The Danish Eurovision – One Boat the British Cannot Sink

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I recently wrote an op-ed, or perhaps more correctly an odd-ed, for the local paper, The Plymouth Herald, about this year’s Eurovision Song Contest, which is held in Copenhagen. As is often the case with eds, the piece has been pruned to perfection, and can/should be read here.

Below is the original version, bar one paragraph which likened Jedward to the unholy offspring of Lindsey Lohan and The Borg from Star Trek. I sought legal council, who refused to comment on whether or not that counted as slander….which has left me wondering if lawyers have a soft spot for Jedward….anyway, on to the piece:

The Danish Eurovision – One Boat England Will Never Sink

The Eurovision song contest is a European institution that has a very special place in the hearts and memories of many people – both in my Denmark and my semi-adopted home in the UK.

Growing up with an English father and a Danish mother, I observed the strengths and weaknesses of the two nations through the prism of childhood.

I quickly learnt that England generally won more football games than Denmark – unless they were playing the Germans, of course, in which case you could turn off the TV, wait till regular time and extra time were done, turn the TV back on and see the penalty kicks. Or just keep the TV turned off.

I also learnt that when it came to the Eurovision, the smart money was on the Danes. Partly because the British entries, as I have only recently discovered, have a strong history of finishing second.

This is, the lead-in to a bit of fighting talk, leading up to the main event in Copenhagen, where the Eurovision semi-finals are currently under way.

Singing Polish songs

I would, however, like to start somewhere else; with my personal experience of the Eurovision.

The contest is a big thing in Denmark, as it seems to be here. Families and friends will usually gather and watch it, scoring the songs and predicting the winners. In our family, we usually watched it, but were not quite as fanatic as some seemed to be.

I can still remember my astonishment when coming to school the day after a Eurovision final and hearing three of my class mates singing the Luxembourg winner song. The mystery deepened in the following years, as some students seemed able to perform entries from Poland, France or Hungary faultlessly just a day or two after the contest. Later in life I have realised what a combination of fanatic pop dedication and a VCR can result in.

Apart from the memories of sitting with my family and watching the contest and gawking at my school mates’ performances of the song, my personal favourite have often been the oddball entries.

An example was the 1982 song Video, Video by Brix, which is solely about liking videos.

Another early favourite was the Israeli 1987 entry by Shir Habatlanim. Of course, this was mostly due to the chorus, which went: “Hoopa hoole hoole hoole…hoopa hoopa hoole hoole…Hoopa hoole hoole hoopa pa…”. I had no idea what the song was actually about.

Perhaps this is part of the Eurovision magic for both children and adults. The songs at the Eurovision have traditionally been performed in the national languages, which meant that an evening in front of the TV was like taking a linguistic trip around Europe.

Wurst, one twin down and harmonicas

Not to be outdone, this year’s entries count a few entries that have piqued my interest.

Much has been said and written about Conchita Wurst, the Austrian transvestite, whose stage name literally translates into ‘Conchita Sausage’. In several Eastern European countries, the reaction to her has been quite harsh.

Less has been said of France’s entry Twin Twin – a trio who by my mathematical calculations based on their name are a member short.

The same goes for my own personal favourite on this year’s scale of ‘what?’, the Polish entry by Donatan & Cleo – who seem to be a hip hop duo that became famous for a video that features equal amounts of farm work, harmonicas and cleavage.

Before I descend into too much finger pointing, I actually think that this is part of the adult wonder and enjoyment of the Eurovision contest. While many of the contestants are polished pop names, there is still room for the silly and funny bands that are part of the reason that we come back year after year.

Danes enjoy the centre stage

None of these have, however, been the main stories in Denmark, where Eurovision fever has gripped much of the nation.

As a nation, Denmark is often acutely aware of its size and position – and seems quite concerned with how they are views, perhaps especially by England, who we feel a certain special kinship with.

For example, mentions of Denmark by the BBC, Times or Guardian are, in their own right, newsworthy stories.

So having the limelight, and hosting an event that last year reached 170 million viewers – roughly 30 times more people than in all of Denmark – feels a bit like a fairy tale in its own right to the nation that fathered Hand Christian Andersen.

So far, a lot of attention has been on the fact that the first semi-final went off without a hitch, and that the stage itself, constructed by Claus Zier, might be the best thing since sliced bread.

The Eurovision contest is held in the old B&W dockyard buildings in the centre of Copenhagen. The stage and giant cube above it is shaped like the keel of a ship. In total, 40 tonnes of steel has been used for the stage and cube – partly because of the need of a solid frame, but also partly to celebrate the buildings and country’s history with the sea.

“The cube has developed from a ship shape and the water, but I see the ship as a metaphor for the journey (of the building from shipyard to concert hall) itself and Denmark’s history as a seafaring nation,” Claus Zier recently told Denmark’s Radio, the Danish version of the BBC.

Let the battle commence

Brits with an interest in history might know that the seafaring history involves the British – at several points. Roughly a thousand years ago, the Danes and their Scandinavian Viking brothers set out across the North Sea on what could be described as cash and carry off missions…where the cash had been replaced with big battle axes.

During the Napoleonic Wars, Britain got its own back by burning both Copenhagen and more or less the entire Danish Navy – the latter twice, just to make sure we had understood the lesson.

These days we are friends and allies. Unless we deal with sports – and the Eurovision, where we have glibly observed the UK inability to produce winning pop music.

If you were in doubt, this is where we get to the trash talk.

The fact of the matter is that Denmark generally feels that a country that has, to mention but one name, seen the emergence of The Beatles, seem to struggle with producing Eurovision-grade pop.

Danes know, that it is safe to give England ten points….they won’t ruin our party when it comes to the Eurovision anyway. Which might be the reason why we are on the top five over who has given England the most points over the Eurovision’s history.
The UK can point to its five wins, but the last two in 1981 and 1997 – the latter being Love Shine a Light by Catharina and the Waves who, let us face it, had spent the time since 1985 and Walking on Sunshine planning how to get a win. Since then, the UK has come last in 2003, 2008 and 2010. So we feel smugly confident that you cannot ruin the party. Some would argue that you cannot even rock the boat.

Not that the Brits have not tried. Last time Denmark hosted the Eurovision, the legendary(ly) (very possibly) inebriated British commentator Terry Wogan described the Danish hosts as ‘Dr. Death and the Tooth Fairy’, which raised a few eyebrows and perhaps sent hands twitching towards where our long gone ancestors carried their battle axes.

Which might be the reason for this trash talking, because the truth of the matter is that we are genrally happy with the Brits and Danes seem to value the British entry, Molly Smitten-Downes, in this year’s Eurovision. And although it is a competition, it is probably one of the most friendly ones around – and a great celebration of all of Europe.

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