Originally written for Boom Bang a Blog, March 15th 2010. The videos and captions were by the site’s author, Jamie McLoughlin.
Here’s a proper treat to distract you from the start of the working week. On Friday night, Scott Willison, whose Round the Merseyrail We Go blog is well worth a look, was among the throng crammed into Studio One of BBC Television Centre for Your Country Needs You. This is his report.
I only applied on a whim.
The BBC Eurovision Twitterfeed popped up with “register for tickets for Your Country Needs You here!” and I just clicked it without thinking.
I didn’t believe I’d have a chance of getting in. In fact, I didn’t even bother completing the “additional info” part with a little paragraph on how excited I’d be to go and watch the UK finals. Just my name, address and e-mail address and whoosh! Off it went. So when the e-mail came through with PRIORITY E-TICKET I was abnormally excited.
I’d never been to see a TV show before.
Correction: I went to see Motormouth (a long-forgotten Saturday morning kids TV show) when they came to Wardown Park in Luton. If you squinted in one shot you could actually see the back of my coat. Yay.
My excitement didn’t pall as we turned up outside BBC Television Centre, the legendary question mark-shaped temple to telly in West London. Just stepping out of the Tube station and seeing the famous logo was like stepping into my TV screen. We joined the end of the long queue for security, shivering in the cold (we’d come without jackets, thinking there wouldn’t be a coat check - it seemed like a good idea at the time) and my partner Dave got very excited to see the van from Prank Patrol parked outside. He’ll watch anything involving unsuspecting members of the public being humiliated, even if it’s on CBBC. I was more excited to see a full-sized TARDIS standing by the entrance, and then, in the Audience Foyer, a Dalek.
A selection of Scott’s fellow audience members
Finally we were ushered from the foyer to queue for the pre-record (it would turn out to be a day of queues, arm waving, and awkward dancing). The line extended right round the edge of the “doughnut”, with its fountain of Helios in the centre (a fountain that is never turned on because, as it turned out, you could hear it in the studios so it ruined all the recording). All I could see as I stood there was Roy Castle prancing around with a thousand precocious tap dancing girls for Record Breakers. Sadly, it seems to have more use now as the smoker’s area, and in fact we saw Bruno Tonioli sneaking a cheeky fag there. He beat a hasty retreat once the rabid middle-aged women in the queue spotted him and started screaming: “Bruno! Bruno! We love you!”
A word about the audience: Eurovision is one of those strange nexuses where gay men and middle aged ladies collide, like West End theatre or Victoria Wood. As such, the audience comprised of roughly 49% HRT fuelled women and 49% tight neat men with shaven heads and impeccable dress sense (The remaining 2% was people like me - paunchy, badly dressed nerds).
Your Country Needs You was being held in Studio One, which, an over-knowledgeable man from the West Country behind me said in a loud voice, was where they held the 1963 Eurovision Finals - you know, the ones with all those rumours about it being pre-recorded and generally a bit dodgy. Breathe in hard enough and you could practically smell Katie Boyle’s chiffon. It was surprisingly tiny, but crammed with lights; everywhere you looked was neon, LED or a laser beam. Above our heads were giant paper balls which got various projections on them during the evening so they looked like star fields, or swirls, or, at one particularly memorable point during the rehearsal, a man’s hand as he adjusted the lens.
From the very same studio Your Country Needs You came from on Friday night
The day was divided into two parts. First, between 5:30pm and 7pm, we had the pre-record. Daily Mail readers will be horrified to learn that Friday’s “live” show was in fact riddled with shameful BBC TV FAKERY. For this afternoon’s session, we would get three performances, which would then be seamlessly inserted into the live show. Buoying us up was a warm-up guy, a chirpy Phil Mitchell lookalike who made a number of slightly off-colour jokes (nothing too smutty), and who gave us advice on how too look our best on camera. Things like always dance, because if the camera catches you just standing there, you’re the one who looks stupid; don’t read Graham’s autocue, because then you just look a bit simple; and always applaud with your hands above your head, because if the camera comes up behind you it will is catch you with your hands in front shaking and it looks like you’re doing something else entirely.
Greatest hits of Eurovision were played into the studio to get us in the mood. I can EXCLUSIVELY reveal that the audience of Your Country Needs You loved Ooh Aah Just A Little Bit, was relatively indifferent toDing Dinge Dong, and did a collective “wtf?” when Romania’s Tornerowas played. Then Graham Norton appeared, and the crowd went wild.
Even if I hadn’t liked Graham Norton before the show, I still would have adored him by the end of the night. He was witty, charming, and happy to be there. Between the prerecords he bantered with the audience, chatting away while stagehands swirled around him. Every now and then his eyes would suddenly glaze over and he’d start muttering to himself, which made him look a bit like Derek Acorah receiving a message from beyond, but was in fact him chatting with the gallery. There seemed to be a problem with his earpiece, which would come back to haunt him later.
He was particularly taken with one tiny blonde haired lady at the front who was holding up a piece of A4. Apparently, she was a huge Alexander Rybak fan, and followed him all around the world to watch him perform.
“Does he know about you?” Graham asked.
“Oh yes,” said the woman. “We’re Facebook friends.”
Graham rolled his eyes. “Well that means so much.”
Then it was time for the man himself to come on to record his performance for the evening. I’m happy to report Alexander Rybak was a little gem, a bit shy with the crowd perhaps, but clearly pleased to be performing Fairytale, even if it was for the n-thousandth time. Though he was no more playing that violin than I was.
Alexander finished his song, then slipped offstage with a last wave, and the Sugababes were wheeled out. Well, the dancers were wheeled out first, to a rapturous reception; I think the audience may have been concerned that the lineup of the Sugababes had changed since that morning and didn’t want to embarrass themselves. Finally the girls themselves came out, and positioned themselves between the dancers.
On the TV show at this point, they showed a little VT of “Jade’s Journey”, and they played this into the studio as a lead in to their performance. Jade clearly hadn’t seen it before, and looked thoroughly embarrassed, leading to Amelle gently taking the mickey on stage. Heidi didn’t watch it - she was too busy gathering her thoughts or, more likely, thinking about her engagement party that night. The VT finished and the girls burst into the song, which, I have to say, isn’t one of their best; it sounds like about four different songs have crashed into one another and so they just decided to perform them all at once.
The ABBA Medley of Take A Chance On Me, Dancing Queen and, erm, that’s it.
After a bit of a chat with Graham (during which one overexcited audience member bawled out “WE LOVE YOU JADE”, making the poor girl blush even more) they went off, and it was time for the six acts to come on to perform their ABBA medley. Or, as the warm up guy put it, “It’s only two songs, but we’re calling it a bloody medley all the same”.
Graham prefaced it by turning to the audience and looking for supporters of the acts. “Is anyone here for Alexis?” Cue excited screams (as I would find out later at the live show, Alexis’ fans are very, very devoted).
“How about Uni5?” More screams.
Silence. Oh dear.
Graham looked embarrassed and turned to the warm-up guy. “There is one called Josh, isn’t there? I haven’t got it wrong?”
“No, I think that’s right.”
“Oh.” Graham turned back to the audience. “Could some of you at least pretend you like him? Thanks.”
Esma was met with more foot shuffles, though Karen and Miss Fitz could muster decent cheers (Miss Fitz had a particularly vocal supporter, who looked like Gabourey Sidibe in a spangly basque; she did a banshee wail whenever their name was mentioned). The six acts all came on, and this was the first time I’d got a look at any of them - I’d avoided the BBC website so I didn’t spoil the surprise.
Initial impressions? Uni5, standing on top of what looked like a cable reel covered in glitter, were having problems keeping a straight face, and didn’t seem keen to stare into one another’s eyes. We were asked not to cheer or applaud at the start, as a chord would be played to signal the start of the “take a chance, take a chance, take a cha-cha-cha-chance” and enable them to hit the right note. Viewers of the live show will be surprised to hear that they actually knew there was a note to hit.
Alexis and Josh went and hid down the front, and while Josh looked very smiley and happy to be there, Alexis kept his eyes down and a grimly determined look on his face. Esma and Karen were hidden off to one side, and all I could think of when Esma came on was how much she looked like Rachel in Glee - I was waiting for her to stamp her feet and demand a solo from Mr Schu. Miss Fitz, meanwhile, got a massive cheer when they strutted onstage, and they gave what sounded like the best performance in the group song, even if the dark haired one had to have her make up reapplied a couple of times, and the red-headed one looked like Kat Slater close-up.
With the pre-records finished, we were ushered back into the foyer to wait until the live show (In a sinister development, the Dalek had moved forward a couple of metres since we’d last been there - I thought it was the Weeping Angels who moved when you weren’t looking? We certainly kept half an eye on it thereafter). I was tired already, having been standing up for a couple of hours, and my shoulders were aching from constantly having my arms above my head to cheer. At this point, some people were sent home - they only had tickets for the pre-record - and a whole load of new audience members came in for the show itself. The audience was divided into three groups by means of coloured wristbands:
YELLOW: people who were there for the pre-record and the show (me, in other words);
GREEN: people who were just there for one or the other;
GOLD: slightly insane fans of the acts themselves.
It was a surprise to me that a bunch of people without recording contracts could have such loyal and passionate fanbases. There were t-shirts, banners (which had to be checked for naughtiness by the warm up guy), even hats emblazoned with the names of their favourite artist. Alexis far and away had the most fans. They screamed and wailed every time his name was mentioned, they leapt up and down when he appeared on stage, they barely moved when any of the other acts were performing.
Back into the studio at eight, and we prepared ourselves for the show. You could feel the tension surging through the studio as we ticked closer and closer to eight thirty. Graham came on to have a quick practice, and once again told the gallery that his earpiece was a bit dodgy - someone came on and attended to him. He said to us in the audience, “EastEnders is just winding up now. I was watching it in the dressing room. It’s not very good - you’re not missing anything.”
Preferable to a wardrobe malfunction, obviously.
Three…two…one…and we’re live on BBC1! The audience actually applauded the title sequence, which shows how hyper we all were. Or maybe we were just happy that after three hours the actual thing was starting. Graham came out, did his spiel, brought out the judges. Then - disaster. His autocue jammed, resulting in him stammering. I don’t know what it was like on TV, but there in the studio, we were all on tenterhooks, willing him to continue. Finally he was able to give way to Karen’s VT, and a floor manager ran over quickly with some cue cards; the old autocue was retired and a new one was brought on under a different camera. It was all very seat of the pants.
Karen came out, did her thing; she seemed very nervous, what with being the first person on. Her hair seemed to have shrunk since the pre-record - I don’t know if she was trying out a new style or if she’d just panicked it into submission. Off she went, and Alexis’ VT started.
Karen. The first one on.
If you watched the show on telly, you’ll have seen that all the acts emerged through a pair of spangly double doors (which looked like cardboard up close - I was actually stood about two metres from them, and marvelled at their cheapness). Alexis hovered in the doorway while his VT played, surrounded by the dancers, ready for the start of his song.
This is the point where I went right off Alexis. Stood next to me was a small throng of rabid fans, wearing white t-shirts with his name on them and screaming like he was the Beatles at Shea Stadium. Alexis pointed to them, winked, and blew them a kiss.
Goddammit, Blake. It’s Alexis.
If he was Paul McCartney, I’d have forgiven this. If he was Beyonce, Gary Barlow, Madonna, hell, even Alexander Rybak, I’d have forgiven him it. But watching this 20 year old who didn’t have a record contract acting like Bono seemed horribly arrogant. He seemed to really believe that he was The Next Big Thing. I wouldn’t have minded so much if his subsequent performance had been all that, but next to Rick Astley, he sounded horribly inadequate. He even repeated the wave and kiss as he left the stage, which made me want to kick his legs out from under him. Sorry, but I just didn’t like him and his strutting.
Uni5 had quite a fanbase in the studio before they came on - a few banners out there, a few screamers. But there was something not right about them, and you could sense the crowd wasn’t entirely on their side. Graham Norton hadn’t helped, to be honest. Whenever he’d mentioned their name, in the pre-record and in-between, he pronounced it “Uni-five,” emphasising the second word with a comedy hand gesture. It was as though he couldn’t take them entirely seriously.
Clearly he’d seen the rehearsals. Again, I’m writing this without the benefit of having seen what you got on TV, but there in Studio One they sounded horrific. The two boys seemed to be performing an entirely different song in an entirely different key, and the girls were taking turns at being bland. It was humiliating, and you could almost feel the audience taking a collective intake of breath. If you thought the judges were being harsh (except for Jade, of course, in the Alesha Dixon Memorial Role of Thinking Everyone Is Fierce) you should have heard some of the bitchier comments being bandied around the crowd.
Esma. Boom Bang a Blog was convinced she was miming…
Next came Rachel from Glee Esma. Fortunately, since the pre-record, some of her family and friends had arrived so she didn’t enter to the resounding silence we’d thought she would. And when she performed, she seduced the crowd. I don’t think many people there had much of an opinion on her before she arrived, but once she started belting it out, the audience took her on board. She left to much greater applause, and she looked really pleased as she left.
Next up on Countryfile, it’s Josh.
Josh, again, had more cheers thanks to the arrival of his family. He was the best male performer on the night - the contrast with Alexis’ weak vocals felt stark - but he moved awkwardly, and he didn’t radiate star power. He did, however, seem like a very nice boy. If I wanted someone to take my mum out for tea and scones, or to housesit, Josh would be my man.
I should, at this point, mention the dancers on the stage. We had a plasma screen mounted high in the rafters, showing us what was being broadcast, and obviously this focused on the singers rather than the dancers. But they were putting in a hell of a performance throughout, particularly the girls. There were two girl dancers who performed almost constantly throughout with the various singers, and they were fantastic every time. I wanted to give them a round of applause on their own, if only for their quick-change skills (though one girl did let herself down by continuing to fiddle with her hot pants onstage). The dancers were particularly good during Josh’s bit; perhaps they were hoping to make up for his deficiencies.
Miss Fitz. They sounded *loads* better on The X Factor.
Finally we had Miss Fitz, who were probably the most eagerly anticipated act of the evening. There just seemed to be a groundswell of affection for them, perhaps because one of them was The Legend That Is Colin Berry’s daughter, or perhaps because they had rocked the ABBA medley, or perhaps because God loves a trier. And then they came on and performed, and it all seemed a bit… meh. Shame.
So, the six became three, and Alexis, Esma and Josh were picked. Personally I’d have had Miss Fitz over Alexis, but you can’t argue with the Hitman (it’s not allowed). Again, Alexis seemed to have that arrogance that I hate when he went through - while Esma and Josh fled the stage with “I can’t believe it!” looks on their face, Alexis had a clenched fist of victory, like Andy Murray on a bender. HATE.
It was time for the moment we’d all been waiting for. The anticipation had been clearly building during the performances. All those upbeat, up-tempo SAW classics - this wasn’t going to be another ballad, it was going to be a pop song. And finishing with Better The Devil You Know, unequivocally one of the greatest pop songs ever written (even if they did call it a Steps song, instead of mentioning the definitive original by Dame Kylie Minogue), reminded you of the genius that Waterman and Stock could unleash when they put their mind to it.
Mike Stock was wheeled on, and there was a brief, perfunctory chat, during which practically the whole audience was whispering “Get on with it!” I could hear at least three groups of people around me debating the song, talking about what it could be.
“And here with the first ever performance of the UK entry That Sounds Good To Me, is… Alexis!”
Now, I love Stock Aitken and Waterman. I had very few tapes when I was growing up, but their compilation album, The Hit Factory, was one of them (note for younger readers: tapes were like CDs, but smaller and plastic and a bit less good). Like every other schoolchild in the UK in 1987, I also had a copy of Kylie’s first album, the one where she’s wearing her hair as a hat on the cover. And since then, I’ve acquired all Kylie’s albums, as well as ones by Steps, and Sonia, and Rick Astley, and that Stock Aitken and Waterman - Gold triple album that came out a few years ago. So my musical brain is very definitely in the SAW groove.
But That Sounds Good To Me… it’s not very good, is it?
Esma singing most of That Sounds Good To Me
You could feel the audience deflate. There were still the same Alexis fans squealing at the slightest provocation, but they were doing it for him, not for the song. The song was just… there. It flapped around on the stage like a fish on a riverbank, trying to go somewhere but not having a chance. All three performers put their best into it (even poor Esma, forgetting the words and having to be consoled by Graham afterwards) and I think Josh managed to give the best of the three performances, but still, from that moment on, there was an air of gloom in the studio. People stopped waving their arms in the air quite so much, and applauding quite so hard.
Perhaps Matt Aitken did all the work.
From there it was all a bit of an anti-climax. In the studio, we had a half an hour of pre-recorded videos while the nation voted. Ironically, even though we were the only ones who could hear the vocalists close up, none of us in the audience could vote: mobile phones were strictly banned, and had to be handed in at the front desk. It was quite amusing watching the Sugababes performing “live” to the rest of Britain while in the studio, Jade was sat there chatting to Bruno.
We realised that it would soon be time for the result when runners appeared distributing plastic flags. Soon everywhere you looked there was red, white and blue; even the LED walls turned into Union Jacks. It was like being inside Nick Griffin’s skull. Alexis, Esma and Josh were brought back out while the VTs wound down and true to form, Alexis assumed a chin up, eyes ahead, “get on with it, I have autographs to sign” look, while Esma and Josh giggled with one another. I’m guessing Alexis isn’t a barrel of laughs in the green room.
The result. Dun, dun, dur…
Unsurprisingly Esma went out first, and with her went any hope that we might at least win points through strategic use of gratuitous cleavage. It looked like it was going to be down to the charm of the lead singer, and so at that point I became very firmly Team Josh. I’ll go with “nice” over “that” any day. And he won! Hurray! Nineteenth place was now within our grasp!
Alexis skulked off with a furious expression - I’d hate to have been the first stagehand he saw, because I think he had a kick in him - while Josh took his moment of glory, with fireworks and confetti. The audience, meanwhile, was making a beeline for the exit before he’d even begun his reprise. Was this due to apathy about the song, or were people just keen to get to the Tube before the rush? I couldn’t say, but people didn’t seem to be bouncing out the door. Josh did the whole song again, though it seems the Beeb didn’t broadcast it - perhaps they couldn’t be bothered either.
It was a shame because I’d really enjoyed myself, right up until That Sounds Good To Me started up. Because at that point it became clear that we were all just marking time. It was like being invited out for a big romantic meal and then being taken to Nandos; the sense of occasion was lost.
It speaks volumes that when I came out humming, I wasn’t singing That Sounds Good To Me - I was still singing It’s My Time from the brief excerpt played during Jade’s interview.
Twenty-four hours later I can barely remember anything about the song. In fact I keep getting it mixed up with Don’t Play That Song Again - and that can’t be a good thing, can it?