Can you make a steamroller out of cheese?

Yes, it’s that time of year again. May. Spring is in the air… somewhere, it was bloody freezing here today. Flowers are in bloom. It’s light past 9pm. And, with crushing inevitability, the Eurovision Song Contest is rolling around again. Whoopee. I could ignore it, of course – and my ears and retinas would thank me for doing so – but where’s the fun in that? It’s got more cheese than Tesco Extra, and about the same level of musical sophistication.

I am afraid, however, that I lack the testicular fortitude to liveblog the event. Doing so would mean sitting through it all, which would probably lead to my doing something tedious, painful and messy, like gnawing off my own left arm and using it to club myself unconscious. I recorded it, and I reserve the right to make use of the fast-forward button. Particularly since I’m watching it sober. I also, I should say, lacked the testicular fortitude to watch any of the semi-finals. I mean, come on. There’s only so much anyone can be expected to take.

OK. So. We’re in Dusseldorf. Lovely. Our plastic hosts for the evening are Anke Engelke, Stefan Raab and Judith Rakers, with Graham Norton providing snarky voice-overs. Anke seems to be wearing a bright red feather duster. Judith seems to be wearing some kind of recycled foil takeout container. Stefan is wearing a black suit and tie, I assume in preparation for music’s funeral. Judith’s smile isn’t a real smile, it’s a cardboard cutout that’s been stapled to her chin. Two seconds in, and I’m already longing for the subtle presenting skills of, say, Davina McCall. Anke seems to be suffering from some kind of pain in the lower jaw – she’s wincing slightly (and you would, wouldn’t you?), and wrinkling her nose.

Oh dear God, the presenters are singing live. Anke is singing last year’s winning song. No, wait, Anke started it off, and now Stefan’s unleashing his inner rock god. I’m not sure children should be watching this. He sings! He plays guitar! He drums! He grimaces! And he’s joined by Lena, last year’s winner, who seems to be on a quest to discover her inner Ute Lemper. And it ends with lots of fireworks. When you start with the explosion, where do you go next?

Don’t dwell on that one too much. Anyway, it could always be worse. Imagine Terry Wogan doing ‘Making Your Mind Up’. The Cheryl Baker part.

Ooh. Speeded-up film of the process of converting a football stadium into the Eurovision arena. Apparently Take That will be performing there later in the year. That’s one to miss, then.

Earnest chat from the presenters. Anke’s French is pretty good. Stefan likes Judith’s Bacofoil. More fireworks. As usual, the phonelines open before anyone other than the presenters and last year’s winner has sung a note.

OK, we’re on to the candidates. Finland first. Paradise Oskar, he’s called. There’s film of someone who is not Paradise Oskar carrying a double-bass off a U-Bahn train in Berlin. Mr. Oskar is very, very young. Playing acoustic guitar, piano in the background, save our planet theme – ironic, given the amount of hairspray he’s wearing. I mean, seriously, that do could kill if you threw it at someone. I’m sure he’s very nice, and I’m sure his mother is very proud of him, but it’s a really dull song. He also seems to have Patti LuPone’s way with consonants. He ends with a big grin, to a roar of applause. I want kitsch and I want it now.

Bosnia-Herzegovina. Dino Merlin, Love in Rewind. A geography teacher and Amanda Lamb’s twin sister, a tambourine, a mandolin, a triangle, oom-pah rhythms, permagrins and lots of plaid. The last singing group I saw that was this perky was the New Main Street Singers in “A Mighty Wind”, and that was satire. They end by waving in unison.

Denmark. A Friend in London – no, really, that’s the name of the group – singing ‘New Tomorrow’. They’re apparently very popular in Canada. They look and sound a bit like the CBeebies version of The Killers. It looks as if spiky hair is one of this year’s recurring visual themes.

Lithuania. So of course we see film of a Lithuanian ski instructor. Mr. Norton tells us that the song comes straight out of musical theatre. Uh-oh, I love musical theatre. Evalina Sasenko, ‘C’est Ma Vie’. There’s a grand piano and dry ice, and many overemphatic gestures accompanied by a swooping string section. She signs the second verse for the deaf, and then the drums come in. She makes Shirley Bassey look like a model of subtlety and restraint. Nice voice, though, and the song wouldn’t be too bad if you trimmed away most of the schlocky arrangement.

Hungary. Retro-pop, apparently. Introduced via film of a Hungarian chef in a German market. Kati Wolf, ‘What About My Dreams?’ Blue lamé dress, routine Eurodisco song. She’s a bit like a lobotomised Lady Gaga. Fast forward time.

Ireland. Jedward. Yes, that’s right. Jedward. The song is called ‘Lipstick’. The hair is terrifying, the singing is worse, and the red sequinned military jackets with foot-high fake shoulders look like something left over from a low-budget sci-fi spoof. Their song is truly hideous, but a real earworm. And, bless them, they do it, ridiculous choreography and all, with absolute conviction, ending in a shower of red glitter. It’s simultaneously completely awful and thoroughly compelling. This is what Eurovision is about.

Sweden. Eric Saade. ‘Popular’. Thankfully not the witless “comic” “song” from ‘Wicked’. He’s wearing a leather jacket and a black T-shirt with straps across the front, unfortunately – given the nature of the song, my choice for him would have been a straitjacket and a gag. Bad boyband choreography with his backing singers. He seems to be trying for some kind of bad-boy vibe… but this is Eurovision, he’s about as threatening as mayonnaise.

Ah. Estonia. She’s studying fashion. We see film of an Estonian stockbroker. Of course. Getter Jaani, ‘Rockefeller Street’. She looks a bit like Lea Michele, and she’s wearing something fuchsia pink out of a five-year-old’s dressup box while dancers hide behind scale-model cartoon buildings behind her. There’s a fine line between kitsch and crap, and this crosses it. Fast-forward time.

Greece (is the word, is the word…). Loucas Yiorkas featuring Stereo Mike, ‘Watch My Dance’. White middle-class guy attempting to do hardass street rap, followed by a singer who looks like the Primark David Beckham belting out a banal melody over industrial percussion sounds. Watch my hand stretch out for the remote.

Russia. Apparently he’s a movie star. His name translates as Alex Sparrow. Alexej Vorobjov, ‘Get You’, co-written by one of Lady Gaga’s producers (according to Mr. Norton). Wobbly voice. Leather jacket, white vest, quiff. He looks like an understudy for Danny Zuko in the third national company of “Grease”. Again, bad boyband choreography with his backup dancers. Lacks the inspired inanity of Jedward’s effort. C- at best.

France. Unlike anything else in the competition, or so says Mr. Norton. He’s the youngest professional tenor in the world, apparently. Amaury Vassill, ‘Sognu’. Accompaniment nicked from inspired by Ravel, hair modelled on a dishmop, legitimate tenor voice, stiffly serious facial expression. It sounds a bit like something off a Russell Watson album. Projection of a stormy sky behind him, occasionally turning the colour of fire, with fireworks coming in towards the end of the song. Interestingly, it’s in Corsu, not French… and that is, in fact, the only interesting thing about the song. He’ll probably have a nice career doing crossover albums, but he won’t win Eurovision.

(Yes, the contest finished a while ago… but I have managed to remain spoiler-free.)

Ooh. Italy. For the first time in 14 years, Eurovision scholars. Raphael Guadalazzi, ‘Madness of Love’. Smug lounge singer from the cruise ship from hell. You know how earlier this week, Europe took a decisive step backwards towards reintroducing border controls in the Schengen zone? This song is the reason why, it’s nothing to do with immigration control. He attempts this sort of  raw wail at the end of each chorus. I think it’s modelled on the sound of a chicken being strangled. If only you could apply a taser via a TV screen.

And now Judith is interviewing the geography teacher from Bosnia. She’s wearing a new bacofoil dress, and is still grinning. Her mouth moves but, oddly, the grin doesn’t.

Oh. Denmark’s lead singer’s top is backless. I wish I hadn’t seen that.

Switzerland. Anna Rossinelli, ‘In Love For A While’. She’s wearing a slinky red dress, and she can open her mouth very, very wide. The song sounds oddly like ‘Wig in a Box’, only without the fun and the energy. She’s quite charming, and is better than her material, which is in nul points territory.

The UK. Us. Blue. ‘I Can’. Yes, they can. But I wish they wouldn’t. Anonymous, radio-friendly  manufactured pop, efficiently delivered and deadly dull.

Moldova. Sdob si Zdub, ‘So Lucky’. It’s like a cross between “Very”-era Pet Shop Boys, complete with pointy hats, and Chumbawumba, with a dose of Balkan folk and a unicycling fairy carrying a trumpet thrown in. Unabashedly bizarre, this is the kind of WTF TV we all tuned in for in the first place. You just don’t get this on the regular music channels.

Ooh. Germany. Lena, the defending champion. ‘Taken by a Stranger’. Slinky black pantsuit, backing singers in silver bodystockings, I think the tune is still in the dressing room. She’s a convincing pop star, but her song last year was far better. On this, she sounds like she’s trying to be Bjork, only without the accompanying psychosis. Oh dear. Fast forward time. Again.

Romania. Hotel FM. ‘Change’. I think the pianist is trying to kill the piano. It’s very 70s, and the singer obviously has his heart set on out-grinning Judith, our bacofoil-clad hostess. Two dancers holding trumpets do fake Fosse moves behind him. It’s rather sweet, slightly amateurish, and genuinely fun.

Austria. Nadine Beller, ‘The Secret is Love’. Judging by her hair – which is bizarrely rigid – the real secret involves quick-drying cement. It’s a sub-Whitney Houston power ballad, and she can certainly belt out the big high notes. It’s just really, really strange watching her move and her hair stay still.

Azerbaijan. Ell/Nikki, ‘Running Scared’. Big, confident slab of cheesy pop that would sound great blaring out of the speakers at a beach bar in a Mediterranean resort. Which is sort of the point of Eurovision. It’s not good, but it doesn’t have to be. It’s naff, syrupy, and irresistible, though you might hate yourself later.

Slovenia. Maja Keuc, ‘No One’. She’s wearing what looks like designer chainmail and thigh boots, and her song is… God, I can’t take a second more of it. Imagine the worst parts of Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera put in a blender and programmed into a robot. You know what you’re imagining? It’s better than Maja Keuc.

Anke’s talking to France. She’s still not smiling, but she’s also not wearing a feather duster any more. There’s a plug for the souvenir DVD, like you’d want to watch this again.

Iceland. Sjonni’s Friends, ‘Coming Home’. They’re actual musicians, the song is old-fashioned European folk-pop, the sort of thing the male half of Abba were doing before Abba, and it’s rather charming. It hasn’t, of course, a hope in hell of winning.

Spain. Lucia Perez. ‘Que Me Quiten Lo Ballao’. Again, a resort bar classic. She’s very enthusiastic. I feel like I should be wearing a loud Hawaiian shirt to watch this. On any objective level it’s dreadful, but – once again – resistance is futile. And yes, there are more fireworks.

Ukraine. Mika Newton, ‘Angel’. She’s made up to look like she’s in a vampire movie, wearing feathers on her shoulders, and someone’s doing sand-painting behind her. Oh. The song is possibly terribly meaningful, or maybe she just ate bad clams for lunch.

Serbia. Nina, ‘Caroban’. Very 60s, down to the Mary Quant pastiche dresses. She can sing, it’s a good song, but she’s not going to win. She might have, if she’d sung in English.

Final song. Georgia. Eldrine, ‘One More Day’. She’s wearing a black suit carrier with neon green Spirograph doodles taped to it, and she’s trying to rock out. And now her male colleague – another black suit carrier, but he’s got neon yellow Spirograph doodles and either a lot of eyeshadow or a black eye – is rapping. They’re terrifying. It’s like watching Satanic rock, as performed by the cast of ‘Glee’, with costumes made at home by someone’s drunk grandma and the ghost of Leigh Bowery. I’m quite impressed that the producers saved the worst for last.

OK, songs over. There were more songs in the final last year; this year, several were eliminated in semi-finals which I couldn’t be frigged didn’t have time to watch. I suspect that most of the real horror shows didn’t make it all the way through to tonight, because this evening’s roster of songs, taken as a whole, has been rather blander than usual. Oh well. Anke’s back in another new strange frock, and she seems to have discovered her smile. Perhaps she’s just relieved that Georgia’s performance is finally over. She’ll certainly never have to listen to that again.

I spoke too soon. Bummer. Quick reminder of all 25 songs. Pass the remote.

Oh. No huge cheesy intermission act. Eurovision without a big cheesy intermission act is like the Oscars without the Debbie Allen Dance Number. Yes, I know the Oscars have been without the Debbie Allen Dance Number for several years now. They’re not the same and I still want it back. Here, we have a German pop star with a Kid Creole fixation murdering what I assume is one of his own compositions behind a line of go-go dancers. This, remember, is the country that made David Hasselhoff a pop star.

Crap. He’s getting a second number. It sounds almost exactly like the first one.

Is this a third song? No, it’s the second one, it still hasn’t finished. I fast-forwarded.

Aaaand we’re back. Stefan’s first words as a baby, apparently, were ‘douze points’. If only those were going to be his last words tonight as well. No such luck. Anke can’t walk up steps in her bizarre dress, so he carries her. Bless. But then he gets his guitar out again. Where’s the giant anvil? The back wall of the stage splits to reveal all 25 acts in their green rooms on a riser behind the stage, presumably so we can catch the disappointment on the faces of the act that ends up with nul points.

I am, however, going to fast-forward through the endless, endless part of the show where all the participating countries dole out the points because, really, life’s too short. We’ve all seen it before, we all know what to expect. Nationalism, strange scoring decisions that seem to have little to do with the quality (or lack thereof) of any individual act, and a series of increasingly hilarious hairstyles. Now Anke’s smiling, she looks oddly like Amanda Peet. Apparently, she’s the German voice of Marge Simpson.

I stopped my fast-forward through the scoring. Ukraine gave Georgia 12 points. Wow.

And stopped again, to see that this year, sadly, nobody is going to end up with Nul Points. Damn.

The Danish presenter seems to be wearing something pink and demure, and she looks almost sane. This won’t do at all, so it’s fast-forward time again. 25 countries competed tonight, but all 43 countries are voting. Slowly. Sorry, can’t sit through another hour of that.

So. Tonight’s winner is… Azerbaijan. By quite a long way. Italy 2nd, Sweden 3rd, UK 11th, Switzerland bottom, nobody got either nul points or a single-digit score. The Azerbaijanis look very happy; the rest of us are left reeling from the knowledge that the Italian nightmare lounge singer came second. Here, for your viewing pleasure, is this year’s winning song:

Overall, I have to say, this year’s contest has been disappointingly tasteful. No trick costumes that sprouted butterfly wings halfway through a song, no stage invasions, and a surprisingly small percentage of really hideously terrible songs.  Do better next time, Baku. I will be watching. Possibly from behind a cushion.

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Genius in action

I voted yesterday. It was very exciting. Borough council, Parish council, referendum on the alternative vote. Democracy in action – at least, for the 41% of the electorate who could be arsed to show up. Perhaps a lot of people had to wash their hair yesterday, or spend a lot more time than usual sitting on the toilet reading Heat magazine. Sorry, people, if you can’t be bothered to get off your backsides to complete the incredibly arduous task of ticking a box on a piece of paper, you don’t get to gripe about the results, whatever they might be. For all of the interminable talk all over the news channels today about the electorate delivering a clear message to the coalition/Nick Clegg/Kerry Katona David Cameron, the biggest story, I think, is how few people took the trouble to show up, given the level of cuts that our current Coalition of the Damned is trying to push through parliament at the moment.

The vote itself, however, was more or less eclipsed for me by the comedy genius in charge of the grounds at my local polling station. My local polling station is a school – actually, the junior school I went to myself, once upon a time. And yes, the thought of Mrs. S*********** still gives me the creeps to the point where attempting to type her name makes me shudder… and, regarding Mrs. S***********, digressing for a moment and apropos of nothing, I can’t imagine how on earth you can do an effective job of teaching a class of 9-year-olds while wearing elaborate makeup, high-heeled boots and inch-long false nails. She presumably can’t either, because she didn’t. Do an effective job of teaching a class of 9-year-olds, I mean*. She did wear the makeup, the boots and the false nails. She still does, I think. I saw her at the supermarket a few weeks ago, which was a reminder that it’s not safe to go out around here without a wooden stake and a couple of heads of garlic in your pocket. Brrrrr.

ANYway.

The part of the building used as a polling station has an outside door that can be reached via two paths. One path – the shorter one –  has flat, step-free access from the street, and the other one has three steps down from the entrance (the building is on a slight slope). There is now  a fairly heavy-duty metal fence around the property (there wasn’t 30-odd years ago when I went there), with big, lockable gates at the pedestrian entrances. The gate to the path with the steps was open. The gate to the flat, step-free path to the polling station door was padlocked, with a disabled access sign hung on it with a notice underneath saying ‘FOR DISABLED ACCESS, ASK INSIDE’.

You know, after having manoeuvred your wheelchair/invalid carriage/zimmer frame down three big concrete steps first. If you had any kind of mobility impairment, and you turned up to vote alone, you were basically screwed until someone else either entered or exited the building.

I’m impressed. Really, really impressed. It takes a special kind of genius to do something that stupid. Presumably whoever locked the gate and wrote the sign imagined that any disabled people who showed up would somehow be able to levitate over a five foot high metal fence. It’s things like this that make you realize Darwin can’t have been entirely correct.

* Favourite Mrs. S*********** memory – she made us do silent reading for half an hour, and had previously issued me with a reading book that was several levels below the kind of stuff I was reading at home. I finished it in about ten minutes and took it back to her desk to ask for another book – and without looking up, she told me I couldn’t have finished it, and to go and read it again. Dreadful, dreadful woman.

Mamma Mia! Shoot the audience.

Well, not all of them, obviously. Let’s just start with the two ladies who were sitting directly behind me.

This isn’t quite what I’d intended to be writing. I saw the international tour of Mamma Mia at the Palace Theatre in Manchester this afternoon. Cheesy as it is, it’s a show I like; I was planning to write a little about the show, a little about the performances in this particular iteration of it, a little about how I think Catherine Johnson, who wrote it, doesn’t get nearly enough credit for the job she did, which was more difficult than it appears at first glance and which she carried off with enormous skill, and a little about my slightly embarrassing ABBA-related streak of geekness (not only do I have their entire back catalogue on my iPod, I own a copy of Bright Lights, Dark Shadows. And I’ve actually read it. Yay me).

That, however, was before I saw the show. Emphasis on the saw, because unfortunately I didn’t hear very much of it, despite the production’s formidable sound system.

I was sitting in the stalls, in the centre block, about a third of the way back from the stage. In the row behind me, there was a group of ladies on, I think, a coach trip. They were clearly out to have a good time – fine, so was I – but directly behind me were a pair of extremely rude, astonishingly loud ladies who talked all the way through the first act, and sang along with all the songs. When I say ‘talked’ and ‘sang’, I do not mean whispered and hummed. They shouted, so that they could be heard at normal speaking volume above the show’s sound system, keeping up their loud running commentary even during dialogue scenes when no music was playing. Their singing resembled nothing so much as the sound a car ferry makes as it backs out of Dover’s Eastern Docks. Any glance or glare or other silent attempt to get them to be quiet (there were several, both from myself and from other audience members) was met with a loud “what the fuck are you looking at?” – or, on one occasion, “Fuck off, I’m having fun, you miserable git”.

I complained to a member of the house staff at the start of the interval. I was not the only one, either. Towards the end of the interval, a more senior member of the front of house staff came to speak to me. He asked me to point out where these ladies were sitting (they were in the bar), then told me that he’d have a word with them, but he didn’t “want to spoil anyone’s fun”. You know, never mind that their obnoxious behaviour was ruining the show for me and for everyone else within earshot. I assume some kind of mild reprimand took place, although I didn’t hear it. Another audience member, in the row behind these ladies, told them at the start of the interval that they’d been ruining the show, and asked them to keep the noise down.  The response? “You wouldn’t fucking talk to me like that if my husband was here!” Hearing this, I was torn between feeling profoundly sorry for the husband and curiosity as to how any man can have so little self-respect. I hope he at least has earplugs. Or a prescription for mood elevators. Or both.

When the ladies returned to their seats, as the lights were going down for Act Two, they loudly called down the row to their friends (I think they were in a group), “We’ve been fucking blasphemed!” (I assume they meant chastised). They then continued to behave in exactly the same rude, disruptive manner all the way through the rest of the show. I can’t tell you much about what Sara Poyzer’s rendition of “The Winner Takes it All” might have been like; the lady behind me’s version was atrocious, between a semitone and a whole tone flat all the way through, and delivered with the kind of sure rhythmic sense you’d expect from, say, a plane crash. And the wedding scene was a particularly special highlight. In the instant before Harry reveals that he’s gay, one of these ladies turned to the other and stridently exclaimed “Ooh! He’s a fucking queer, just like your Mark!”. The final grace note was the beginning of the encore, when one of these ladies poked me sharply in the neck and said “You mind if we fucking sing now?” I would not, actually, have minded so much if she’d sang during the finale. The sound she produced was more akin to an elephant farting. Just in case you were wondering, I have indeed heard an elephant fart. Yes, folks, these were two classy ladies.

As you can imagine, the experience of sitting in the theatre anywhere close to these people – an experience which cost £48.00 including booking and delivery fees –  was about as much fun as contracting swine flu or having an abcess lanced. Let’s think about this for a moment. These two monumentally self-centred women had no regard at all for the fact that they were sitting among hundreds of other people who had each paid upwards of £40 to be there. They wanted to show their enjoyment by yelling, screeching, swearing and generally disrupting everybody else’s experience, so that’s what they did, and everybody else be damned. They were, incidentally, each a good 20 years older than I am. Aside from the very apologetic house manager I spoke to after the performance ended, the theatre’s ineffectual front-of-house staff, equally, apparently had no regard at all for the fact that a large number of people who had all paid upwards of £40 to be there were having their experience of the performance absolutely ruined by the obnoxious behaviour of two people who didn’t have enough manners to know when to shut up (to be fair, I suspect that the louder of the two was physically incapable of shutting her mouth – which doesn’t justify her inflicting her repulsive personality, her penchant for expletives or her off-key singing voice on the rest of us). They couldn’t be bothered to deal with the disruption properly, so the rest of us had our afternoons ruined. Sorry, that’s completely unacceptable. The two ladies were, I think, the rudest, most obnoxious, most thoroughly repellent people I’ve encountered in a theatre in over thirty years of regular theatregoing; for their part, the front of house staff in the stalls at the Palace this afternoon deserve a gold star, or possibly a smack upside the head, for their absolute, family-sized, copper-bottomed uselessness.

Oh yes, one more thing. I’ve been going to the theatre regularly for over thirty years. I’ve seen all manner of productions in theatres large and small across the UK, continental Europe and North America. So where do I find the rudest, most thoroughly unpleasant audience members I’ve ever had the misfortune to sit near? Manchester. Home. You can imagine how proud I feel.

And, finally, the show? It is what it is. It’s really cheesy, and I love it. The international tour uses the longer version of the overture, which I like. There’s a husband and wife team (Sara Poyzer and Richard Standing) as Donna and Sam and, from the little I was able to hear above the bovine bellowing from behind me, I think they’re probably very good. Kate Graham and Jennie Dale are probably very funny as Tanya and Rosie. They certainly seem to get a lot of laughs, and they’ve got the comic business down. They probably sang well but, again, I couldn’t hear enough to know for sure. The bits I could hear sounded  good. The production seems pretty fresh, the cast are obviously having a great time, and it’s probably usually great fun. But if you’re planning to sit in the stalls at the Palace, I’d go armed with a taser and duct tape, just in case. It’s not like you’ll get any help from front of house if Mrs. Gob-the-size-of-the-Mersey-tunnel happens to be sitting behind you.