With its reputation for camp songs, nonsensical lyrics, political voting and less than complimentary commentary from Terry Wogan, the Eurovision Song Contest has become required viewing for millions of people in the UK (and indeed, across the continent). Originally conceived in the early 1950s by Marcel Bezencon, a Frenchman working for the European Broadcasting Union (as a way to bring European countries together after the war), and inspired by the San Remo music festival in Italy, it is now one of the most watched programmes on TV, with an estimated 100-600m people tuning in across the world each year.
This feature takes a decade-by-decade look at the highlights of the contest, together with information on winners, losers, participants and those who have scored the infamous ‘nul points’.
The 50s and 60s
The first contest was held in Lugano, Switzerland, on May 24, 1956, and Lys Assia won for the host nation with the song Refrain. The event was far removed from the all-singing-all-dancing spectacle that it is now. Only seven countries, including Belgium, France, Luxembourg and Italy, took part, while the United Kingdom didn’t even bother sending a song until the following year. What’s more, only two people were on the jury of each country and the final scores were never revealed. The voting system was changed for the following year’s contest in Frankfurt, Germany, with 10 jury members per country each giving one point to their favourite song. With a whopping 31 points, the winning song by the Netherlands’ Cory Brokken, was a whole 14 points ahead of runners-up France, while the UK’s debut, with Patricia Bredin’s All, scored a measly six. The remainder of the decade saw victories for France and the Netherlands; the UK, meanwhile, sat out 1958 and scored their first significant success the following year when Pearl Carr and Teddy Johnson’s whimsical Sing Little Birdie came second.
The voting system stayed in place until 1962, when it was replaced by a system which saw each country award one, two and three points to its favourite songs. The 60s also saw more countries coming on board, with the likes of Norway, Finland, Yugoslavia, Spain and Portugal joining the line-up.
The 70s and 80s
Between 1971 – 1973 it was impossible for any country to score the dreaded ‘nul points’ since a new voting system was introduced in which the juries of each country had to award each song between one and five points. The 70s also saw consecutive victories for Luxembourg (with Vicky Leandros in 1972 and Anne-Marie David the following year) and Israel (Izhar Cohen in 1978, Milk and Honey in 1979), the first ever win for Ireland (Dana’s All Kinds Of Everything in 1970), which would kick off the country’s reputation as the most successful Eurovision territory of all time, and the appearance on the scene of a little-known group called Abba, who swept to stardom after taking the title for Sweden in 1974 with a little ditty called Waterloo.
The UK, meanwhile, scored its third victory in 1976 with the Brotherhood Of Man’s Save Your Kisses For Me, which appears to have gone down in history for its accompanying dance routine more than anything else. Olivia Newton-John, Mary Hopkin, Cliff Richard and The Shadows were among other artists to represent le Royaume-Uni in the 70s, before the trend for showcasing unknown performers emerged. Thus, by the end of the decade we were sending the likes of Black Lace (pre-Agadoo), Co-co (featuring a pre-Bucks Fizz Cheryl Baker) and, as the 80s began, Prima Donna, who were no match for two-time winner Johnny Logan.
The voting system reverted to the more traditional ‘countries giving between one and 12 points to their favourites’ in 1976.
The 1980s was the decade of the aforementioned Logan, who took the title home for Ireland in 1980 with What’s Another Year and 1987 with Hold Me Now. It also introduced Bucks Fizz to the world, whose skirt-ripping antics during their entry Making Your Mind Up ensured a win for the UK in 1981. Long-time participants Germany, Yugoslavia and Belgium scored their only ever victories, in 1982 and 1986 respectively, with the latter causing some controversy when performer Sandra Kim, who had claimed to be 15, actually revealing she was only 13. These days no-one under the age of 16 is allowed to perform, although they can take part in Junior Eurovision (of which more below). And Norway – famous for scoring nul points – defied the critics in 1985 when they actually won for the first time.
Perhaps the most memorable moment in the 80s came with the 1988 contest, which was won for Switzerland by a then-unknown French Canadian singer called Celine Dion. With just one jury left to vote, the UK’s Scott Fitzgerald was leading the pack on 136 points while Switzerland had 131. The final country, Yugoslavia, proceeded to give six points to the Swiss and nothing at all to the UK, thus ensuring that le Royuame-Uni lost by just one point. A shocked Bruce Forsyth, whose daughter Julie wrote Fitzgerald’s song Go, looked on from the audience as the drama unfolded.
The 90s and beyond
The biggest change to Eurovision in the 1990s came with the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe, which left a whole new batch of countries keen to join the Eurovision family. Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia and Slovenia made their debut in 1993, followed by Estonia, Hungary, Russia, Lithuania, Slovakia, Romania and Poland the following year. FYR Macedonia joined the line-up in 1998, Latvia made their bow in 2000, and then it all went quiet for a while until Ukraine’s arrival in 2003. 2004 saw Albania, Andorra, Serbia and Montenegro and Belarus sign up, with Bulgaria and Moldova arriving in 2005 and Armenia in 2006. 2007, meanwhile, sees the debut of no less than four countries: Georgia, Serbia, Czech Republic and Montenegro 1
Of the newcomers, Poland and Serbia and Montenegro have made the most impressive debuts, finishing second in 1994 and 2004 respectively, while Estonia became the first Eastern bloc country to actually take the Eurovision crown with Tanel and Dave’s disco tune Everybody in 2001. This was swiftly followed by a Latvian victory the following year, while Ruslana’s stompy, shouty Wild Dances won for Ukraine in 2004.
The 90s are also notable for the dominance of Ireland, who won in 1992, 1993, 1994 and again in 1996. 1995, meanwhile, saw a victory for Norway, with a decidedly Irish sounding song (featuring an Irish violinist). It wasn’t a bad time for the UK, who won with Katrina and The Waves in 1997, and came second to Ireland twice – with Michael Ball in 1992 and Sonia in 1993 (Ball later went on to say he would rather “stick pins in his eyes” than take part in Eurovision again). Controversy reigned in 1998, meanwhile, with Israeli entrant Dana International, after it became apparent she was actually a post-op transsexual who was born plain old Yaron Cohen in Tel Aviv. She went on to give the country its third victory.
The decade’s other main controversy came in 1991 when, at the end of the voting, Sweden and France were tied for first place on 146 points apiece. Since new rules had been brought in after 1969’s four-way tie which stated that draws had to be resolved there and then, the winner was to be the one who had received the most number of 12 point scores from the juries. When it became apparent that both countries had received an equal amount, the 10 point scores were taken into account, ultimately securing victory for Sweden’s Carola. France were not happy (and they weren’t the only ones, given the amount of Eurovision fans who thought the quirky, highly original French entry by Algerian-born Amina was far superior to Carola’s bubblegum pop tune), but it made no difference to the final outcome.
Political voting and the draw
Over the years, Eurovision juries have been accused of voting politically, and there are of course several famous incidents, most notably the annual swapping of ‘douze points’ between Greece and Cyprus. However, the recent arrival of the Eastern Bloc countries in the contest has only further fuelled the debate, with disgruntled viewers accusing countries of rewarding ‘their friends over the border’ rather than judging the songs on merit (something which always comes up whenever the UK succumbs to yet another crushing defeat).
While it’s fair to say that a certain amount of friendly vote-swapping does go on (Romania awarding maximum marks to Moldova and Spain and Andorra exchanging plenty of points), it’s still very difficult to win Eurovision solely on political voting. The performance on the night still counts for plenty, and indeed all the recent winners have benefited from strong stage shows as well as memorable songs. It’s also worth remembering that Eastern Europe takes Eurovision very seriously and often sends some of their best-known performers to the contest – who are generally known across the entire region, and not just in their home nation. As such, it’s no surprise when they do rack up points from neighbouring countries.
The running order, meanwhile, is thought to have an influence on which songs do well on the night. Singing early is considered a disadvantage, since there’s every chance the viewers will have forgotten your song by the end. While a lot of winners have come from the first half of the draw (both the Brotherhood Of Man and Sweden’s 1984 winners The Herreys kicked off their respective contests, while 2003’s winner from Turkey was fourth in the running order), a later draw can make all the difference – second to last is thought to be a particularly good slot (it’s worth noting that Katrina and The Waves had the penultimate slot in 1997 and went on to win for the UK with what was then a record score). And just for the record, no song drawn second in the running order has ever won the contest – as Javine found out when she sang second for the UK in 2005.
Between 1971 and 1973 the scoring system was altered in such a way that it was impossible for any country to score the dreaded ‘nul points’. These days, however, nul points is not only possible but far more common.
Of course, the one everybody in the UK remembers is 2003’s contest in Riga, when Jemini notched up a big fat zero for their song Cry Baby – the first time the UK has ever failed to score. It’s this kind of thing which can really spoil a country’s Eurovision reputation – never mind that the United Kingdom has one of the most successful track records in Eurovision history (five victories, 15 second placings), it takes only a single ‘nul points’ to wipe all of that out.
Initially the duo’s failure to score anything was blamed on the rest of Europe hating the UK on account of the Iraq war – however those who suggested this (and indeed there are some who are suggesting it is still a contributory factor to the UK’s lack of success in the contest recently) probably failed to notice that Jemini’s performance was a disaster – out-of-tune singing, mismatched choreography, and generally shambolic in every way.
But it’s not just the UK who have fallen victim to nul points embarrassment. Norway have failed to score on no less than four occasions, most notably in 1978 with Jahn Tiegen’s Mil Etter Mil. Last year’s winners Finland scored nothing at all in 1982 despite an energetic performance from Kojo (singing a cheery little number about nuclear annihilation), while the following year saw a duo of nul pointers – Opera from Turkey’s Cetin Alp, and Spain’s bizarre flamenco number, Quien Maneja Mi Barca by Remedios Amaya.
More recently Switzerland have suffered nul points humiliation – at the 1998 contest in Birmingham, and at 2004’s contest when Pietro and the Allstars failed to pick up a single mark. Given that this was the first year of the ‘semi-final’, and a record 36 countries took part in the contest, this was quite an achievement (in fact Jemini’s nul points pales in comparison!) Since Switzerland had already scored nothing on three occasions, this puts them level with Norway at the top of the nul points table.
So why do Israel take part? They’re not in Europe...
It’s the age-old question which gets asked every single year, so let’s clear it up once and for all. Israel may not be in Europe but it is a member of the European Broadcasting Union, and all countries which are members are eligible to take part in the contest. Several other non-European countries are also members – Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Lebanon, Jordan, Tunisia and Morocco – and as such would also be eligible to take part – although it’s thought most of them steer clear due to Israel’s presence. Palestine are apparently set to join the EBU also and it’s thought they are interested in joining the Eurovision line-up in 2008.
The only European EBU members who have not taken part in Eurovision so far are San Marino, Vatican City and Azerbaijan (although they are set to make their debut in 2008). Associate members of the EBU are Syria and Kosovo – if either of them were to join, they would also be eligible for the contest.
Over the years, a number of countries have dabbled in Eurovision waters, only to abandon the contest for various reasons. They are as follows:
Italy – last took part in 1997 and haven’t been back since. No clear reason has been given for their departure, although speculation ranges from the country preferring to focus on its own San Remo Music Festival, through to them shunning the contest due to lack of artistic merit.
Luxembourg – last seen in 1993, they are thought to have been absent for financial reasons. A comeback is however rumoured for 2008 since another one of the country’s national channels recently joined the European Broadcasting Union and is keen to bring them back to the fold.
Slovakia – took part in 1994, 1996 and 1998 but each time fell victim to the elimination rule that was in place in the 90s (when the bottom eight or so countries were ‘relegated’ for a year to allow others to take part the following year. They haven’t taken part since but are tipped to return in 2008.
Monaco – made a grand comeback in 2004 after a 24-year absence from the contest. However after failing to qualify for the final on three separate occasions, they have decided to sit out 2007, saying that the regional voting patterns in the contest would make it nearly impossible for them to qualify. It’s uncertain if they’ll be back.
Morocco – took part once in 1980 in the absence of Israel. They came second last, and haven’t been seen on a Eurovision stage since.
Tunisia – were all set to take part in 1978 but pulled out at the last minute. No reason was given although it’s rumoured that they didn’t want to take part due to Israel’s participation.
Lebanon – planned to make their debut in 2005, and had even chosen a song – but they withdrew after a dispute over showing the Israeli entry – they were unwilling to do so, which would have been a contravention of contest rules.
Liechtenstein – has tried to take part in Eurovision twice but both times has been unable to do so since the tiny country is not a member of the European Broadcasting Union. And unless they set up their own TV station, they will be unable to join. So don’t expect to see them in the contest any time soon.
The first Junior Eurovision Song Contest took place in Copenhagen on November 15 2003, and was won by Croatia, with the UK finishing in 3rd place. Subsequent contests have been won by Spain, Belarus and Russia. Performers have to be aged between eight and 15 (the minimum age is however being raised to 10 for the 2007 contest) and have to have written their own song.
However, the format has failed to capture the imagination of Eurovision fans in the same manner as the main contest. ITV1 showed the first contest in the UK, rather than the BBC, but subsequent contests were relegated to ITV2 and in 2006 the UK dropped out of the contest completely. The 2007 Junior Eurovision will be held in Rotterdam, but how long it carries on for remains to be seen.
We Are The Winners
The following is a breakdown of who has won the contest the most times:
Ireland – seven times (1970, 1980, 1987, 1992, 1993, 1994, 1996)
United Kingdom – five times (1967, 1969 (in a four-way tie with Spain, Netherlands and France), 1976, 1981, 1997)
France – five times (1958, 1960, 1962, 1969, 1977)
Sweden – four times (1974, 1984, 1991, 1999)
Netherlands – four times (1957, 1959, 1969, 1975)
Luxembourg – four times (1965, 1972, 1973, 1983)
Israel – three times (1978, 1979, 1998)
Denmark – twice (1965, 2000)
Italy – twice (1964, 1990)
Norway – twice (1985, 1995)
Spain – twice (1968, 1969)
Switzerland – twice (1956, 1988)
These countries have all won once: Austria (1966), Monaco (1971), Germany (1982), Belgium (1986), Yugoslavia (1989), Estonia (2001), Latvia (2002), Turkey (2003), Ukraine (2004), Greece (2005), Finland (2006).
The following regular participants, 2 have never won: Albania, Andorra, Belarus, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia 3, Hungary, Iceland, Lithuania, FYR Macedonia, Malta, Moldova, Poland, Romania, Russia, Slovenia.
Since Finland’s victory in 2006, Portugal now hold the record for the longest participation in the contest without ever scoring a win – the Finns made their debut in 1961 and eventually won 45 years later, while the Portuguese have been plodding gamely along since 1964 without the contest even coming within striking distance of Lisbon. Other countries for whom victory has been a long time coming include Malta, who first took part in 1971 and have come close to winning on several occasions but have just missed out. Since the Maltese has an almost fanatical devotion to Eurovision, it remains the country which a lot of Eurovision fans feel is long overdue a win.
Cyprus and Iceland are also long-term participants who have yet to score a victory – Cyprus have been plodding along gamely for 26 years, Iceland for 19 (including this year). Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia and Slovenia first joined 14 years ago, while it’s been 13 years for Russia, Poland, Lithuania, Hungary and Romania. 4 As for the others, they all joined the contest comparatively recently, so it’s early days yet…