Humperdinck would be representing the UK in Eurovision, there was intense media interest. The story featured on both the BBC and ITV news programmes. In terms of the profile of the contest, it was a triumph.

As for the song, it was pleasant, unoffensive and perfectly crafted. However, it wasn't instant enough for the average viewer and poor Engelbert's renditions were just a little bit off. On the Friday evening, when the juries were voting, The Hump didn't turn in his finest performance. That will have undoubtedly cost the UK valuable jury votes. On the Saturday night final, he looked a little out of his depth and ultimately delivered a disappointing performance. There was also the draw which didn't help poor Engelbert and the fact that this year was deemed by many fans to be a strong one and the winner too close to call.

I don't buy into the notion that "Europe hates us". We just weren't good enough. As much as I think the BBC made a brave and genius decision to select The Hump, he hadn't had a hit since the 1970s. Yes, there is always neighbourly voting - that's always been the case in Eurovision and probably always will be. The UK and Ireland are just as guilty of that these days. Ultimately though, the winner received points across the board with only one country, Italy, failing to give Sweden anything.

If the UK are hated so much by the public then how come Blue finished 5th in the televote last year? How come Jade Ewen finished 5th overall in Moscow in 2009? Eurovision is a television show on a Saturday night, do we really think people are sitting at home thinking "that's a great song from the UK but I couldn't vote for it because of David Cameron"? I think such notions, quite frankly, give too much credence to the average voter in Eurovision. Part of the issue may also lie in the voting structure in Eurovision. Only ten countries score points (1-8, 10, 12) so technically The Hump might have been mid-table with many countries and failed to score.

In a strong year, in a field of 42 entries, what makes us think that we deserve to be up there for simply gracing the stage? If the UK public couldn't get behind the song (it charted at number 60), then how can we expect Europe to vote for it? Such attitudes fail to acknowledge that Eurovision has changed and we have to change with it, come back next year, with something fresh and new and give Europe a damn good thrashing! Hard luck Engelbert, you were a fantastic ambassador for the UK and didn't have a thing to lose! Thank you for the music!

Azerbaijan was an interesting setting for the 2012 contest and one which I am incredibly glad that I went to. It was a year to remember for a number of reasons. Baku is four hours ahead of UK time which certainly played havoc with the old body clock! Allegations of human rights abuses, concerns about freedom of the press and freedom of expression, coupled with tensions between Azerbaijan and both Armenia and Iran meant that Eurovision 2012 was perhaps the most politically-charged contest of all time. I met some incredibly brave and inspiring people in Baku and I salute those from organisations such as Sing For Democracy who put themselves on the line. Activists did not want us to boycott Azerbaijan, they wanted us to come to the country and experience it for ourselves. A year ago there was no discussion concerning Azerbaijan's human rights record, where as now, there is a dialogue and I see that as a positive thing. I hope that the work that human rights activists do is allowed to progress without hindrance. It was interesting to note that Anke Engelke, one of the presenters from 2011, directly addressed the political situation in Azerbaijan during the voting:

"Tonight nobody could vote for their own country. But it is good to be able to vote. And it is good to have a choice. Good luck on your journey, Azerbaijan. Europe is watching you."  

The volunteers and the ordinary people I met in Baku were wonderful. They were so incredibly friendly and helpful and were a credit to their country. Special thanks should also go to my friend Zuly who helped to arrange accommodation and contacts for me and also her brother Haji who was incredibly hospitable and provided us with a memorable evening of fine cuisine and followed by some karaoke I'd rather forget!

For me personally, Eurovision 2012 was exciting and interesting. I was fortunate to be interviewed by a variety of media outlets including the BBC's World Service as well as The Telegraph, Daily Express and even The Sun! I owe a debt of gratitude to the BBC3 team as well who produced the UK coverage of the two semi finals and provided me with a platform as 'Dr Eurovision'. I came home feeling very exhausted but overall, incredibly happy. Many of my friends talked about experiencing PED or Post-Eurovision Depression. I too have had a few pangs and certainly missed the friends I have made over the years and the new ones I met in Baku. I am already looking forward to being reunited again as our thoughts turn to Sweden in 2013. Ulimately though, it's back to reality which for now, is outside of the Eurovision bubble.

Thursday 24 May 2012

Eurovision 2012 Semi Final Two

Well the first semi final came and went without any real drama. There weren't any real shock qualifiers. I thought Switzerland would qualify ahead of Hungary. I think Albania probably got in on the jury vote and poor little Montenegro and San Marino - yet to see the final. It's always quite difficult to judge who is singing well when in the arena and how a song comes across on television is always very different. It was a tense moment when Ireland was the last country called - big relief all round at RTE!

I was fortunate enough to be asked to join the BBC3 crew to give my views on the show. It was a great experience and I really enjoyed it. Slightly awkward at times though as it was so noisy in the arena. Having watched it back, I now realise I need to smile more! I was called all the names under the sun on Twitter - creepy was my personal favourite. I prefer sleazy myself! It was a fantastic experience and I am very grateful that I was given this opportunity. I'll be on tonight, immediately after the results are announced.

As for tonight, I think this is the stronger semi and there could be one or two upsets. With five former Yugoslav states together it'll be interesting to see how the votes are split. Will Sweden's Loreen win this semi? Will she just miss out? We'll know in a few short hours!

Security has been really strict here over the last few days. It's taking quite a while to get into the press centre as they're searching everyone thoroughly. On Tuesday night there were plain clothes security guards sitting in the audience. There weren't exactly difficult to identify as they were watching everyone like hawks and looking thoroughly miserable! There are armed guards with sniffer dogs patrolling the arena and warships on the horizon of the Caspian sea.

The other night I had an unfortunate incident with a taxi driver who ripped me off. Given that it was an official taxi, I thought it would be fine. Alarm bells started ringing when he was incredibly reluctant to put on the meter and then when it came to paying the swine claimed I gave him a 1 AZN note when it was a 10. It could have been worse of course but still a little irritating to say the least!

Last night a group of us went to a bar near the old town. It's basically gay or gay-friendly - a little illicit but interesting nonetheless. There were lots of transvestites and transgender women there along with local men. I got chatting to one of the lads there and he was telling me that life as an out gay man is incredibly difficult and so most choose to conceal their sexuality. Not so different from other places then really. Don't ask, don't tell.

Here are my predictions for tonight:

- Serbia
- FYR Macedonia
- Ukraine
- Slovenia
- Sweden
- Netherlands
- Georgia
- Turkey
- Estonia
- Norway

Of course I'll probably be completely wrong! Enjoy the show!


Tuesday 22 May 2012

Eurovision Semi Final One

Tonight is the night! It's the first semi final of the 2012 Eurovision Song Contest! The excitement is building and it's shaping up to be a great show!

It's been an interesting few days here in Baku. There was an unsanctioned protest in the city centre yesterday which was very swifly controlled by the police and several arrests were made. It serves as a reminder that some people feel aggreived with life here in Azerbaijan.

The people of Baku continue to be warm, friendly and helpful. A few of us called into McDonald's the other night for a quick burger (terrible I know!) and a group of young Azeri lads sat down and started to chat to us. They were so nice and really interested in hearing where we were from and what we thought of Baku. I get the feeling here that people seem more excited by all these visitors to their country rather than the contest specifically. Somehow I don't think you would a group teenagers in Birmingham or Bristol pulling up a chair and asking about Eurovision!

The security outside the arena is very strict, there are police everywhere and warships on the horizon! It's unclear whether that's just the way things are done here or if the authorities are a aware of a specific threat. Eurovision is a large international event after all.

As for the qualifiers tonight, I am increasingly clueless! I've heard the songs too many times. With so many strong entries this year, we could be in for some surprises! I'm due to be interviewed on BBC3 tonight after the songs, fingers crossed all goes well!

Monday 21 May 2012

Eurovision 2012: Days Seven & Eight

A bit of a delayed update to the blog today. Things are getting more and more hectic here as more people arrive. The atmosphere is building but so too are tensions.

The opening party was a fun night but as a party it wasn't up to much. It seems that the Azeris have been working so hard on building the arena that they forgot to plan the ceremony. There was no sense of occasion and the usual hassle to get served at the bar. Given the money that Azerbaijan have spent this year, it seems like a missed opportunity to promote themselves.

I've been interviewing some local Azeri people who appear to be more excited by the fact that there are so many people here and interested in their country rather than Eurovision itself. In general people have been very friendly and continue to say "Welcome to Baku". If I didn't know better I would think that they had been told to say this at every opportunity!

Apparently Armenian music has been officially banned in the Euroclub after the awkward situation the other night. It's difficult to know the truth of the matter. I think given the context, the absence of Armenian music in Azerbaijan might not be such a bad idea.

Sunday morning was a struggle. One or two sore heads were walking around the press centre. In the evening I went to the Serbian reception which was superb. It was a classy event with a sense of occasion, everything the official opening ceremony was not. The Serbian singer Zeljko performed several of his songs, a true artist. I was talking to a lovely Bosnian lady and she was talking about the war in the Balkans and that music is the one thing which unites people. It might sound corny but surely that was the whole point of Eurovision?

I then hopped over to a gig arranged by Sing For Democracy, calling for recognition of human rights in Azerbaijan. It was a covert gig and I was a little nervous at first but was pleased that I went. Eurovision is a bubble and some people here don't want to talk politics. There is a real issue here though. We are here working in the media in a country that has journalists in prison for criticising the government. In the UK we take it for granted that we can have an opinion and have it heard. We don't live in fear that there might be repurcussions. I salute those peope who organised the event and wish them all the best as they continue to put themselves on the line. It is worth mentioning though, most people here seem perfectly happy. This isn't North Korea.

The days are merging into one right now - I intended to go to Ralph Siegel's dinner party too but in the end there was no time. By all accounts I missed out on a surreal and special evening.

I've got a big list of notes but heading into the first dress rehearsal now - more tomorrow!

Saturday 19 May 2012

Eurovision 2012: Day Six

Well I've been in Baku nearly a week now and feel like I've lived here for years. I've finally sorted out my sense of direction and even know how and when to argue with the taxi drivers! Progress indeed!

I walked to the arena this morning - in glorious sunshine - and managed to get burned and step into a deceptive puddle. It looked about half a centimetre deep and turned out to be a crater of clay! Messy! I asked one of the gardeners to hose the shoe down and he went one better, he put it on and used the jet spray. Poor chap got soaked in the process but he was happy to help. The locals here have been so helpful and continue to work throughout the day and night in preparation for next week. A disabled toilet has appeared in the press centre. When I say disabled, a sign has been placed on one of the doors and railings have been inserted. The cubicle however, has not been widened so it's somewhat pointless and clearly an afterthought.

The Ralph Siegel party is actually on Sunday - I'm hoping to go! So another night in Euroclub it was. The DJs are mixing Eurovision music with more dancy stuff and it seems to be working. Unlike Moscow there the lack of Eurovision music really made the Euroclub a disappointing place to be, here in Baku, there is an attempt at compromise.

I often wonder what the security guards think of the delegates at Eurovision - loads of camp queens flouncing around and dancing to bizarre music. The volunteers also continue to dance the night away and are always great fun. A slightly awkward moment came last night when Armenia's 2010 Eurovision entry, "Apricot Stone" was played in the Euroclub. I've never seen a dancefloor clear so quickly! Some Azeris did stay, although it's unclear if they knew what they were dancing to. Another young lad ran around waving the Azeri flag vehemently. Politics is never far from Eurovision.

             Bemused security guards at the Euroclub       The party in full swing

The UK delegation are flying over tonight and will rehearse tomorrow. Then of course it's the opening party. More later!

Friday 18 May 2012

Eurovision 2012: Day Five

They say that Eurovision not a sprint, it's a marathon. How true that is. Nearly a week in Baku and the tiredness is starting to creep in. I've been pacing myself though and not been drinking all that much alcohol (it's true!) Quite a lot of people have been a bit iffy over the past few days, myself included, we aren't sure if it's the different food, the heat or the booze, or maybe a combination. A little tip if you're planning on coming to Baku - bring imodium with you!

Traffic in Baku is mad, and so are the drivers. The shuttle bus to the arena is definitely the easiest (and safest) option. Each bus leaves with a policeman (or someone in a uniform anyway) sitting with us for the journey. Every time I board, I'm asked where I'm from. It does seem that people here are genuinely interested and curious about the thousands of visitors to their country. I've found the locals to be really friendly and helpful despite some unscrupulous taxi drivers trying their luck!

There was drama during the day when a number of websites crashed after a series of cyber attacks. One of the biggest, ESCToday, remains offline. A bizarre picture was displayed and it turns out that it was an anti-gay group who were responsible and the source has been listed as Iran. It's pretty nasty stuff, the translation reads:

"What will gays bring to Azerbaijan? What will happen in Azerbaijani families after gay pride? There is no place for immoral gays in Azerbaijan. Leave our country. No place to stay in Azerbaijan for gays who look like animals. There is no place for evil in this country. We paint blue to red blood".

Personally I do not feel unsafe here and in those sorts of situations you just need to keep calm and carry on! Of course security is tight and there are lots of people in suits circling the arena but all these attacks did was to send the rumour mill into overdrive. If you put enough Eurovision fans/press together in the same room a story will appear from somewhere. Usually it's completely made up, sometimes it's not. One of the ones I heard was that there are secret police mingling in the crowds for our safety. Who knows? Let's hope for everyones' sake that this event passes off peacefully.

On a slightly cheerier note, the Georgian party took place in the Euroclub last night. I'm not a fan of red wine but given that the Georgians had invited us to sample their local wine I thought it would be rude not to! It was absolutely delicious! Alongside the wine and food, the Georgians treated us to shots of chacha, a strong "vine vodka". As is customary at many of these parties, our hosts also put on a show. Several acts took to the stage (Belarus, Malta) and of course Georgia's own Anri. All in all, a fine evening. Georgian parties don't disappoint and they are now becoming the highlight of the Eurovision party circuit.

The Georgian party in full-swing!

Tomorrow evening I've been invited to a party hosted by Ralph Siegel to celebrate 30 years since his victory in Eurovision with "Ein Bischen Freiden" in 1982. I can't seem to find my invitation though, it's probably under a pile of clothes in the apartment, it remains to be seen whether I'll actually make it! More tomorrow!

Thursday 17 May 2012

Eurovision 2012: Day Four

Baku has the horn. All the time. The car horn that is. The noise is constant and becoming a little irritating. Once one starts, they all start! I don't really know why they do it as it surely doesn't make a difference to the traffic. I guess we'll get used to it and at least I have my ear plugs.

Rehearsals are continuing - today was the second half of the second semi final. Things are starting to take shape here in Baku. The shuttle buses are running and the pavements outside the arena are nearly there. I think it'll look stunning next week. Amazing progress has been made since I arrived last Saturday and I dare say that more progress will be made in the coming days.

Georgia took to the stage today and the general feeling here is that it's going to qualify. Georgia have never failed to make the final and certainly know how to stage their songs for maximum effect. By all accounts it's a stunning country and I would love for Eurovision to be there one year. I asked the delegation about the importance of Eurovision for Georgia and they were very forthright in their response stating that as a small country they have a lot to offer but what they lack is a platform and Eurovision offers them this. "This is our chance to show ourselves to Europe" according to Maya, the head of delegation. They also said that it is Georgian policy to take part in every major event to promote Georgian talent and the state itself. Maya added that every year the Georgian Public Broadcaster ensures that there is a national element in their Eurovision entries, whether it be a costume or a flag and this year is no different.

What people really wanted to know though, was where and when would the Georgian party be? Every year Georgia hosts THE party of the Eurovision season. Indeed in 2010 it rivalled the official welcome reception! The Georgians are fine hosts and always prove themselves to be the most hospitable of all the Eurovision delegations. I don't see the 2012 event, which takes place tomorrow night, being any different.

Azerbaijan's Safura enjoying the Georgian party in 2010

Estonia also rehearsed yesterday. Which of course, for me, was the highlight of the day. I am a wannabe Estonian and I admit it - I did get a PhD out of my love of that country after all! Of course I will always wave the Estonian flag at Eurovision regardless of the song but this year the song is actually my favourite. "Kuula" is stunningly good and Ott Lepland has a brilliant voice. The performance was hampered by a few technical hitches but was still impressive. Coming after the more uptempo performances of Georgia and Turkey, this really stands out and I can see this doing very well indeed. It's been ten years since Estonia hosted Eurovision and the team stated that whilst the contest has changed, the significance of hosting a large international event has not diminished. The Estonians are a very professional and self-assured bunch and you can clearly see the similarities between Estonians and their Nordic neighbours in the way that they carry themselves.

The biggest talent in Estonia: Ott Lepland

The press centre is gradually getting busier and the promotional items have started to materialise. Azerbaijan are getting in on the act too and there is an abundance of books and magazines revealing the delights that this country has to offer. Coupled with the tea served in national costume and the traditional snacks, it is clear that the Azeris are not wasting this opportunity to showcase their country. I am a little annoyed with myself though - I bought one of those Baku magazines in WH Smith and it cost me a fiver! Here in Baku there are hundreds of copies going for free! Typical!

 Promoting Azerbaijan at every opportunity

Tomorrow it's the Georgian party - I think there might be one or two sore heads on Friday!

Wednesday 16 May 2012

Eurovision 2012: Day Three

All the days appear to be merging into one. I seem to have lost track of what is going on in the real world. The perils of the Eurovision bubble!

We've finally worked out where the shuttle buses to the arena leave from (the very plush Hilton!) Getting to the hotel was more than a challenge. You would think that crossing a road would be simple but not in Baku. The cars kept on coming and coming and coming. When in doubt follow what the natives do; just step out in front of the on-coming traffic and hope that they stop. When in Rome and all that. We lived to tell the tail and boarded the shuttle bus to the Crystal Hall.

There is more food available in the press centre (at a small charge) and coffee has arrived. It seems that slowly but surely things are becoming more organised. Outside the landscaping is continuing and the pavements are nearing completion. They're working day and night in preparation for next week. Security is pretty tough and airport-style checks are in place. This is the only press centre where I've noticed that the security officers have guns. I'm not sure if this is just the Azeri way or if it's as a result of some sort of threat.

Building continues outside the arena

On the streets, people continue to stare. Eurovision delegates are a curious attraction. In the local mini market several school girls piled in to speak to us and in general people have been very friendly. One thing which is notable is that I've not seen much in the way of people begging or stray dogs for that matter. Could it be that the rumours of "cleansing" the streets are true? Several YouTube videos suggest that culls have taken place and beggars removed from the city centre. Who knows?

Another day of rehearsals. Ukraine was the most highly anticipated of the day. Gaitana is in my opinion, the best singer in the contest. She's a belter. As for the staging, whilst it was only the first rehearsal, it looked a bit "busy". After she was selected to sing for Ukraine, Gaitana came under attack from politician Yuriy Syrotyuk who claimed that she failed to represent "organic Ukrainian culture". In other words she's a bit too black for his liking. I asked Gaitana about her response to this. She said that it was the first time in her life that she had experienced overt racism in Ukraine and that whilst she was initally devastated, she chose not to respond and kept a diginified silence. Gaitana is a classy lady and a fine ambassador for her country. It's interesting that she is the first singer of African origin to represent Ukraine, with their Euro 2012 anthem, in the same year that there are concerns over racist football fans overshadowing the matches.

In the evening I went to meet up with some locals who had befriended many of us on Facebook. We went to a local bar and learned about life in Azerbaijan. Later on it was decided that we would go to the Euroclub for a bit of dancing. You can't get into the Euroclub without accreditation. However our new friends somehow managed after one of them phoned their father. It seems that money and connections speak louder than regulations here.

Tomorrow Estonia, my adopted country, take to the stage. Stay tuned!

Tuesday 15 May 2012

Eurovision 2012: Day Two

Things are really starting to come together here. Slowly but surely the arena and surrounding areas are being finished. Whilst in terms of organisation things are still a little chaotic, there are long delays in rehearsals and the wifi in the press centre is unreliable, things are starting to take shape here.

The Crystal Hall at night

The security is tight around the arena and it's not all that clear how to get to the press centre from the road but the police in general have been quite helpful. A few of them were reading off cards, "Please show me your identification". It's better than pointing and gesticulating although I imagine there might be some tricky moments should someone ask a question that's not on the script. Forced evictions anyone? (Allegedly!)

Today saw Russia's first rehearsal and what a rehearsal it was. The Buranovskiye Babushki are simply delightful. Only the Russians could have 20 people on the stage for the first rehearsal. They appeared to have a musical director, choreographer and stylist up there, continuously providing instructions. Eventually, when the six grannies were left to it, their performance built into a heart-warming display. The staging of this is so effective and the old girls are so endearing. Their press conference was a hoot and of course the biggest cheer went to the little old toothy one. Each of these ladies has their own story and it would be fascinating to hear more about their lives.

There are eight Buranovskiye Babushki but only six will perform in Eurovision

Ireland's Jedward took to the stage yesterday and seem to be using a water feature which looks like it belongs in a garden somewhere in Wiltshire. I have a feeling that they have a few tricks up their sleeves though. John and Edward are incredibly savvy and know exactly what they are doing. They are funny and witty and their press conference, whilst chaotic (they came in throwing popcorn around), was the most fun of the day. Linda Martin was there too - she was paying close attention to the camera angles in the rehearsal - they know exactly what they are doing. Linda looks amazing and so much younger than she did in 1992 and 1984 for that matter. I very nearly lost my glasses yesterday though after John (or was it Edward?) threw a banana at our table with brute force. I think they're really likeable, even if they did make fun of my accent when I took to the microphone! 

There was an unsanctioned protest here in the city centre yesterday. The press centre at Eurovision is essentially a bubble though so it was over by the time we knew anything about it. I dare say that there will be more of this in the coming weeks. I think these people are brave if the reports by Amnesty International are anything to go by.

Things are finishing late here and Ireland's press conference didn't close until 21.30. A group of us went for a meal and decided to give the Euroclub a miss and have a relatively early night. Me? Early night? I must be getting old! On the way home a few of us decided to stop off at a local bar, The Pirate Bar. We entered into what can only be described as a knocking shop. It was like one of those scenes from a film where everyone looks up and stares, "this is a local bar for local people". One of the more bizarre moments was when a few of the punters took to the dancefloor and proceeded to gyrate in front of a large mirror. They didn't seem to be dancing for fun, but more performing - I wonder if anyone was behind the mirror? There was also an interesting lady (resembling a brothel madam) who kept changing the ashtray on the table even though none of us were smoking. After one drink and several lingering stares, we decided to leave pronto. It's experiences like this though that make Eurovision so unique which is why I love it!

More tomorrow!