Review – West End Eurovision 2014 – The Final Battle – Dominion Theatre, 22nd May 2014

West End Eurovision 2014Our second time of seeing West End Eurovision – our first one, in 2011 was a complete hoot. Unfortunately it’s always held on a Thursday night and there’s work the next day unless you plan very carefully. So that’s what we did this year. It’s being called “The Final Battle”, with a very sad threat of there being no more in the future – I guess they must be very arduous to organise. I’m always amazed at the keenness and competitiveness behind it all. “Battle” is indeed a suitable word.

drinks receptionIt’s all done to support the Make a Difference Trust, who do great work to support people living with HIV and AIDS. The event involves the casts of many West End shows, all coming together to perform a Eurovision song, which gets voted on by the star jury, their peers from the other shows, and us, the rabble in the audience. Before the night, they’ve already filmed their idents – little introductory movies for each performance – which you can still see on youtube. Vote for your favourite and the MAD Trust receive £1. I voted for my favourite five (Mr Generous). After you’ve seen the performances, you are then invited to turn on your mobile phones (really? Did anyone actually turn theirs off?) and vote for your favourite performance. Apparently the whole thing raised £66,000 this year for the charity, which is not bad going.

Everyone arrivingWe paid extra for the VIP seats, primarily because we wanted a good view of the show, and of course we were happy to donate more to support the very good works of MAD Trust, but also in the hope of doing some star-spotting. More on that later. But with our bronze coloured VIP wristbands gleaming, we made our way up the stairs to the Studio at the Dominion, where the Drinks Reception was to take place. And a very jolly affair it was too. There was a brief address by chairman David Pendlebury, where he welcomed us all, introduced us to the jury members (of whom only Rylan Clark was actually there, resplendent in his Conchita Wurst outfit), told us all to have a great night and suggested that it might – just might – not be the last of these events. Yes, you heard it here first. (Unless you were there too.) We kept on bumping into David Pendlebury during the course of the evening and he seems a jolly nice chap.

The JuryFuelled with a second plastic mug of cava, we made our way to our seats – and they were pretty magnificent. Middle of row G, on the central aisle, fantastic views. I knew that some of our Eurovision friends were also going to be there, so we scouted around and found them for some pre-show hugs and quips. Back in our seats, awaiting the slightly-later-than 11.30pm start (there was no way all those people were going to make their way from the bars to their seats by 11.30), Mrs Chrisparkle was overawed with the incredible vibe in the place. It felt so exciting. The atmosphere was electric.

Making Your Mind UpOur host was the superb Richard Gauntlett. I don’t think I’ve seen him before, but he was excellent at keeping everything fast moving and really funny. Our competitors (over 230 of them apparently), he said, were all backstage more nervous than Max Clifford looking for the soap. The resident cast of We Will Rock You came on for the opening number of the night, “The Show Must Go On”. Ironic, said Mr Gauntlett, considering it’s closing on Saturday week. I’ve never had the remotest interest in seeing We Will Rock You – but I have to say, it was a pretty stunning start to the show.

Ding A DongHe then introduced us to the judges, Rylan Clark, Lesley Joseph, Caroline Quentin and Graham Norton. They all sat in the box to the left, like the Muppets’ Statler and Waldorf going on a double date. They were very enthusiastic all night, and came up with some wonderful lines. Culture snob that I am, I really expected not to like Rylan, who I’d never seen before; but I must be honest, I thought he came across as a really likeable funny guy.

Rock 'n' Roll KidsOnto the contest proper, with the first of nine entries – the cast of Once performing Bucks Fizz’ Making Your Mind Up. It started off as a typical spoof of the group, dressed in the same colours, ripping off the skirts, but then went AWOL as a troupe of leprechauns joined in, fiddles and Irish dance routines blazing. Michael Flatley would turn in his grave. Very entertaining, with nice musical interludes from Riverdance and We Will Rock You.

Flying the FlagNext up was cast of The Book of Mormon performing Teach-In’s Ding-a-Dong, the 1975 winner for the Netherlands. The perfect choice in many ways, given the Mormons’ predilection for doorbelling activities. Their ident, as The Real Housewives of Uganda, was brilliant, and their live performance carried on with the same characterisation. Flinging babies (not real ones) about as props, they did a lovely version of the song, first accompanied by some dancing missionaries, then by tribal dancers – it was like 1976 and Ipi Tombi all over again. Of course, being from the Book of Mormon, this was never going to be devoid of foul language and dubious taste – and in the end the Real Housewives of Uganda removed their traditional costumes to reveal their late night Kampala nightspot little black dresses. Really funny – the audience loved it.

CongratulationsOur third act was The Commitments cast performing Rock ‘n’ Roll Kids, Ireland’s winning entry from 1994. Graham Norton showed himself up by confessing he’d never heard it or of it. Back to Fan Camp for you sir. Unfortunately there was a false start with this one, as the microphones on stage failed. It would have been great if it had been Bandido (Spain 1990 – if you know the song, you’ll get the reference). It started with some evocative shadow dancing, but then got infiltrated by characters from other shows to great comic effect. A Mormon elder, a Mamma Mia Abba-type, Jean Valjean, Billy Elliot and the Phantom (probably more) all ended up singing together. By about this stage you realised that the standard of entries was extremely high.

Disco TangoAfter a short appearance by Harriet Thorpe, telling us more about the good work of the Trust, it was back to the show and, probably my favourite of the evening, the cast of Les Miserables performing Flying The Flag, Scooch’s Magnum Opus for the United Kingdom from 2007. It started with a lone barricader plaintively emoting about flying the flag – of course, it’s the French flag (they are Les Mis after all), which was followed by an invasion of BA type air crew doing all the usual moves with even a message from Captain Cameron Mackintosh on the video wall. The inventive use of the French flag throughout made it unquestionably Les Mis, but alongside this archetypal British comedy song, it made a terrific combination.

Jan JanThe cast of the Phantom of the Opera took to the stage to perform Congratulations – and after the high energy of all the previous entries, this one had a slightly less showbizzy feel to it, although they also chucked in elements of Riverdance and there was also a massive Rubik’s cube on stage for some reason. Congratulations though was an appropriate choice to celebrate performer Philip Griffiths’ record as the longest running performer on the West End stage – 34 consecutive years I believe. Then we had the cast of The Bodyguard performing Disco Tango in the original Danish, Tommy Seebach’s magic little ditty from 1979. Quirky, comic and somewhat surreal, it’s not often you get to hear Beverley Knight singing in Viking. Maybe because it wasn’t in English there wasn’t quite the opportunity to represent the lyrics in the performance, but still it was very enjoyable.

Marry MeAfter the interval, where Mrs C and I met more Eurovision friends and decided to stick with sparkling water to help our overall health, we returned to see the cast of Wicked perform Jan Jan, Armenia’s 2009 contribution. Never one of my favourite songs, but this looked beautiful, with atmospheric lighting and glistening blue overcoats giving way to spangly white outfits. This led on to a frankly bonkers Marry Me (Finland 2013) from the cast of Billy Elliot; great choice of song, lots of humour, a disassociation of costumes, all frantic and frenetic. I think the jury were a bit puzzled by that one. The last entry of the night was the cast of Mamma Mia performing Waterloo – which sounds a bit unadventurous, considering Waterloo is the finale number in their show – but was actually hysterical. Like the Commitments entry it featured characters from other West End shows breaking in on the act. So, to accompany four Abba lookalikes, you had the Jersey Boys performing their version of the song, Miss Saigon’s helicopter, Ugandan villagers, Rachel from The Bodyguard and even a cavorting naked man from the chorus of Hair.

Waterloo with Jersey BoysI can’t quite recall the running order but it was about now that director Andrew Keates took to the stage, to give a very brave and honest speech about directing the play “As Is”, which concerns living with HIV, and how he hoped the play might encourage some people to get tested for the condition and if they are positive, to get the necessary treatment. The honesty was that he himself had not been tested, but took his own advice and discovered that he too was HIV positive. So it was a very personal plea for everyone to look after their own health by getting tested and seeking the medical help if they need it. Unfortunately he was interrupted by the most inappropriate heckle of the year, on a completely unrelated issue, which had us cringing in our seats. Even if they had a genuine grievance, there’s a time and a place – and that wasn’t it. But it didn’t dent the emotion and starkness of Mr Keates’ message.

SoniaAfter Beverley Knight drew the raffle (I lost again), it was time for our Eurovision guest act, Sonia, who proved she can still belt out a good hit. Not only did she perform her second placed 1993 entry, Better The Devil You Know, she also sang You’ll Never Stop Me From Wanting You. This moved us on to the voting, which was pretty tight, with the Book of Mormon in 3rd place and a tie for the top between Mamma Mia and Les Miserables. Apparently they don’t do Countback to identify an ultimate winner, so it’s not like real Eurovision. The performers from the winning shows all came back on stage and it was clear that they regarded their achievement with huge pride – and so they should.

Final scoreboardIt was a good 2.30am when it was all over. But of course, it wasn’t, as there was still the post-show party to be enjoyed. When we went in 2011, the party was held at a distant bar, some fifteen minutes trudging through the streets of Soho trying to find the place, and no one was quite sure where it was. Then we had to queue for entry, whilst celebs walked on through, which kind of rankled As I Had Paid For My Entry In Advance With My Ticket Price. Still, there were quite a lot of interesting people to gawp at and eavesdrop on – Sheridan Smith, Denise Welch, Denise van Outen, for example.

After show partyThis time, we had been told in advance that the party would also be held at the Dominion – we should make our way out of the theatre then back to the front where we would find the way in. There only seemed one way back in – through the theatre foyer, where heavies at the door were inspecting our wristbands. Ours were bronze, but everyone else’s appeared to be red. I also noted that the stairs to the Studio, where we had gone for the reception earlier, were now roped off. I thought no more of it, and we spent the next hour or so happily wandering around the foyers watching all these beautiful young people (cast members and their friends I guess) getting rat-arsed, and posing with the winning trophy. I did wonder though, where the other people were. Where was Graham Norton? And Caroline Quentin? I’d seen Aljaz and Janette from Strictly Come Dancing at the Drinks Reception, but they weren’t anywhere to be seen, until I noticed them emerging down some stairs and leaving at about 3.15am. The next day I saw a happy picture online of Graham Norton and Harriet Thorpe sharing champagne, and that’s when I realised that there are VIP parties and VIP parties, and that some VIPs are vipper than others!

I really hope this isn’t the last of the West End Eurovisions, as it’s a splendid tradition, everyone has a great time and it raises a lot of money for a very important cause. Now – the question is, shall we book to see West End Bares? Not been before and, let’s face it, it sounds fun!

West End Eurovision, Piccadilly Theatre, London, April 21st 2011

West End EurovisionHaving heard so much about these shows in the past, I was determined this year we would get tickets. And what a great idea that was, as this terrific show combines my two great loves of Theatre and Eurovision, and it’s clear from the audience that I am not alone!

It’s all done to support the Make a Difference Trust, who do great work to support people living with HIV and AIDS. This year, the casts of eleven west end shows came together to compete to win the coveted trophy. Gaby Roslin, with Denise van Outen Each show has to perform a Eurovision song – and not one that has been done in previous years. It’s an opportunity for their creative talents to work wonders, either making something completely new out of a well known song, or painstakingly observing and mimicking an original performance. Graham Norton The top two entries this year were great examples of both. Additionally, each show has an “ident” – a short film put together by each cast to introduce their song. There’s an additional voting prize for the best ident.

This year the glamorous proceedings were hosted by Gaby Roslin, looking resplendent and taking fun control; and the celebrity panel of judges were Graham Norton, Sheridan Smith and Justin Lee Collins. Sheridan Smith Each West End show entering also had a two-person judging panel, but of course in time honoured tradition they could not vote for their own show. I wonder where they got that idea from?

Justin Lee Collins Anyway the minutiae of these details are far less entertaining than the show itself. It’s bizarre to read in the programme, for example, “The Phantom of the Opera” perform “Diggi-loo Diggi-ley”, but perform it they did, right down to the golden shoes and the magic and wonder. “Wicked” created a Big Fat Gypsy Wedding version of “Aven Romale”, the 2009 Czech entry. “Dirty Dancing” took Carola’s “Captured by a Love Storm”. Diggi Loo Diggi Ley And there were many more. The cast of “Priscilla Queen of the Desert” took Iceland’s “This is my Life” and used lots of bare chests and black leather.

Aven RomaleHowever, definitely the favourite of the audience was “The 39 Steps” taking Finland’s 1976 entry “Pump Pump” by Fredi and Friends. This was delightful because of the precise way their performance echoed the all-hallowed original. Fredi was there in his black outfit, slightly less plump than I remember him, This is my Lifebacked with his girl singer/dancers, the keyboard player and the two other backing performers, one of whom was perfectly decked out as the gormless guy in the grey jumper back in 1976. It was really funny, but really musical too and it completely won the audience over.

Pump Pump It didn’t however win. That honour went to probably the second favourite of the night, “Legally Blonde”’s version of Verka Seduchka’s “Dancing Lasha Tumbai”. Introduced by the evening’s winning ident, we got to know a little about Ukraine’s sensational star Dr Belond, and his creatively ludicrous sex-change clinic. Dancing Lasha Tumbai Dr Belond, who had a surprising resemblance to my best performance by an actor in a musical award winner and his team gave a fantastic performance that had everyone in hysterics from start to finish.

Dr Belond There was even a guest performance by Bucks Fizz, at least the three of them who aren’t Bobby G. Eurovision legends, looking great, singing…err.. a bit out of tune really. But no one cared. It was Bucks Fizz, goddammit!

If I’m honest, I think the show dragged a little during the voting but it was gone 1.30 am and I’m not one for staying up too late. But apart from that it was a marvellous evening and I cannot understate the commitment and creativity of these performers who did the whole night for charity.

Bucks Fizz Mrs Chrisparkle and I were fortunate to have VIP tickets, don’t you know, which not only gave us access to a free glass of champagne in a roped-off area of the bar before this show started, but also entry to the after show party. The only way we could work out the location of the party was to follow all the Beautiful People on the way out of the theatre wearing similar wristbands. Once we got there, it was a bit crowded so any chance of a relaxed chat with Bucks Fizz over their back catalogue was never going to happen. We did however get glimpses of Sheridan Smith (tiny but well built), Denise van Outen (tiny and slim) and Denise Welch (relatively tiny but bigger than the other two put together). It did feel quite daring for the two of us to be in such highly regarded company (although it’s not the same time we’ve been to the same party as Sheridan so there), but sleepiness took over and after a short time we night-bussed it back to our Travelodge.

Definitely look out for this event in the future!

Your Country Needs You, Friday 12th March, BBC 1

Pete Waterman If you’re not a Eurovision fan you maybe won’t understand the intense feeling of excitement and expectation when it comes to choosing your country’s Song For Europe. Last year UK fans were spiralled into another stratosphere with the extra effort that the BBC put in (in other words, they made a bit of an effort for the first time in years), and thus this year our expectations have been high.

Then they announced it would be Pete Waterman masterminding the process (not Gary Barlow, shame) but still there were high hopes as we re-evaluated all the SAW hits of the past 100 years.

Alexander RybakThen in the run up to the contest, I began to smell a rat. Confirmation of the date of the show was being withheld by the BBC, even though Alexander Rybak had told everyone he would be there on 12th March weeks before. Confirmation of how the voting process would work was also not forthcoming. Information about how you would get tickets was on the quiet side. I remember seeing the Making Your Mind Up shows in 2005 and 2006 and we had our tickets in the post I’m sure two weeks before the event. Two weeks before this show and we had barely registered our interests with SRO Audiences. (I’m really not fussed by all this out-sourcing. Call me old-fashioned.) This all made me think that they really weren’t quite on the ball this year.

Much to my dismay, we were unsuccessful in getting tickets. Even people I didn’t know were Eurovision fans who live in the same town as me got tickets. I resorted to sulking. Mrs Chrisparkle thought it was an unattractive trait. She was right. I decided to meet up with an old pal for lunch on Friday and therefore ruled going to London out of my options. Instead we sat in front of the TV with a rather cheap bottle of vintage cava and some olives. And then the car crash came on.

Graham NortonIt looked ok on tv but the sound was appalling. I was sure that at least the first two acts couldn’t have sung that badly but that the “levels” were wrong. And Graham Norton has his autocue failure. I guess that can happen any time but here it just added to that feeling of total lack of preparation. Then in the “second round” Esma forgot her lines. And said “Sorry”. So although she had made a complete mess of it, at least she was still polite.

Josh DubovieWe voted for her anyway. Not because she was a dependable singer. But because she was the only one who had any real attack to her performance. Josh was/is a much better singer but he looked a bit lost on the stage. I hereby want to wish Josh all the success in the world and the very best of luck for Oslo; and I hope he takes full advantage of any offers of improving his stage presence. Acting classes; dance classes. It will all help.

Mike Stock has said that the song will get a major upgrade. Good. It needs to go from cargo class to balcony suite.

So on the whole I’m glad we didn’t get tickets. I’ve heard some pretty appalling things from some people who went as to how they were treated. Bullying staff; queueing outside after you’ve had to surrender your coats; they all add up to a lack of respect for the individual punter. I have a friend who cannot stand for any length of time, and the tickets say “standing only”. Well that’s discriminatory. They don’t even do that at football anymore.

My friend questioned this and the tickets people confirmed that of course they wouldn’t discriminate against her and that seating would be provided. And indeed it was. An uncomfortable plastic chair set at the back of beyond from where she couldn’t see a thing. And she would also have been miles from anyone else had it not been for a couple of friends staying beside her – with the result that they didn’t see anything either. So the BBC complied with the letter of the law but the spirit of the law went out the studio window. The whole idea of attending is to be part of the audience, to share the camaraderie, not to be plonked as far out of sight as possible. Come on BBC, this is not playing fair! In previous years I know that everyone other than 22 year old blonde girls were sent to the remoter parts of the studio despite their being early in the queue to get in. It just offends my sense of natural justice. Did you know that 22 year old blonde girls constitute a remarkably small part of the average Eurovision demographic?

So I’m afraid this year the BBC does not get a big round of applause from me for this show. I have high hopes for next year. There’s not a lot further for it to plummet.

It’s that time of year again and I am officially excited

Eurovision The Eurovision Song Contest. Let’s look at it objectively. It’s probably the world’s largest live light entertainment show. Up to 600 million viewers according to some estimates. And with its being broadcast online since 2000, it additionally has a very large number of people following it in countries where it is not televised. It has given ex-Soviet states a chance to shine on the global stage and certainly contributed towards the Baltic States growing closer to the rest of Europe. It has created stars in the world of music. You know their names.

Let’s look at it from the heart. It’s an opportunity for all those countries who used to go to war with each other to vie for superiority, to do so safely from the pizzazz of a glitzy stage. Games without frontiers, war without tears. It’s a feast for the senses – an overwhelming amount of colour, light, sound, audience, competition – it’s live, it’s exciting, it’s funny, it’s emotional, it’s just a marvellous, wonderful thing.

And although it’s just light entertainment, it deserves to be taken seriously. Not po-faced: that’s not entertainment. Not anorakky: that’s alienating. I simply mean treat it with the same respect you would have for any other Saturday night entertainment show. Don’t deride it. Don’t be ashamed of it. Unfortunately I think the BBC over the years has simply come to the conclusion that it doesn’t know how to deal with it.

Graham Norton Last year could have been a turning point but I fear we’re not going to capitalise on the extra interest it created. Graham Norton was a vast improvement on Terry Wogan. He still made it funny, he still stuck the critical boot in where it was needed; but at the same time he did show that he had done some research, did give relevant background facts about some of the people appearing, without being an anorak about it. We had a pre-selection contest that had been well trailed (with Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “People of Britain” broadcasts), conducted over several weeks, eliminating contestants X-Factor/Pop Idol/Strictly/Maria style, sweeping the UK viewers along with it and encouraging, legitimising their enthusiasm for the contest.

By this time last year we were well into the pre-selection period. But what of this year? This year we have only just started watching “So You Think You Can Dance”, and it’s no doubt got a few more weeks to go. Eurovision, that show that only clocks up 600 million viewers, has been sidelined again.

I feel the BBC don’t know whether it is something to be taken jokily, whether it deserves to derision heaped on it, and to mock its followers; or whether they think it has any credibility and should therefore be supported, promoted and financed – not only their contribution as one of the “Big 4” but also financing a big lead up pre-selection series.

They should also take responsibility for our subsequent performance and our result. No more of this blaming Europeans for our disappointing results. How much more assertive and productive to say, “We chose to put forward this song, this singer, it was the wrong choice, we offered the public the wrong options, we didn’t approach the right performers and writers and we didn’t publicise it sufficiently – it’s our fault and it’s up to us to put it right”. How unlike the usual Eurovision moaning, which admittedly came mainly from Terry Wogan, but which the corporation seemed to lap up with glee.

Quite rightly, many Europeans think of the UK as the birthplace of great music. This year they will be thinking Lily Allen, Robbie Williams, The Killers. When we send someone considerably below that level of entertainment value they get annoyed with us. Andy Abraham In 2008 Russia sent Dima Bilan. UK sent Andy Abraham. Je reste ma valise. And yes, I know, people will say Lily Allen and Robbie Williams won’t enter because they’ve got “too much to lose”. But surely the same applied to Dima Bilan and Patricia Kaas, and probably at least half a dozen others over the past few years. There’s also “an awful lot to gain”.

Oh and look at the top 5 last year:

1) Norway
2) Iceland
3) Azerbaijan
4) Turkey
5) UK

That has to put paid to the argument that only the East wins nowadays because “they all vote for each other”. Three of the top five are from the west. In the past few years the winning song has been one from the East that has appealed to voters from the West. Javine Last year it was reversed, a song from the West that appealed to voters from the East. But that appeal has to be subtle. Much as I enjoyed the charms of Javine in 2005, her song was trying to be Turkish. Norway’s winning song this year had an instant appeal, but it wasn’t trying to be anything other than it genuinely was, upbeat, from the heart, honest. Iceland’s highly regarded song that came second was as simple and honest and straightforward as it is possible to be. Me, I couldn’t write a song for toffee, so I plead with you Eurovision songwriters out there, just write a good song. One you can be proud of to stand alone as a good, honest, lovely song. It’s good songs that win and are remembered.

Phew! That’s a lot off my chest. I only say it because I care. I care very much how the UK perform in the Eurovision. I want us to be proud of our entries; to be able to say that we offered the rest of Europe the best we had. Other countries do. We used to.

And I should add that we don’t yet officially know what the BBC propose for this year. They might surprise and delight me. I really hope so. But if it is a megastar it would have been great to have known earlier. The excitement would have been building around Europe too and that could only have been to our advantage.