Our trip to the Eurovision Song Contest 2010 by Jamie McLoughlin, aged 33 and three-quarters
Seven years. That's how long it took me to make a comeback at the Eurovision Song Contest. Not on the stage you understand. I like to think I'm more aware of my vocal shortcomings than some of the people who have strutted their stuff on that voluminous set over the years, the type who have given their personality and outfit more attention than their harmonic range. I'm talking about being a member of the not-so-silent majority, that flag waving mass which you see carefully arranged in front of the scenery each year and whom the director cuts to if you're waving the national colours of the country which has just finished performing.
I had been part of that select group just once before, at the Skonto Hall in Riga in 2003. It was an amazing night - which saw Turkey score its first ever win and the UK its maiden wooden spoon, both accomplishments secured in style of some description. I knew I'd go back to Eurovision one day - I just didn't know when.
And so it was, one evening in late May 2009, that a gang of us were having a pint at the Ship and Mitre in Liverpool (the one that's decked out like the inside of a boat and they sell pick-and-mix behind the bar) that it was decided we would assemble a gaggle of willing tourists to make the trip to Norway in 12 months time to attend the competition for ourselves.
That group of about eight willing travellers had become four by Thursday, May 27, when we arrived in Oslo's very clean and aesthetically planned main airport (lots of Norwegian wood to greet the weary passenger, that sort of thing) ready for three nights of prohibitively-priced entertainment in the Norwegian capital topped off by joining 17,996 other spectators in the freshly opened Telenor arena (which isn't in Oslo at all - it's in a place called Baerum) for the 55th Eurovision Song Contest.
Eurovision was everywhere you looked in Oslo, from the poster greeting you the moment you entered the airport terminal, to the Carmen Miranda-style arrangement of pink, black and gold spheres which formed the 2010 'theme' at the end of each baggage carousel in the arrivals hall. You can see one on your right modelled by my other half, Mr Glyn Ellis Hughes - and doesn't he carry it off with aplomb? If the 'Share the Moment' slogan wasn't on a poster, it was on the sides of trams, on the back of buses, on a huge banner suspended over the airport's main exit and on every spare advertising space in town, be it on a bus stop, fluttering down the side of a lamp-post, a big screen above a shopping centre (see below) or even, bizarrely, outside the gents lavatory in Oslo's central railway station. This was one city proud to be the hosts of an event which perhaps other capitals wouldn't promote so highly, and shame on the latter lot for being so curmudgeonly.
We arrived in time to see the second semi-final, which we watched in the bar of our hotel, the Scandic Sjolyst. It's amazing how slowly you can sip a beer when a round of four drinks comes close to 30 quid - but that really is the last time I'm going to mention the price of booze in Norway, it's well documented how expensive it is and there's no need for me to provide yet another addendum. We were gutted that Lithuania didn't progress to the final, not just because Glyn had planned to wear a sartorial tribute to the InCulto boys in the Telenor, but also because it was a very cheeky little number that was well put together and would have complemented the final 25 very well. We were a bit surprised to see Niamh Kavanagh get through for Ireland as she appeared to endure every second of her performance of It's For You, at least, that's how it came across on TV. Sometimes, you shouldn't come back. Chuffed for Romania, though as it was by far my favourite of all the songs selected for the 2010 shebang, although Ovi and Paula's onstage antics did sound a tad flatter than the superb studio version.
Friday was a completely Eurovision-free day. As I'd been too late to get press accreditation (as it's far more important for flouncy fan boys to get access to the press centre and spend all day on internet forums reminding their friends how vital to the Eurovision machine they and their opinions of the songs/singers/rehearsals are, rather than get, y'know, a full-time journalist in there to find out and then write about stuff which could actually appear in a newspaper...) a member of the UK delegation had taken my mobile number and said they might call with the chance to interview either British entry Josh Dubovie or composer Pete Waterman down the line. Understandably, that never happened, although I did get a call from a reporter at the Daily Express who wanted to speak to me about the build-up to the show which appeared in a two-page spread on the day of the Contest (my mum bought a copy - I still haven't seen it). That call came through while we were in the brilliant sculpture park which is a short tram ride from the city centre. Norwegian artists are either a bit rubbish at sculpting clothes or have an obsession with nakedness as it was nudity a-go-go from the first sculpture to the last.
Thankfully, visitors to the park are not expected to follow this no-clothes trend and we enjoyed a bakingly sunny morning having a wee stroll around the exhibits. You may spot Glyn and I larking about in the above photograph. It was easy at this point to spot who was in Oslo on Eurovision business as black shoulder bags with a gold trim and a 'Share The Moment' logo (part of the press pack given to the 'journalists' who attend) emblazoned across the side were dit-dotted about the park and they became more numerous the closer you got to the city centre.
We also made it to Oslo's living folk museum, a collection of period buildings, looking not unlike the exterior set for Little House on the Prairie, with Norwegians in traditional dress wandering about and telling the crowd about bygone customs and lifestyles. They even put on a display of folk dancing for our behalf. Perhaps a Friday afternoon while the kids are still in school wasn't the best time to visit as the place was practically deserted although it was interesting enough in its own way. Some of the buildings are breathtakingly beautiful, particularly the old church, although with so much timber going into their construction, I shudder to think what would happen if a stray spark, cigarette or match ever went near one of these priceless structures.
If you do go to Oslo for a weekend break, we couldn't recommend the Oslo Pass highly enough. A 48-hour pass cost 340 kroner (about 34 quid) and got us on to buses, trams, trains, the Metro and even a ferry. It has a picture of Martin Luther King on the front, presumably because he had a dream that one day the people of Oslo could enjoy 48 hours of hassle-free public transport. Or, it may be linked to the fact that the Nobel Peace Prize is handed over at Oslo City Hall every year.
The pass also got us 20 per cent off a meal at TGI Friday's, which made for a proper meal out with a bill resembling the amount you'd fork out back in the UK. Before we arrived in Norway, we were convinced that would be a complete no-no, so anyway, the gist of these two paragraphs is that an Oslo Pass could be the best purchase you make when visiting this very beautiful, very friendly city.
Our ESC-free day ended with a visit to The London, Oslo's biggest gay pub - or so the hype claimed. As it was Eurovision Eve, the basement was rammed with gentlemen in tight T-shirts doing things with their hips that defied known physics as Eurovision hit after hit was pumped out onto the dancefloor. I was in hog heaven. A pub, that played Eurovision song, all night. You just don't get that sort of thing back home - except for a legendary bar in London called Retro and I would never be able to afford the cab fare home to Liverpool. I really, really wanted to hit the dancefloor, but we had to leave after one drink as it was too packed out to be comfortable. The last song we heard as we exited the premises was the UK's That Sounds Good to Me, which the entire place was singing along with. It raised our hopes that Campaign Blighty wouldn't be a total disaster at the Telenor the following evening. How foolish we were...
Saturday dawned. The day of the 55th Eurovision Song Contest. We took a trip down to the harbour to visit Akershus Fortress, one of Oslo's primary defences against oncoming seafaring invaders while also serving as a royal residence. If you ever get there, the audio guide is a must or you won't have a miggins what each room was/is used for (they still dust the place off for official receptions and other royal business) although it isn't the most fascinating place to visit, I must be honest. While in the fortress, I got a couple of phone calls from radio stations (one in Southport, the other in Preston) who wanted a bit of colour on how Oslo was preparing for Eurovision. I told them about the Eurovision Village, the collection of stalls from the event sponsors and a merchandise stand opposite a huge stage constructed at the dockside which featured performances from some of the 2010 entrants and former acts throughout Contest Week. When we got down there, there was a celebration of the junior version of Eurovision afoot. Not our cup of tea, but it was great to see so many families assembled - and enjoying - free entertainment revolving around that very silly Song Contest I've been a fan of for almost 20 years.
It was important we got to the arena in plenty of time as the only way to reach the Telenor Arena was via public transport. The number 31 took us there and we had to let two go past us as they were jam-packed. We just about squeezed onto the third one and it was at this point we realised that Norway's non membership of the EU probably allowed them to send a bus filled with far too many people hurtling down a motorway towards an arena which wasn't actually fully finished as it had no toilet facilities. Ah well, nobody else in Europe was hosting Eurovision that night, so that was the bus we had to take and those were the Portaloos we had to deal with. It was worth it.
As someobody who accompanied my parents to the Liverpool vs Everton FA Cup FInals of 1986 and 1989, I can only liken the walk towards the Telenor from the bus stop as akin to the brilliant march up the Wembley Way towards the stadium as all the fans finally gather in one place for a spot of pop worship. Press gangs and TV crews littered the area beyond the turnstiles and the queue for the beer stall snaked away to infinity. And here's the sad thing. The one flag you see so many times while waiting to go inside the arena is the British one. The Union colours, held aloft by loyal supporters who know, deep down, our song didn't stand a snowball-in-hell's, but will still fly the flag for Blighty as they have done so many years beforehand and will no doubt continue to do so for many years to come. Fans like that deserve something a lot better to cheer on in the arena - but more of that in a bit.
When we got through entrance D2, it suddenly hit us how BIG Eurovision has become. In 2003, the last year before the semi-final system was brought in, I had sat in a large sports hall roughly one third the capacity of the Telenor Arena. By 2010, Eurovision was immense - and the true size didn't really come across on the screen. On the back of our ticket, section 11, where our group was dotted, looked like it was within touching distance of the catwalk Belgium's Tom Dice performed at the end of. In reality we must have been a good 30 metres away from him.
By this point - and drinking in the indescribably good atmosphere (see above) - it was starting to irk me how the event is derided as a complete joke back home when the music industry could actually use the three minutes the UK is handed on a plate each year to push our entry as a very effective advert for just how good we are at 'doing' pop music in this country.
I had crafted my T-shirt the Wednesday before the Contest while listening to the This Morning phone-in about something or other. Stating that 'Blighty's Alrighty', I perhaps should have put a slogan on there which reflected what I really thought about my homeland's attitude towards Eurovision. But I didn't want to get thrown out of the place before they'd even played Te Deum.
We had to be in our seats 45 minutes before kick-off, mainly because we had to be taught the dance routine which the audience would perform during the interval act. It was a bit complicated to learn and we finally had it off-pat after about five run-throughs, so it was a real shame when I watched it back this afternoon to realise they hardly showed any of it on the telly. It was smashing fun, though.
And so to the show. Glyn, being borne of Bangor, had his Welsh flag tea towel with him to wave in the air as his fellow countryman Jon Lilygreen fronted the Cypriot entry. Someone a few rows in front had a slightly smaller Welsh flag and I am assured by my better half that stern glances, fuelled by tea towel envy, began to pass between the two of them. It soon became clear that the majority of the hometown crowd had only turned up to watch Didrik, with his face appearing on magazine covers and newspaper front pages all week. As he sang third - when the entire arena sang the song back at him in a real chills-down-the-neck moment - it didn't take too long for Team Tolli-Sangen to get rather restless and jittery and start jibber-jabbering with each other while the rest of the entries did their thing.
After Norway, the biggest cheers went to OPA! from Greece, which had the whole place up - although that doesn't really come across on screen - and it has to be said that the masses of British fans in the auditorium did see Josh getting one of the night's largest rounds of applause after he'd finished with his innovative storage staircase set-up. That's very British, cheering for the underdog. But there was one girl who was getting the lion's share of the audience-love that wasn't aimed at Didrik. Lena.
German flags were all over the place, especially in one concentrated enclave in the bleachers behind our section. The anticipation for her arrival - and she was singing 22nd out of the 25 acts - was palpable and the response from the crowd was perhaps even bigger than the one reserved for Didrik. Although I still didn't think it would win as I never thought Satellite would be immediate enough to register with people on first listen. I still don't think it does, but I am so chuffed that Germany has won again after 28 years of patience. It just shows what happens when you stop and think about what fills Europe's airplay charts and then apply it to Eurovision. And, yes, that last comment was aimed at the BBC.
When Harel Skaat appeared for Israel, there was a bit of a hoo-hah when two people jumped up out of their seats and were determined to get a Palestinian flag into one of the crowd shots, but one of the floor crew ordered them to take it down. There had been a protest going on just outside the Telenor boundaries all week with a huge banner reading 'Occupation: 0 Points', which did get a mention in at least one news report, but the flag incident didn't appear to be referenced by any of the TV commentators. As for Spain's stage invader, otherwise known as Jimmy Jump, it appears he was fined 15,000 kroner and spent a night in the cells. Strangely, he was the one making the front pages in Norway on the Sunday (see above), not Lena's victory or Didrik's abysmal showing.
There was a row of German supporters in front of us, the four of them each wearing T-shirts which spelt out Lena's name when they all sat together (see above). They were delighted as their girl romped home and we even managed to get another German supporter to have his photo taken with Glyn as his Welsh flag drooped solemnly on what had been a bad night for the British.
Outside the Telenor we met up with Our Man in Oslo, Phil Jackson who had been manfully filing reports for Boom Bang a Blog at the start of the week. Even he was thinking of taking 2011 off - and the word on the QT is that there'll be a real clampdown on who gets accreditation from next year. I may sound like a miseryguts and I would never have a go at a fellow fan if I could help it - but the EBU indulging somebody who just wants an early peek at rehearsals so they can string three (poorly structured) sentences together about it on a self-made website at the expense of allowing genuine press in to the arena is verging on the ridiculous.
Lysaker train station was a very long walk from the arena, but a fun one and we were already kidding ourselves that the BBC will make more of an effort next year (I would be very surprised if they did).
Sunday was our final day in Oslo, although our flight didn't leave until 6pm. That gave us an excuse to visit the city's open air swimming pool with ridiculously high diving boards (I only tried the teeny-weeny one which was practically at the same level as the water, such a wuss am I) then a final chance to mooch about the city centre. On the day of the Contest, there were sheets of A4 stuck to lamp posts bearing a number to call if somebody wanted tickets for that night's musical fun and games. The following day, those posters were springing up again, except this time it was for that evening's huge AC/DC concert.
Oslo had held the Eurovision Song Contest close to its bosom for two weeks, but just 12 hours after the trophy passed to Germany, the city was already moving on.