Eurovision 2016: Interview with Creative Director Nicoline Refsing

Nicoline Refsing was one of Eurovision 2016’s Creative Director, responsible for Australia, San Marino, and Italy’s visual presentation.

I got the chance to speak to her about her work during Eurovision week in between rehearsals. You can hear the interview in the player below.

Nicoline has worked behind the scenes across the entertainment industry. Her prodction design and creative direction company Rockart Design was founded from scratch five years ago in 2011, following six years spent working with set and production designer Mark Fisher of Stufish. Nicoline has worked with One Direction, The National Television Awards, The BRIT Awards, The Eurovision Song Contest and X Factor.

Meeting Nicoline was a joy. Our brief time together alerted to me one thing I had all but overlooked about Eurovision: that there is a human being contributing something of themselves at every stage of the process. Television is throwaway, but the demands we have of it are considerable.

The people meeting those demands with towering achievements like those Nicoline was responsible for in 2014 are often overlooked by those of us staring at the TV screen. It’s time for those people to step into the limelight.

Eurovision 2016: Grand Final running order, bite-size reviews, and FAQs

Eurovision feels like it’s been going on for months. For some it really has. For me, its just been a matter of two. Even so, the fact we’re here staring the Grand Final in the face seems almost unbelievable (as well as fantastically exciting).

Below are my hastily cobbled together summaries for each of the songs in this year’s final. Below them are the answers (mine) to some frequently asked questions.

Belgium – a foot-tapping crowd-pleaser; ultimately, musically unsatisfying
Czech Republic – good dramatic arena song
The Netherlands – quality country number – Radio 2 fodder; bland
Azerbaijan – mildly arresting chord progressions
Hungary – voice on the brink of collapse; everyone’s going wild for this – don’t know why
Italy – pretty but difficult to sing along to; staging is a bit weird
Israel – a breathtakingly sweet anthem sung by an adorably articulate LGBT advocate
Bulgaria – nice work Bulgaria
Sweden – over-rated and over-hyped; sung with a contrived voice
Germany – weird, uninteresting filler
France – great hook, Amir has a gorgeous smile, but it is overrated
Poland – musically unadventurous
Australia – the finest Eurovision anthem for fifteen years; classy; faultless
Cyprus – unusual but it looks a bit silly on stage
Serbia – Amy Winehouse-esque
Lithuania – Pretty boy with stupid hair trying to be Justin Bieber
Croatia – arena pleaser with a weak chorus
Russia – high octane whirlwind sung by a rufty-tufty pint-sized secret agent; joyless experience
Spain – classy floor-filling crowd-pleaser
Latvia – memorable hook, joyous and inclusive
Ukraine – arresting, remarkably powerful
Malta – Quality, but may feel a little lost
Georgia – No one is entirely sure how this got through
Austria – I didn’t like this to begin with; now I do
United Kingdom – our best song for years; aiming for leaderboard left hand side
Armenia – Underwhelming

Top Ten placings (not in order): The Netherlands, Azerbaijan, Sweden, France. Australia. Russia, Ukraine, Malta, Austria. and UK

Potential Winners: Australia, Russia, Sweden, Italy, Israel 

Frequently Asked Questions

What is Eurovision?

For God’s Sake. You need to ask this question? Watch this.

Who are the favourites to win Eurovision this year? 

Everyone’s talking about Russia walking this year’s contest. They’d certainly love to win it, though the prospect of going to Russia for next year’s contest isn’t encouraging much of the Contest’s core fanbase. Sweden’s over-hyped ‘If I were sorry‘ is being touted too. But in the last week, Australia has developed an impressive lead in terms of buzz, so too Ukraine. I don’t think it’s a dead cert for Russia. Some are talking about France winning, though I’m doubtful.
What are the songs to keep an eye out for?

Australia, Ukraine, Russia, Israel, and Spain

What are the songs to avoid? 

Georgia. There was a queue at the gents during the semi-final when Georgia was performing. Enough said.
When can we hear the UK’s song? What is it? Who’s singing it? 

We’re 25th in the running order. The song is called ‘You’re Not Alone’ and it’s sung by Joe and Jake (former Voice contestants). They’re a perky pair who can nail live vocals. Whilst their stage act may lack the impact some of the other numbers have, there’s no reason for us to look on with shame. It’s a pleasing number which looks OK on screen. 25th place may not be a great place to be singing – being in the second half is a good thing, but it may be that people have already made up their minds by the time Joe and Jake hit the stage.

Who decides who sings when? 

Earlier in the week there was a draw to decide which of the ‘Big Five’ countries (Spain, UK, Germany, Italy and France) would sing in which half of the final contest. When the final countries qualified on Thursday night, another draw decided which of the remaining countries would perform in which half.

Why is the running order important? 

Where a country appears in the running order does seem important for winners. Generally speaking, most of the winners over the past ten years have performed somewhere between 14-18th. Not at all of them have, but most.  Any country that sings after a commercial break is going to suffer a bit – TV viewers attention wanes after a commercial break, so the song needs to have even greater impact to drag the viewer’s attention back to the screen. The second half is generally better than the first, but too late in the second half and an act may suffer because viewers have already made up their minds.

It’s all bollocks, isn’t it? 

If you think that Eurovision is all bollocks then you’re probably British and misinformed. Eurovision is big. It’s a big deal to win it and its an even bigger deal to host it. It’s also commercially important for a lot of recording companies across the world. It’s incredibly important to the European Broadcasting Union (who are looking to expand into Asia, Africa and the US). The rest of Europe gets its (the rest of Europe isn’t quite so snooty about pop); it’s just us Brits who are sniffy about it because – by and large – we can’t let ourselves go.

Why is the UK no good at Eurovision? 

Because we haven’t tried especially hard in recent years and that’s down to recording companies and artists in the UK fearing it. That isn’t to do with the competition itself, rather the UK’s perception of it.

This year we’ve invested in a fruitful relationship with a music consultant, chosen a credible song (from a selection of six credible songs), and we’ve done a lot of PR. It still may not quite work – we’re not aiming to win, we’re looking for a place on the left-hand side of the leaderboard. Anything above that is a bonus. The thinking is that if we do well, then UK audiences will sit up and take notice, making it easier for UK artists and songwriters to take part.

Some say we’ll do even better if we participate in the semi-finals (we don’t now because we put a lot of money into the competition). But, to do that, France, Germany, Italy, and Spain will have to agree to that too, and that seems a little unlikely.

What sort of song is a good Eurovision song now? 

There’s no typical Eurovision song. If anything, its about music entertainment now. You’ll know what songs are dated – it will lack a certain sophistication and feel like a bit of an effort. But, there are a growing number of distinctive tracks which when you hear them you’ll want to hear that again. Just keep a careful eye out for the songs that have over-the-top visuals as they’re almost certainly covering up a weak song.

Why is Israel in the Eurovision? 

This is a noddy question. You shouldn’t be asking it. Eurovision is a broadcast network coined by a journalist 60-odd years ago in reference to some of the early experimental broadcasts the European Broadcasting Union made. It referred to a network of communications networks which distributed live TV pictures throughout (then) Europe. Membership of the European Broadcasting Union isn’t limited to countries on the European continent, but (basically) any country that will pay the membership fees. When a country’s broadcaster is a paid-up member of the EBU, they have the chance to participate in Eurovision – one of many membership benefits. Romania were meant to be participating in this year’s contest but were removed from the Contest a fortnight ago after non-payment of membership fees for a total of 9 years.

Why is Australia in the Eurovision? 

See above, but note that Australia is a guest competitor, invited because they have had a feed of the Eurovision for the past 20-odd years. There can be no doubt that they will become permanent paid-up members in the years to come. Their involvement is broadly accepted.

Will the US ever be in the Eurovision? 

No-one’s saying anything at the moment, but the EBU Exec Supervisor Jon Ola Sand is engaged on an expansionist strategy, so no-one should be surprised when the day comes that Eurovision is dropped as a title for “World Vision”.

Eurovision 2016 – Audio: Letters from Stockholm

During my trip to Eurovision this year, I made a series of podcasts for ESC Insight. For those interested in how they were made, each unscripted episode was recorded in one take, edited in an hour, and mixed in two. Many thanks to the ESC Insight Team for the platform – they’ve been a joy to make.

I’ve collated the links to all of them below, each will take you off to the ESC Insight website – there’s an embedded player on each page.

1. Letters From Stockholm: Dear Portugal…
Jon Jacob brings his unique view to the Eurovision Song Contest in his first ‘Letter From Stockholm’. Preparations for a trip to the Song Contest should never be skipped over. Take your time to think about the journey. Expect obsessive tendencies and music from 1982 and 1996.

2. Letters From Stockholm: Dear Scoreboard…
On his trip out to Stockholm, Jon Jacob takes time to think about what he wants, doesn’t want, and what he’s prepared to accept out of his trip to Eurovision, and some music from  1975, 1988, 1993, and 2016.

3. Letters From Stockholm: Dear Accreditation Badge
Jon Jacob arrives at the Press Centre greeted with a Swedish welcome. Soon after, the very thing he went there to collect is under the microscope he brought with him. If you’re of getting yourself accredited, be sure to listen to the latest of his  ‘Letters From Stockholm’.

4. Letters From Stockholm: Dear Fans…
Grab a bottle of your favourite tipple and pour yourself a large glass of it. You will thank us for it. Jon Jacob needs to have a quiet word in your ear about something in today’s episode of ‘Letters From Stockholm’.

5. Letters From Stockholm: Dear Euroclub
Jon Jacob’s had a late night at the pleasure of the British Ambassador and attending a party he wasn’t invited to. We’re not entirely clear how much he consumed, but it sounds like it was a lot.

6. Letters From Stockholm: Dear Eurovision … 
The Eurovision Song Contest might be the biggest show on Earth, but it’s also a personal journey for everyone attending, including Jon Jacob. How did his journey start, what is different this year, and what will he take away from Stockholm?






Eurovision 2016 – Semi Final Two: Results

The results from the second Eurovision 2016 semi-final are as follows:

Lithuania were lucky to get through – Donny Montell’s return to Eurovision did look as dull as it was desperate. I’m not entirely sure who voted for that. I’m entirely sure how Georgia secured their vote, nor Poland. But, I am delighted for Israel, so too Australia, and I’m right behind Ukraine – it was so lovely to be a part of the warm reaction in response to ‘1944’.

Eurovision 2016 – Semi Final One: Results

The qualifiers from Semi Final One are as follows:

Nine of my 10 predicted qualifiers got through – Estonia failed to qualify. Shame. That was my absolute favourite of the night.

Finland turned out to be just as I feared it would be: shouty and challenging vocals. Bosnia and Herzegovina looked cheap and ponderous, and my theory that the creepiness of San Marino might actually make it an unexpected qualifier turned out to be wrong too. In short the voters and the juries appeared to wheedle out the crap in the first semi-final (with the exception of Estonia).

I think Azerbaijan is the weakest of the bunch – the vocals weren’t, to my mind, totally secure. Russia confuses me visually. What I’m fascinated by is getting a sense of how much my issues with the presentation and the song will be reflected in the voting by the mainstream audiences on Saturday night. I fear they won’t and they’ll go on their instinct and vote Russia.

There was a rather beautiful and incredibly moving choreographed number as part of the interval act which was the most compelling piece of entertainment of the entire night. The dance sequence reflected the ongoing refugee crisis in Europe.