Review – Toma Fund Presents Eurovision Reunited, The Sage, Gateshead, 11th April 2012

Eurovision ReunitedAn unlikely charity inspires an unlikely event in an unlikely location on an unlikely date – but what a combination! Toma Fund’s Eurovision Reunited was a great show and it would be fantastic if it could become an annual event.

Toma FundThe Toma Fund is a charity that supports children, teenagers, young people and their families in the North East and Cumbria who have been affected by a diagnosis of childhood cancer. It is dedicated to the memory of Jordan Thompson and Sophie Atay who were cousins who died of childhood cancers in 2007 and 2010. The fund is run by Jordan’s mother Andrea, who, together with fundraiser Sue Lawrence – a Eurovision fan, came up with the idea of having a concert at the Sage in Gateshead of previous Eurovision winners and performers, with all the proceeds going to charity.

The concert was held on Wednesday 11th April. The choice of a midweek date was, in a sense, both the strength and weakness of the event. Strength, in that it meant the likelihood that the acts would be available was much greater – at the weekends they would more than likely have previous work commitments. Weakness, because it was harder for people other than locals to attend without taking time off work. This actually meant that many Eurovision fans from abroad who would have liked to attend simply couldn’t. The location – Gateshead – was also not advantageous as far as overseas travellers were concerned – flights to Newcastle are considerably more expensive than to London, and there are fewer of them.

Still – who am I to quibble about these things. With some judicious adaptation of the “working from home” concept, and a couple of half-day leaves, Mrs Chrisparkle and I were able to attend, together with our German friend JP, who has a weekly show – Radio International – on Dutch radio about Eurovision, and indeed on which you can hear me every month or so, rambling on about something Eurovisiony. So the three of us were very privileged to get backstage and post-show-party access to record some interviews for the radio show and to hob and to nob with the great and the good.

Nicki FrenchWe got lost trying to find the hotel and arrived at the Sage later than we hoped, so our window of interviewing opportunity during the sound checks had passed. In fact on arrival we were escorted to the Artists’ Dining Room where they were having their pre-show meal. A word about the Sage – it’s a glorious building from the outside, with massive airy public spaces and the Concert Hall is a stunning piece of modern architecture. However, I was surprised how drab the backstage areas are! There are (I think) two main dressing rooms where lots of people share, and a few others for individuals or groups but there would be no room if you wanted to go cat-swinging as well. The Artists’ Dining Room was grey and featureless – apart from an open canteen area and some big tables. Still I am sure it fulfils its purpose.

Linda MartinMany of the artists were having their dinner and it seemed extremely rude to interrupt them, but two we spoke to were Nicki French, who is preparing for a new theatre role in “Guilty Pleasures”, coming to a theatre near you soon, and Linda Martin, whose cup is currently overflowing with the job of mentoring Jedward for this year’s Eurovision Song Contest. I can tell you from our chats with Linda that she is very excited at working with Jedward – she admires their ability to learn and soak up new ideas like a sponge, as well as their commitment to their fans. She’s thrilled with the song “Waterline” – as soon as she heard it, she knew it was the right one – and they are also planning something spectacular for the presentation in Baku. She couldn’t say what, precisely, but she assured us we would all go “wow” in a very big way.

Brotherhood of ManAfter the artists had dispersed back to their dressing rooms we thought we’d try our luck with one of the big names. Tentatively we asked Brotherhood of Man if they would mind giving us an interview, and no question, we were invited into their dressing room, even though they were in the middle of getting ready for the show, and gave us loads of their time. We reflected back on their success of 1976 and they came up with their memories of the time; we talked about their subsequent career, how important their Eurovision win was in terms of their career, right up to the present time with with their current touring show, The Seventies Story. We also established that they weren’t from the Isle of Man! I was able to tell them how “Save Your Kisses For Me” cheered me up when I was in hospital aged 15 – shortly before the 1976 contest – and they said that they had spoken to so many people who associate the song with a significant event in their life. They were charming, funny and generous with their time – a real pleasure to meet them.

Sheila FergusonHanging around the corridors outside we bumped into one of the presenters – Sheila Ferguson, one time lead singer with the Three Degrees. She was dressed stunningly, in a gorgeous black evening dress but I thought she looked anxious and concerned about things. I thought perhaps we shouldn’t interrupt her at this point – but no sooner had he seen her JP instantly asked if she would give an interview and she beamed with delight and said she would love to. She was really funny – quick witted, eloquent, warm and friendly too. I reminded her of her TV sitcom, Land of Hope and Gloria, in 1992, and she was very proud of the fact that she was the first black woman to have the star role in a UK sitcom. She now lives in Majorca, and in fact had a flight back at 5am the following day. But her conversation was peppered throughout with hilarity and we spent the entire time laughing through the interview. A memorable moment came when JP referred to the Three Degrees song “Dirty Ol’ Man” as “Dirty Ol’ Bag” by mistake! I said one of my favourites was “Year of Decision” and she said she always hated that song!

Anne-Marie DavidWe spoke briefly to Mr Johnny Logan, and to Miss Anne-Marie David, two Eurovision legends. The time and situation wasn’t really right for interviews with them though. We spoke to “Captain” Russ from Scooch, who was very happy to do an interview except that he didn’t know where the rest of his group were. Later on we met “Head Stewardess” Caroline, but then Russ was absent – and neither of them had seen “Head Purser” David. The fourth member, Natalie, had just had another baby, so she was described as being on “breast-feeding leave”. Bobbysocks to the rescue! Hanne Krogh and Elisabeth Andreassen were both eager and happy to talk to us and gave us a hilarious interview which talked about their careers and the night when Victory finally was Norway’s, but also involved a considerable amount of flirting between the four of us and which involved some – I can only describe it as – “breast action” from Ms Andreassen, which made me blush from top to toe. “My wife and your husband are watching!” I said; “they should be pleased for us” was her slightly bizarre reply. Later on that evening, Ms Krogh was last seen at the after-show party standing up and proposing a toast to everyone and getting really rather emotional about it all. I think it had been a long night.

BobbysocksMeanwhile, backstage, time was running out, and we had to get to our seats to see the show. It was great. For me, the two stand out performances were when Anne-Marie David sang Je suis l’enfant soleil, her French entry from 1979, and Paul Harrington and Charlie McGettigan singing their winning Rock ‘n’ Roll Kids from 1994 with a stunning purity and simplicity. But everyone was in great voice and turned up the entertainment knob to the top notch. With two songs from Anne-Marie David, Johnny Logan and Linda Martin, and one from everyone else, the evening flew by. Co-hosting the show with Sheila Ferguson was a bespangled Christopher Biggins, as irreverent and cheeky as you would expect.

scoochAfter the show, all the acts (bar one) sat at a row of desks in the foyer and virtually the entire audience trooped by them, one by one, chatting, getting signatures, photos, buying CDs and so on. It was a great opportunity for the fans to meet the acts, and it was again very generous of the acts to give their time so generously. We joined the back end of the queue to get a couple more interviews. At last all of Scooch had found each other, so we were able to talk to them about their careers and what they are doing now – which appears to be a lot of theatre. Black LaceDavid – who is local to the north-east – was also extremely happy to announce that he had got married the day before. I resisted the temptation to say he finally had something to suck on for landing, sir. We also spoke to Ian and Dene from Black Lace, who were a good laugh and very down to earth. Later at the aftershow party, they would somewhat bizarrely sing Agadoo with a karaoke machine to their own backing track.

Josh DubovieWhich takes us on to the aftershow party, where we interviewed Josh Dubovie – the second time I’ve interviewed Josh as it happens – and he is very much looking forward to getting his first CD with his own compositions released later this year. It will be very interesting to hear what Josh’s own stuff is like. He very politely turned down our offer to suggest any words of advice to Engelbert Humperdinck! The last performer we met and interviewed was Scott Fitzgerald, known to Eurovision fans for coming second with “Go” to Celine Dion (with whom he apparently still exchanges Christmas cards) in 1988, but known to the rest of the world as one half of the duo that sang “If I Had Words” to the tune of Saint-Saens’ Organ Symphony. A very friendly and chatty Scot, he’s now living in Rotterdam, and he confessed that the Gateshead concert was only the second time he had sung “Go” in public, the first time being on the Eurovision stage.

Scott FitzgeraldAnd so the party wound to a close, but not before Nicky Stevens of Brotherhood of Man proved herself to be a right party animal, doing Tina Turner and Whitney Houston on the karaoke! An amazing night – full of great entertainment and the thrill of meeting and talking to all these people. It would be wonderful if this could become an annual event – maybe it could become a part of the April “preview party” circuit – and also to continue raising funds for this very worthy cause. I’m not sure when the interviews will all be broadcast but I am sure you will be able to find them through the “show archive” section of the Radio International website.

UK Eurovision Preview Party Sunday May 2nd, Shadow Lounge, Soho

UK Eurovision Preview partySurnames removed to protect the innocent.

So Mrs Chrisparkle and I had a quick nap in our hotel room after seeing Shirley Valentine, and then a Marks and Spencer Chicken Salad (and I had a Pork Pie too) before meeting Michelle and going to the Shadow Lounge for the UK Preview Party. This is the third such event, in a smaller venue this time; while the first party had been a relative financial success (ie I think it didn’t make a loss) the second was not so successful and the prospects for a third looked in doubt; step in John and Paddy to come to the rescue.

Niamh KavanaghAt the front of the queue to get in, we met David, who was even earlier in the queue, and then a strange Welshman starting quizzing us about what we were going to see. He must be the real person on whom Gavin and Stacey’s Uncle Bryn is based. Then Niamh popped her head out of the front door and gave us a wave – I gave her a wave back – and unfortunately didn’t get to speak to her again (yes I was the only person to miss out on that pleasure, regrettably).

Jon LilygreenEventually we got in, and we spent the evening with (deep breath) Adam, Adam, Mark, Michael, Andy, Liam, Tiina, Tristan & his lady, Dean, Gerry, Paul, Rory, John, Richard, Chris, Juha, David and Andrew Schlagerboy, Mark, John, Robin, Monty, Nico, Franko, Iain, Jody, Adrian, Tom, Paul… there will be others, sorry if I have missed anyone.

Paula and Ovi First up was Jon Lilygreen and the Islanders, a band from Newport representing Cyprus, who got on famously with everyone and had a raw appeal, having and giving out lots of fun. Then we had Paula and Ovi from Romania, who suffered from bad microphonage unfortunately (but I still think their song is great!); Josh Dubovie Josh for the UK sang his song and it was the first time I had heard the new version, which I think is an improvement (although I still don’t like the end) – Josh is an excellent singer and comes across as a really nice guy; and finally Niamh for Ireland, who has rapidly become at least two nations’ favourite Eurovision singer and held us all in the palm of her hand. All the acts were introduced by Paddy in his own inimitable style.

A bit too crowded for Mrs C and I to venture on the dance floor but it was great to meet up with friends and enjoy the vibe. Less than three weeks to go before the first Semi Final!! Need to start preparing the party!

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.