Thursday, 15 May 2014 09:24

The Vagaries of Musical Horror

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It’s been one of those weeks which seems to whoosh by and I don’t get nearly all the things done I wanted. Finishing off a run of The Gondoliers in Ipswich, and then hot footing it back to Beckenham after the Saturday evening performance to go to a Eurovision Party, may not have been eminently sensible, but I thought might be a bit of a lark. Of course, going to a party late, when everybody has been there for a few hours, bonded and maybe imbibed in a few light refreshments, one is always reminded that a late party arrival is a bit like a dog in a manger – out of place. However, duty done and somewhat tired from the journey and four shows back to back, I was able to get away and into the wonder that is my own bed. You only realise how grateful you are to have spent too much money on a bed, when you’re a touring turn staying in boarding houses and hotels around the country. After a shorter sleep than entirely necessary (I often find that being away for a while, the first sleep isn’t entirely successful as I have on my brain buzzing around all the things I must do the next day) I decided to watch the recording of The Eurovision Song Contest from the previous evening which had not been able to see owing to being on stage at the time. 

What struck me was how dumb we’ve all become, even with this sort of broadcast. I will never say Eurovision was anything more than a bit of fluff, but even fluff must have some sort of integrity to make it work.  The production of the show was very slick and very impressive. Lots of lighting effects and dancers in hamster wheels (why?) and all the mad paraphernalia that this contest is famous for, but I neither enjoyed the spectacle, nor the fayre in it. I am always rather irked when people tell me that the Eurovision Song Contest is rubbish, and nothing very good ever came out of it. I always challenge them with the fact it was originally intended as a bonding process for Europe after the Second World War, which, on paper was a good idea. Of course, all it’s done is prove how obdurately alien the UK is to the rest of Europe – indeed is criticised for not taking the contest seriously enough, but cut off as we are, even with the Channel Tunnel in situ, we’re still a bit out on a limb.

Volare, the big Italian song of 1958 which, having won the San Remo Song Festival was aired in the Eurovision coming third, although everybody thinks it won, has become one of the best-selling songs from the contest at over 22 million and given artists such as Dean Martin big chart hits from it. L’amour Est Bleu from 1967 is perhaps so familiar that it may not even be recognised as a Euro hit, and of course Abba, so famously sweeping the board in 1974 and have gone onto become something of an institution. I am not going to pretend that any of the examples are life changing moments in music like a Beethoven or a Mozart, but they are well crafted and catchy songs, and as an addendum to that statement, perhaps in their way they are life changing?

It used to be an honour for an artist to be asked to represent the UK in the contest, and routinely, the biggest stars of the day were routinely wheeled out to compete against our ‘friendly’ European rivals. Matt Monro and Kathy Kirby, if not exactly the latest beat trend of the times were big star names which would draw a large audience, and both were high flying acts which could command large fees; Kathy Kirby was the highest paid singer in the country but unfortunately managed to blow the lot on alcohol and unsuitable marriage, ending up in the bankruptcy court and fading badly into drink related problems. 

Sandie Shaw, Cliff Richard (twice!), Lulu, Mary Hopkin and Clodagh Rodgers were all well-known chart acts selling millions of records and obvious choices for the contest, and indeed this practise continued until the mid-seventies when the format was changed and many unknown acts came into the fray to compete for a chance to go to Euro Heaven. Throughout the late seventies and eighties, any number of faceless wannabes appeared and disappeared, and I rather lost my, well, if not interest exactly, my reason for watching. I liked the fact that a young Olivia Newton-John was doing her very best and to see how it all panned out and progressed – I wasn’t so interested in the ‘made for Eurovision’ pop group. Things improved in the nineties with the BBC returning to the big star outine and Michael Ball and Sonia both holding their own and flying the flag to a respectable second position – Sonia missing the winning spot by only one point. Thank you Greece for that! After this, the contest really became what is today, a massive and glorified Karaoke competition. Gone were the orchestra after 1999, and artists could you use backing tracks completely; the whole thing became a somewhat shambolic and irritatingly long broadcast of something like X Factor, or Britain’s Got (No) Talent. Whatever possessed the BBC to put ageing acts such as Bonnie Tyler and Englebert Humperdinck into the melting pot of the arena is a complete mystery, but I suppose they were paid handsomely for their endeavours so why should they care? This was my Sunday morning entertainment – the Euro from the previous evening. As I mentioned earlier, a marvellous spectacle, but somehow without any soul, and I thought as I watched in a state of disappointment, rather like a roman arena where the crowd come to cheer and jeer the hapless gladiator or enjoying the lions chomping their way through a chunk of prize chuck slave! I may not bother again!

The other musical divertissement for the week was to support the local operatic society for their presentation of The Pirates of Penzance, which at once filled me with dread and horror as much as anything else. I am not fond of going to the theatre. As somebody who works in the industry, I''m afraid it has put me off going to anything if I can possibly avoid it – the busman’s holiday of abject Hell, but I manned up and trotted off to see it. It proved a more enjoyable spectacle than I had hoped for, which was a relief, and the choral moments were very well displayed and accompanied by an excellent orchestra. A piece that was written in 1880 for a Victorian society - indeed, to poke fun at that very society and the absurdity of the social boundaries that were in place, is remarkable that much of the comment is completely apposite today for a modern audience to enjoy. WS Gilbert was, as we know, a skilful and brilliant writer, erudite and biting at once, and Sullivan ably foisting his shards of metal with music which is as witty and sometimes genuinely beautiful with moments of real pathos that fit the drama perfectly. As I reflected on what I had seen, I decided that I really have a wonderful life, enriched by experience, but more importantly that I have not yet become some old blunder bore that is not open to conviction and can still have my feelings stirred by a piece of fluff, be it the Eurovision Song Contest or The Pirates of Penzance.

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