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May 19, 2006

Eurovision song contest semi-final

One of the unforseen consequences of the break-up of the monolithic Eastern European nation states into many smaller countries was the knock-on effect on pan-European insitutions like UEFA (12 matches for seeded teams to qualify for Euro2008 - are you sure postie?) and the Eurovision Song Contest.

Now that there are too many countries to get through all of the songs in one evening, Thursday night was Eurovision semi-final night, when most of the countries that were rubbish last-time out get the chance to qualify for Saturday's gala final. Except Croatia who, despite being rubbish last time, have been promoted straight into the final after Serbia-Montenegro withdrew following a nationalist dispute over the selection of their entry.

Of course in the UK the show is much-derided. Yesterday's BBC homepage heralded the semi-final being shunted onto digital-only BBC Three with the sarcastic promise that "Presenter Paddy O'Connell quivers with excitement as 23 acts compete for a place in the final."

Over here it is something quite different. I'm sure that BBC One will look at the overnight figures on Sunday morning and weep compared to the 94% reach the show had here last year! 94% of the population! Watching Eurovision! Imagine that! Saturday's final is expecting 100 million viewers across Europe in total, and generate millions of Euros in tourist revenue for Greece.

That means it is a deadly serious business, but watching the semi-final I still missed Terry Wogan mumbling along, like a drunken old uncle saying aloud the unkind thoughts that everyone was already thinking.

Of course, the thing is, that now there is a semi-final, it is more compulsive viewing than ever - the rubbish songs here are the songs that aren't even good enough to make it to the Eurovison final! Highlights yesterday included:

Poland - oh yes, we'll have around 17 different singers, all dressed as if they are going to a masqued ball in Venice - except for the really ugly one who will show their face and hold the masque out to one side. Then some catherine wheel fireworks will go off in the background.

Russia - fronted by a guy who appeared to be trying to do an impression of Jim Carrey in The Cable Guy. Halfway through the song a ballerina emerges from a piano. No, you read that right - that is what happened. They qualified for the final so expect to hear Wogan choking on his drink when that happens again on Saturday.

Lithuania - this basically consisted of six suited blokes shouting "We are the Eurovision winners. Vote for us". Very post-post-modern. Could destroy the entire concept of the competition if it wins. May turn out to have been a stunt by Brian Eno/the KLF/Malcolm MacLaren. If not, they might claim it was.

The Former Yugoslavian Republic of Macedonia - regardless of the song, just please don't call them simply "Macedonia" - it upsets the Greeks something chronic. Incidentally the woman singing it appeared to be dressed as Wonder Woman.

Meanwhile Andorra, a country so small you imagine that writing a song for Eurovision is actually compulsarory, contributed an effort where someone decided the best way to disguise the fact that the singer was slightly, shall we say, generously over-sized, was to offset her with four sylphs in camisole, knicker, stocking and suspender outfits. Well, it certainly distracted me anyway.

Albania went for a clash of the modern and the traditional - on the right some guys in jeans singing along. On the left, a guy using the carcass of a sheep as a nose-flute. As you do.

Finlandlordi Finland went for an astonishing "we'll dress up as diseased zombies then play diseased zombie metal at you" entry called "Hard Rock Hallelujah". Which was my favourite. At least it was different. In fact I think I voted for it. By the time it finished here it was around midnight, I was quite drunk, and following the instructions on how to vote in Greek was quite complicated - I voted for something anyway! ;-)

When the final comes around on Saturday don't bet against Greece retaining the title - Anna Vissi's song "Everything" is ubiquitous over here, already released in Cyprus (12 points), Turkey (nul points) and Finland (after seeing their entry who knows?), and is a mid-tempo power ballad in English that sounds like a sure-fire winner to me.

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