Eurovision 2009: The calm before the storm

There is a special feeling which Eurovision fanatics experience the day before the main event.

It’s a special time. It’s what might be referred to as a rest day. It’s the time which has to be savoured. If you’ve done the right amount of preparation getting across everything, then the day before Eurovision proper begins is a time to be savoured.

The last time I experienced this bizarre mixture of relaxation and anticipation was on the morning of the Grand Final in 2003.

I’d spent the week in Riga following the Eurovision rehearsals both front of house and occasionally behind the scenes. It was a thrill to go, not least because I’d never have thought I’d wanted to go nor be able to. There I was, following this bizarre series of days in a city I had no knowledge or experience on my first ever loan trip outside of the UK. I was 31 at the time and yes, I have led a very sheltered life.

I’d poured quite a lot of energy into my trip. It had to be relevant. I couldn’t just sponge off the system. I wanted to have a mission. I wanted to find out things. I wanted to gather research.

Schlagerboys in Riga

I almost certainly packed in rather more into my daily schedule than was realistic and ended up spending five days surviving on caffeine and various sweet snacks, burning off calories I wasn’t taking on board by running between hotel, press centre and the arena. I loved it.

Five days of that however, took it’s toll. I was to learn I’d lost three quarters of a stone in the space of a week when I returned home, but by the night before the Grand Final I was wired. I was sick of the Eurovision. If I heard any one of the songs played in any one of the seemingly hundreds of bars in the centre of Riga it would be too soon. I needed a break.

That break came the following morning. I stole myself a day to indulge myself in the stuff I’d wanted to do all week but didn’t dare to because I hadn’t wanted to miss the opportunity to speak to Eurovision-related celebrities. My hotel was slap bang in the middle of recently renovated picturesque Riga. Keep it simple, I thought. Just go for a wander and relax.

As I recall, it was a gloriously sunny day. The sky was the same blue the wallpaper on my laptop is as I type this. Compared to the rest of the week, I wasn’t having to run around like a twat getting to interviews on time. I could walk around at my leisure, take in the sights and (it seemed) bump into every other person who passed me by and talk about a common bond. Everyone in Riga seemed to be there for the Eurovision. As desperate as first felt to get away from the event, talking about Eurovision seemed a much easier prospect. There was no pressure involved. 

Mind you, small-talk during Eurovision week (unless you’re scouting for talent in which case I imagine the conversation topics are probably entirely different) does rather consist of the same predictable questions: ‘Have you been here the entire week?’, ‘Is this your first time?’ (although I conceded that if you’re scouting for talent this question could well be used as well) and ‘Who do you think you’ll win?’

You’d think it would have been hell to engage in such conversations especially given the whole point of walking around in the sunshine had been to get away from it. But the truth was that at that point during the week with the Eurovision final only hours away it made the experience quite surreal, almost as though conversation had suddenly become effortless. This is how communicating with other members of the human race could actually be.

It was all bollocks of course. Everyone was having the same feeling as I was at that moment in time.

The rehearsals were over. The incessant pressure brought to bear by the invisible PR machines of artists who believed their livelihood depended solely on bringing home the Eurovision bacon was no longer there. The rehearsals were over. The talking to the press was largely redundant now. There was nothing for the journalists to do and precious little for the artists to do. Everyone was forced to relax before the main event.

Inevitably, being the naive fool I was I failed to grasp this simple explanation instead basking in the warm glow of naturally induced Eurovision-love. The same kind of love when everything you see in front of you is rich in colour, when the world is a beautiful place and there isn’t a single person you speak to risks ruining your day.

DSC00262It was against this backdrop I met the Schlagerboys and their friends (above). It was nearby I met Jude and Mandy (right) It wouldn’t be a lie to say that I rabbited on at them for hours. I know I bored them to tears. In my defence, I was in Riga on my own.

The same questions were raised in my conversation with them. “Who do you think will win?”

Not one of the many people whose ear I had bent that day had given me the same answer. Everyone had a different spin on events during the week and what would happen during the final. Then the inevitable question came my way. Who did I think would win?

I had no idea. It didn’t really matter either. The need for answers to questions which had motivated me so much during the week seemed redundant. Aside from the last dress rehearsal that day – only a few hours before the live evening broadcast – it was too late to do anything to radically change an act or claw in votes. With only a few hours before the phone lines opened, the Eurovision ship had already set sail.

All those fanatics who like me wandered around the city centre, stopping for a beer or two to talk to yet another random person you foolishly reckoned would be a friend for life, looked forward to the main event.

It was like Christmas was scheduled for 10pm Latvian time. We knew the presents were already under the tree – we’d seen them in rehearsals during the week. All we had to do was wait for Christmas to officially begin.

Admittedly, that was six years ago now and there are now three not one Eurovision event. And even though there are some who are understandably dubious about the audience pulling power for the semi-finals (just look at how many large gaps in the arena there’ll be on Tuesday and Thursday for a real indication of how the semi-finals are a difficult show to sell) the air of excitement is undeniable.

Today is the calm before the storm. Yes there are dress rehearsals which could, theoretically offer the opportunity for last minute analysis or a quick change of heart about who might succeed and who might fail.

But why bother? Why spend that time poring over the same acts yet again?

Like Christmas, I can’t bear to anything but the most indulgent things on Christmas Eve. To do so merely reminds me that my obsessive nature has failed me in preparing for the event.

Fanatics need a moment in time to stop and think, to enjoy it. They need to indulge themselves in the anticipation of the impending competition. Having completed the necessary preparation, there needs to be time to indulge in one or two dreams for a nail-biting finish to a cracking final.

More than any of that, he calm before the storm provides an opportunity for good mental housekeeping. Because as any committed fanatic will tell you, the odds are always high that late Saturday night and quite possibly all of Sunday will be devoted to intense disappointment, bitter recrimination not to mention the wailing mourn the passing of the most bizarre few weeks or months of the year. It’s then a dirty feeling descends as we wonder what an earth that was all about and question whether or not we’ll get as excited about it next time around.

The day before the Eurovision is quite possibly the most important day of all.

Eurovision 2009: Journalists at rehearsals

It’s been a marathon week this past week. I spent early mornings listening to songs from both of this year’s semi-finals in a bid to get something I’ve had on my to-do list crossed off before the Eurovision onslaught began. This combined with a marathon reviewing day on Saturday prompted an almost immediate sense of smugness inside me. I reckoned I had my Eurovision commitment out of the way for this year. I was wrong. I was, in fact, a complete idiot.

Things started to go a bit awry earlier this morning when, catching up on some internet time I didn’t have yesterday when I visited the picture-postcard world of Lavenham in Suffolk, I noticed a fair few blogs and Facebook status updates concerning the first day of rehearsals for the semi-finals in Moscow. Like a twat I found myself clicking on all sorts of links and before I knew what I was doing, I was watching video footage of said rehearsals provided courtesy of, the production office for the Eurovision Song Contest at the European Broadcasting Union.

Original ESCToday founder and former editor now PR blokey at the EBU Sietse Bakker (not the same man referred to in Jon Ronson’s mildly amusing piece about the UK selection process) is the project manager behind these series of videos. With my web producer type hat on, I have to congratulate him on producing stuff for the web which would make any multiplatform executive at the BBC clap his/her hands together with glee.

With hardly any effort in production but a considerable amount of understanding of the potential audience Bakker has succeeded in negotiating the necessary rights with artists, songwriters and record companies to make all of the footage available for all sorts of people on the web ahead of the main event in mid-May. In so doing Bakker is extending the tail of the Eurovision Song Contest before the actual event, providing simple behind the scenes footage of the kind any self-obsessed Euro-fan is desperate for.

There are many fans (we’re talking maybe a thousand maybe more?) out in Moscow at the moment, each proudly wearing their accreditation badges on lanyards, some parading around the press centre, some clamouring for a free CD or a photograph with an artist. Some are busying themselves at desks with computers, tapping into wired connections or connecting up to wireless access points, racing from the camera rehearsals and committing their thoughts to whatever blogs they’re writing for. The place will be buzzing during the day and deathly silent at night. It is the worst environment and the most electrifying environment all at the same time. I know. I attended a Eurovision once. I doubt I’ll ever be allowed to set foot in one again.

The flip side of the thrill of “covering Eurovision” is its punishing schedule, itself caused by the individual’s own lack of journalistic experience.

Proper journalists (if such a term actually exists and I’m reaching an appreciation that journalism as a strict profession like medicine or law is a bit of a bogus term) have an angle. They have an editor demanding a particular line. Maybe there’s a record company keen to get a particular story out or promote a particular song.

Eurovision journalists however (of which I consider myself almost eligible for the title) can be a bit scattergun about the whole affiar. It’s all or nothing with us. Blinded by the bright lights of seeming celebrity, there’s a desire to make sure we’ve covered every base. Everyone has an equal chance (so the rules state) so as fans we should do our utmost to make sure everyone has an equal voice.

Out there it’s impossible. There’s noise all around. Press conference relays ring out on loudspeakers nearby. There’s a video feed of what’s going on in the arena. There’s coffee to drink and food to eat you really should have eaten earlier. There are people blowing air kisses everywhere, all of them reminding you of just how few people you have listed in your contacts list. There’s an unknown deadline imposed by a fictitious editor. You don’t want to be following the pack necessarily, but at the same time the buzzing crowd reminds you that you really can’t afford to be left behind. You only get one stab at this kind of thing and then you’ll have to wait another 49 weeks for another chance. And who knows, you may have lost interest this time next year.

With all of those distant yet potent memories from 2003 in my head earlier today, I found myself sucked into the same thought processes I subjected myself to back then as I sat and watched video clip after video clip of all the participants from the first semi-final. It’s too early in the day to pick out any firm favourites or dead certs. Everyone is marking stuff out, clearly trying to pace themselves and not wanting to give the game away too early. (They’ll have agreed to the terms which stated Sietse and his team pump out video coverage of the rehearsals so they know they want to keep some stuff back for the big night).

What these clips provide however is exactly the same kind of connection with this bizarre TV programme in 2009 as I was lucky to have back in 2003. Everyone has an opinion and no one is judged because of it in Eurovision-land which is why so many obsessives like me find it almost impossible to keep themselves away from a computer come late-spring. The fact that six years after my first and only trip I can do that from the comfort of my own living room with a large glass of wine by my side isn’t decadence, merely progress.

The rehearsals show that the UK is getting to chose from the weaker collection of songs in the two semi-finals. There are some who rate Bosnia & Herzegovina (although personally I don’t see the appeal there). Portugal seems to have presented an impressively simple yet effective performance with an engaging Little Blue Planetesque backdrop. Sweden have (predictably) confirmed amongst even the most cynical of commentators that they will win a place in the final. Armenia‘s initial rehearsals suggest I may well be disappointed come Tuesday 12 May but yes, it shouldn’t go without saying, I must maintain an open mind.

In other relatively local news, UK representative Jade Ewen made an appearance on BBC One’s The One Show this evening which successfully cast the relative pain of Friday night’s broadcast permanently to the back of my mind.


Proms 2009: Pre-launch jitters

For those who are otherwise unaware, tomorrow is the launch day for this year’s BBC Proms season. Some of us have had it marked out on our calendars for quite a while. It’s a terribly exciting day.

Quite apart from the various appearances it’s head honcho Roger Wright will make (he’ll be on Radio 4’s Front Row with John Wilson on Wednesday 8 April), it’s also the day when the brochure is finally made available. I usually make a special visit to this WHSmith to purchase it.This year, I’ve had an opportunity to interview the big man about the forthcoming season. We met up last week during our lunch-hours.

I have it on good authority the result of that interview will be made public tomorrow, but in the meantime take a look at what might be described as a trail for the main feature.

And in case you’re in any doubt, I’m being sarcastic when I refer to the interview as “the main feature”.

One Thoroughly Good secret

Blogging. I love the word. I love the look of the word. I love doing it.

But the addiction which has developed as a result does come at a cost.

I’m not talking about the blogging/life balance. I’m talking about the process I seem to adopt when pushing stuff to the web.

Other bloggers I know happily admit to stacking up their entries, getting copy written and stored away for a rainy day. Some even schedule their updates so that blog posts appear automatically. They feel reassured about that. Personally, I’m irritated by that.

Scheduling updates implies a certain amount of organisation. It suggests people plan out their week and their copy in relation to that week. It means they’ve thought about what they’re going to write long before they’re ever going to publish it. Such organisation in an individual is both something to admire and something to fear. Actually, it’s something to fear.

I’m an impulsive thing. I might partake in a conversation, have an internal personal reaction to that conversation and then laugh at myself about it. It’s then I’ll reach for the keyboard, let my mind think of a handful of words – perhaps even stretching to the end of the first sentence – and then bash out everything like it was a stream of consciousness.

That’s why most of what I write goes on for ever and ever and ever. Ask any of my friends. They will concur my anecdotes go on for hours.

When my fingers hit the keyboard I get caught up in the whole process. I love it. But, by the time I feel myself approaching the end of what I’m writing, another emotion kicks in. It’s the ever increasing pressure that as soon as the full-stop has been committed to the page, I must add the tags, assign the categories and click on publish. I have to do it.

The pressure is enormous. It’s like I’m running a race I never thought I’d run and I’m finding myself in the lead and close to the finish line. I have to reach the finish line and I have to commit.

Publish and be damned.

The aftermath of such a method is considerable. There will be a period of say twenty minutes when I’m overcome with a sense of relief. I’ve done it. I’m purged. I can relax now. And then, regular as clockwork, shortly after that, the doubts start to creep in.

Will there be someone who reads what I’ve written and notices the mistakes I’ve made? Will someone find it difficult to get to the end of an especially long sentence I’ve written and then curse my inability to insert even basic punctuation into that sentence? Or will someone stand up from their PC monitor, look down their glasses at me and mutter “He really shouldn’t have written that. The man is an idiot.”

That’s when I quiver. That’s when I reach for the keyboard again and ponder whether I’ve done the right thing. Should I have said what I said? Should I reconsider? Should I, in fact, delete it?

I usually reassure myself at that point that I know my intentions when writing weren’t bad. Yes, the result might be raw and overall point of the piece might be lost on the reader, but if my intention wasn’t to attack but to applaud or be good-humoured or (this is usually the catch-all) be self-deprecating, that makes whatever I’ve done on a personal blog OK.

Doesn’t it?

Personal blogging isn’t easy. Amid all the cries of “you must link to stuff if you are to be a success”, the inner blogger desires nothing more than to write stuff and publish it. The motivation is simply that. If the blogger’s motivation is genuine, sincere and in best interests (not to mention following some simple, personal guidelines about what’s right and what’s not), then that’s the bloggers responsibility met.

Anything else is the reader’s responsibility.