ABBA: Super Troupers exhibition at Southbank Centre from Thursday 14 December

It seems a little early to be talking about December. But this is ABBA. All rules should be broken for ABBA.

From 14 December 2017, Southbank Centre will play host to ABBA The Museum’s immersive exhibition ABBA: Super Troupers telling the story of the Swedish band’s music, lyrics, creative process and global influence. The billing from the press team at the Southbank Centre says its a brand new exhibition, so I’m hoping it will significantly different from the one in Stockholm I visited last year.

ABBC: Super Troupers opens Thursday 14 December at  London’s Southbank Centre – the perfect excuse to see the winner’s medal from the 1974 Eurovision.

ABBA: Super Troupers
14 December 2017 – 29 April 2018, Spirit Level at Southbank Centre’s Royal Festival Hall.
Tickets £15-£25

Christer Bjorkman

Some thoughts on Christer Björkman’s opinions

Eurovision fans have had their feathers ruffled, mine included, because this year’s contest Head Cheese Christer Björkman spoke his mind about the UK.

For the sake of my own piece of mind, I’ve picked over what I can find on the internet and asked myself some questions about the story – an exercise in good mental housekeeping, if you will.

What did Christer Bjorkman say, exactly?

A lot. According the iNews:

The song needs to be contemporary sounding, a little bit in the middle of the road and it has to have a simple hook that lasts in the memory.

Can it sound like something else? Yes, as long as it’s not too obvious. The viewer is not stupid. It’s not a singing competition or a song competition, it is music entertainment.

It is the performance that lasts in the mind of the viewer but they vote for the combination.

Elsewhere in the article, Christer Bjorkman is also quoted as saying:

Terry Wogan did the commentary for 25 years and it was always mocking. Now Graham Norton also has this flippant tone. It doesn’t work. It’s a lot easier to joke than to win.

I can understand why you don’t risk taking that step [singing for a place in the Final] but if you look at the songs that travel, they start in the semi-final and they become stronger and stronger during the week.

Conchita (Wurst, Austrian drag singer who won in 2014) wasn’t even mentioned as one of the favourites before the semi-final and then she became a shooting star – that’s only because she revealed herself before. And you need to do that.

[Block voting] is something you’ve made up. You sound like the French now. We all love you. We all want you to be good in this competition. It’s just that you don’t send any good stuff. Why don’t you?

You have to say ‘we are taking this seriously and we will not stop doing it until we succeed. You have to accept what Eurovision is – it’s not a singing competition or a song competition, it is music entertainment.

Joe and Jake is a fairly good song and the boys are charming. It’s a step in the right direction but no, it won’t win. If you sent another Katrina singing Love Shine A Light, that would make a huge difference.

How did he say what he said?

This may at first seem like an irrelevant question. Bear with.

Did Christer plan to say these things? Were they comments made as part of a speech, for example? If it was part of a speech, did he set out to make provocative comments in order to appeal to his audience? Who was his audience? If his words were part of a speech, was he aware beforehand that journalists would be there?

If his comments were originally scripted in his lecture, were they responses to questions put to him by a journalist? If they were, were they comments that were made off the cuff? Comments which written down look more stark than they actually sounded when voiced? (I’m thinking here about the line, “You sound like the French,” which I imagine raised a laugh in situ, but reading it online makes it look like he’s having a pop at the French (which I’m sure he wasn’t).

A re-read of the iNews article makes me think they’re a combination of the two – speech and an answer to a question. And that for me is important, because in a Q&A scenario there’s always a chance that something more provocative can end up being said. And then that becomes the lead.

But, if his comments say regarding commentary and its impact on UK audiences are part of a speech, and they’re taken out of their context those of us with a love for this thing we’ve followed for years will end up – whether we like it or not – with an image Christer Bjorkman deliberately setting out to piss every fan off in the UK. I don’t think that’s what he wants to do. If he’s giving a lecture or a talk (I don’t know whether he was or not – its not clear from the report) then he’s there for the sole reason that he has a view. Opinions are allowed.

The effect of what he says

This depends largely on how much you care about the Contest. So if you don’t, then this won’t seem important at all.

  • “It is the performance that lasts in the mind of the viewer but they vote for the combination.”Odd. Because as I understood it there were two sets of votes which contributed to the end result and that there had been for many years now: votes from professional juries and telephone votes cast from TV viewers.This suggests to me that Björkman’s attention is, quite understandably – he’s a producer after all, on making a good TV programme which keeps viewers engaged and gets them to vote. Evidence regarding the running order and the changes to voting suggest this too. On that basis that seems like an eminently OK thing to say, though I’d still like him to reassure me that the professional juries vote with a little more discernment than the TV viewing public sometimes don’t.
  • “It’s not a singing competition or a song competition, it is music entertainment.”This for me is the really surprising thing. It started as a song competition and it’s still called a ‘Song Contest’. It has in recent years been increasingly seen as a ‘music performance’ competition – that’s why bland songs with remarkable stage presentations have done well, whilst strong songs with bland presentations haven’t. There of course have been complete packages which bear Christer’s view out – like Sweden’s consistently high-quality entries, including Loreen’s Euphoria and Mans’ Heroes last year.But, the effect is to conclude that even if you don’t agree with the comment (and for as long as songwriters get a credit at the top of a performance Eurovision will remain for me a song contest) there is an executive vision, albeit one expressed by this year’s producer, that what Eurovision has become and what it needs to be in order for it to continue. To date, I don’t know of anyone directly involved in the show who has come out and actually said that. It’s a strong view, but not necessarily an unusual one, and it does make you think a bit. Which is a good thing.
  • Terry Wogan did the commentary for 25 years and it was always mocking. Now Graham Norton also has this flippant tone. It doesn’t work. It’s a lot easier to joke than to win.”I disagree here. Terry’s tone wasn’t always mocking. The early years I heard him commentating around 1980-1988, I heard gentle humour interspersed with a lot of reasonably balanced critical commentary of each country’s song. He understood what the format was, and crucially, what part the programme played in the BBC’s Saturday night schedule. His style at this time was playful. He contributed to an air of excitement for a live Saturday night show. And as someone who loves the Eurovision, I love him for doing that.His style became a little looser as the years went on and there were times when him interrupting the songs, or crashing the beginnings of them felt a little disrespectful. Perhaps in later years he was signalling indirectly on air that his relationship with it had changed. I think most people probably agreed. But why not?

    What’s the effect of this comment? I needn’t go into great detail describing it. But it’s basically saying that if it wasn’t for Wogan, we might find it easier to offer up better performers or material at Eurovision. Whilst we might have won in the past, I don’t think Christer’s view necessarily equates. Our winning artists weren’t necessarily itching to take part. And don’t forget for example that as late as 1981, the BBC engineered Bucks Fizz – its not like they were a pre-existing group sticking their hands up in the air wanting to take part.

    For me, as an audience member, Graham Norton’s commentary evokes the similar style Terry did in the 1980s. I like Graham’s broadcasting style anyway and I can’t think of a single contest he’s been involved with where I’ve wished he wasn’t there. So the effect here of Christer’s comment is to be – weirdly and unnecessarily – incredibly protective.

    Both commentators have a skill which brings audiences in the UK to the television to watch the live broadcast. Different audiences across Europe are stimulated in different ways and I think that where the UK is concerned, its the show they’re interested in first and not our artist. It’s my view it will always be that way around because its always been that way in the past.

  • “Joe and Jake is a fairly good song and the boys are charming. It’s a step in the right direction but no, it won’t win.”I don’t think any of us are expecting Joe and Jake to win, Christer. Them being charming seems irrelevant which makes your comment a tiny bit patronising. The point about their entry is that it sounds good, it doesn’t make me cringe and they’re committed to the process of performing and promoting. On that basis alone we’d just like to see the song on the left-hand side of the leaderboard. That’s all.I suspect this was a comment made in response to a question like, ‘Will Joe and Jake win Eurovision?’ The answer without the question projects Christer in a slightly different light: the comment damns with faint praise and makes him appear rather patronising. And as soon as that happens, those of us who want to feel affronted have someone to be enraged by. If you heard the comment in audio format or in video, I don’t think it would appear quite so stark.
  • “[Block voting] is something you’ve made up.”Nonsense. If that’s the case, why was there so much of an effort made to nail down the voting process in the mid 2000s to make the voting fairer for everyone participating in the semi-finals?Here, however, I think there’s a confusion over the term block voting which is often used disparagingly by part-time Eurovision viewers. But, I think the term, used erroneously, points to how the contest has grown in size. The bigger the contest is, the more it’s inevitable that audiences in countries which formerly a closer political ties or unions will end up ‘voting for their neighbours’.

    The effect of Christer’s comment is to make the UK believe that we’re sore losers. Which I don’t think we are. I don’t think anyone is. I don’t think its a nice thing to say. I do feel a bit touchy about it. There. I’ve said it.

Does what Christer Bjorkman said really matter?

In some respects no. I’ve already bought my tickets. I’ve booked my flights. The hotel is reserved. And my accreditation is sorted out too. In that respect it matters not a jot.

I’m also not unduly bothered about what he thinks regarding Terry Wogan’s commentary or Graham’s come to that, because they are sweeping statements that don’t especially hold up in their entirety. I don’t think you can lay the blame of a country’s music industry feeling nervous about participating in a contest purely because of its commentators. That seems a bit oafish.

But speaking personally and having gone to all of this trouble to pick over what he’s said, I do feel a little alienated by Christer’s comments. It plays into my insecurities a little bit too much. It makes me think that there’s an A-Team at the Eurovision, a B-Team and then a C-Team. It makes me wonder whether the Heads of Delegations all convene at the refreshments trolley at meetings and laugh at the ones at the back of the queue who won’t get their coffee before the meetings gets back underway.

Are there are any positives?

Maybe. It gets some positive – bizarrely – PR for the Eurovision brand. It helps the Contest continue on its trajectory and, no doubt, will help many countries keep focused on upping the quality. Specifically this year, it also makes me want to back our entry even more. So in a way there are some wins to this rather strangely reported story.

My trip to Stockholm this year has – inevitably – been my most costly trip to Eurovision ever. This is in part because I’m taking my partner for the first time so he can experience the unique sound of the crowd in the final countdown before the show gets underway. The prospect of that distinctly Eurovision experience is ever so-slightly tarnished today, but what I’m hoping is that come 14th May I’ll have forgotten about it entirely. Just as I hope everyone else will too.

Advice for a weekend in Bulgaria

My brief trip to Bulgaria to witness Eurovision’s sibling Junior Eurovision has been a rather pleasant one.

Don’t expect to flag down a taxi yourself (always rely on whatever establishment you find yourself in to do that for you – it’s safer that way). Don’t expect to spend any more than £1.50 on any taxi journey (yes, really). Be sure to drink either a Bulgarian Malbec or local Bulgarian beer. Sofia is the place to come if you’re on a budget. Just don’t hang around outside the hotel after 11pm on a Friday night. When I did, a fresh-faced young man came up to me and asked me in broken English, “Are you looking for something special?” I replied, “No, not particularly.”

The real treat about this trip hasn’t been the music especially – shock horror – but the chance to catch up with familiar faces. There’s also been a chance to write for someone else (something I’m getting both accustomed to and learning to like) and produce three minutes of audio. I’m not 100% sure whether it will go out (live radio does necessarily demand stuff is quite fluid), so I’ve included a ‘director’s cut’ below.

If you want to read my take on my experience at Junior Eurovision, head over to ESCInsight. It isn’t, as I worried it might be, all precocious brats and over-reaching parents. Instead, JESC has a rather delightful charm about it, something which the main Eurovision could do with having an injection of.

Australia to compete in Eurovision 2016

Anybody who is surprised to learn this morning that Australia will return to the Eurovision Song Contest next year wants their head examining. The messaging might have been softly-softly ‘we’ll see how this goes’ last year, but the sub-text was quite clear.

The context of Austrlia’s involvement in last year’s contest seemed straightforward: Australia has watched it for years, got as excited by it as the rest of us for as long, so why shouldn’t they have a go? Their participation was a natural extension of their already considerable enthusiasm for the show and a nice way of celebrating 60th.

But Australia’s involvement was couched in fairly safe terms. The EBU was careful not to rock the boat too much, describing Australia’s entry as a ‘guest ticket’ and in no-way a permanent fixture. It felt like it was something of a one-off, or at least that was the idea that was being conveyed. Fair enough, they’re not a permanent fixture yet (and they have to participate in the semi-finals), but their return feels like it’s one step closer.

I should probably stop being such a grump. Their first appearance last year with Guy Sebastian was a cracking entry well-performed, something reflected in scoring too. Why shouldn’t a format change over time? Maybe a show needs to expand in order to keep it afloat. Maybe Australia’s involvement will give the show an injection of musical ‘quality’ too. I’m also aware that a great many other Eurovision fans see their involvement as a good thing. I’m far from representative.

For me though, I’m protective of the brand. It was always a stretch to describe Israel as part of Europe. It’s nigh-on impossible to do so with a different continent represented in the running order. What that means is that the brand name will have to change eventually, won’t it? And I’m not sure I’m quite ready for that.

Gabi and Ivan from Bulgaria singing in the 2015 Junior Eurovision.

Looking ahead to Junior Eurovision 2015

Later this week I’m off to Bulgaria to see the Junior Eurovision for the first time. I’ll be writing for ESC Insight and in anticipation have penned a post for them highlighting what I’m expecting. Those of us who love blogging find it difficult to resist a before and after.

Events over the weekend in Paris have changed my outlook about the trip, especially since learning that the host broadcaster for the Junior Eurovision – Bulgarian National Television – have postponed their opening ceremony as part of the three days of Europe-wide mourning.

According to JuniorEurovision.tv, BNT is also required to not broadcast entertainment shows during the period which may well mean that the Junior Eurovision final has an added poignancy when it goes out live this coming Saturday night from Sofia.