Review: The Eurovision Song Contest 50 Years: the Official Companion

by John Egan 96 views

John Kennedy O'Connor seeks to write the definitive account of the history of the Eurovision Song Contest, all the while making it an entertaining and engaging read. Has he succeeded?

Is it a good idea to write a book about something that a whole lot of people enjoy and about which a very small number of people are wholly obsessed. Should you do it? Can anyone write a concise (less than 200 pages), informative, and illustrated history of the Eurovision Song Contest with and do it justice?

Absolutely. With The Eurovision Song Contest 50 Years: the Official Companion (2005, ABC Books Australia; Carlton Books UK) O�Connor manages to avoid a superficial gaze at the Contest, without getting caught up in the minutiae. However, if you already know what �this year�s Edyta� means, you may the book serves more as a compendium of all sorts of ESC facts and trivia. But let�s be honest: how much of a market is there for a comprehensive, detailed, meticulous, thousand-paged Eurovision encyclopaedia? Not much

I recently spoke with John Kennedy O�Connor (the author) about the book and his experience researching and writing it. We also discussed the Contest in general, including this year�s entries. I thought my first question was terribly clever and original:

Space aliens kidnap and take you away in a flying saucer. On their monitors is the Eurovision Song Contest�how do you explain it to them, quickly and concisely?

Laughs I run into that problem everyday in America (O�Connor is British, though he�s lived in the US for several years)! When I start to describe the Contest to Americans they invariable say �Oh, it�s like American Idol.� Then I explain that it involves different countries, each with their own song and they get very confused. Of course they then ask why there�s no American entries, and when I explain it�s Euro-vision, they scratch their heads and say �but if Israel can send a song, why can�t we>?� The best I�ve managed to come up with is �the Eurovision Song Contest is a bit like Miss World for music industry.�

They don�t quite get it, do they…

Not initially, but I live in California and most folks there are up for a good party, so I started throwing Eurovision parties. Rather quickly I was getting as many as 50 people coming, each bringing a dish, some dressing in national costumes�so they sort of don�t get it, but get into the spirit of it nonetheless.

O�Connor got the idea for the book in the late 1990s, having found the few available books on the Contest in the UK had glaring factual errors, were too superficial, or were written by someone who didn�t respect the Contest. He approached the EBU with his idea of a comprehensive, general readership book on the Contest, and started working on it in earnest in 1999. �I wanted to cover the behind-the-scenes stories, as well as highlight the performers and results.�
Although he wrote the book in English (it has been translated into French, German and Dutch), O�Connor used British, Irish, Dutch and Scandinavian sources to write what serves as perhaps the most comprehensive history of the event.
There was only one problem: the length of the manuscript. Had it been used in its original form, the book would have been �as much as three times its current length.� Eventually, his efforts to whittle down the text proved too frustrating, at which point his editor stepped in, to bring the manuscript down to a manageable size.

Formatted by Year, richly illustrated
The structure is linear and simple: each year�s Contest gets a chapter. The first dozen years are each afforded only 2 pages, but by the time Eurovision �went colour� the depth and breadth of material led to 4 page chapters thereafter. �We had enough material for 1963 and 1967 to also be 4 pages each, but it seemed anomalous, so we edited them down for consistency�s sake,� making each year from 1968 onwards 4 pages.
The book may be of value to for the images more than the stories told. Flipping through the pages one can see how Eurovision�often derided for being a bit out of the loop, culture-wise�has in fact evolved significantly over its half-century. O�Connor doesn�t avoid the controversies�labour strikes, coups triggered by specific songs, the encroachment of politics, the use of child performers�though each chapter�s brevity often prevents a truly nuanced examination of such matters. Still, this is not a �fairy floss� text; Eurovision�s warts are there on display, including the ongoing debate about how winners are chosen and just how often popular sentiment adds up to douze points.

A researcher and a fan
O�Connor is enthusiastic about the Contest, but retains a critical eye. So I was curious to get his view–as someone whose first Eurovision was back in the early 1970s�on today�s contests, in comparison to year�s past:

John, last year, Marie Myriam (who won for France in 1977 with L�oiseau et l�enfant) rather infamously described the contest as now being more Eastern Eurovision than Eurovision–thanks to block voting from former Soviet and Yugoslavian nations�what�s your reaction to her comment?

Well, I think she has a point, but not perhaps for the same reasons. Televoting has certainly allowed for more regional bias to appear in the final tabulations.
But I don�t think people in Serbia & Montenegro vote for Croatian or Bosnia & Herzegovinian songs out of loyalty. Quite often the singers representing these smaller countries are established performers in the overall region. They�re already familiar to the viewers there.
This isn�t a new phenomenon for the Contest; in fact, the UK, France and many other longer-competing countries used to do the same thing�just not recently.
Even when the performer is unknown, the style and presentation of the song is often reflective of a shared culture. Doesn�t then make sense that tele-voters would support those songs and countries?

Then do you think that the voting system will probably need to change again, perhaps to a mixed jury- and tele-vote system?
Quite possibly, it�s worth trying it again. Juries are too few people and can very easily have a bias take over; recent televoting results make it pretty clear that people aren�t voting based on what they hear on the night. So a mixed jury/tele-vote might make it more balanced.
And while O�Connor doesn�t have one particular thing that he loves about the Contest (�I love the spectacle, the voting, some of the songs��), he does find that in recent years the presenters have been somewhat lacking, in particular �Meltem Cumbul and Korhan Abay in Istanbul were awful� although he thought �Marie Naumova and Renars Kaupers (in Riga 2003) did a surprisingly good job�though my all-time favourite will always be Lill Lindfors� (who �lost� her skirt while hosting the 1985 contest in Sweden).

A worth-have more than a must-have
Overall, The Eurovision Song Contest 50 Years: the Official Companion is comprehensive and accessible; those whose first language isn�t English should find it both engaging and readable. There are specific details with which I could take issue (such as alleging Céline Dion lip-synched her reprise of «Ne partez pas sans moi» the year after her win for Switzerland. Ahem!), but this is a thoroughly research, cohesive text. If your knowledge about the Contest is already expert, you might find it a bit light, but most will find it interesting and insightful.

To purchase your copy of The Eurovision Song Contest 50 Years: the Official Companion, visit the online shop at or in Australia at the ABC online shop

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