Hard to believe, but we’re on to the penultimate part of this year’s Eurovision Song Contest preview. By this time next week, we’ll know the full line-up for the final, with twenty countries having qualified from the semi-finals. Meanwhile, of course, there are six other countries who are already in the final: hosts Azerbaijan and the so-called “Big Five” of France, Germany, Italy, Spain and, of course, the United Kingdom. Those countries have been allocated their places in the draw for the final, so we’ll be previewing them in the order that they’ll be performing. Starting with the United Kingdom, who’ll be opening proceedings next Saturday.
Last year saw the abandonment of the televised selection contest in favour of an internal selection that was then unveiled to the public. Blue put in a decent showing in the end, although they earned the dubious distinction of being the first-ever act to finish outside the Top 10 despite achieving a three-figure score – an indication of how spread-out the voting was last year. On 1 March this year, it was announced that our representative in Baku would be Engelbert Humperdinck, an announcement that led many (myself included, I’ll admit) to wonder if they’d accidentally slept through March and woken up on 1 April. But no, Engelbert, who’s just turned 76, will be representing the UK – although thanks to the Russian grannies, he won’t be the only septugenarian taking to the stage. Engelbert (I refuse to call him “The Hump” – it’s just not going to happen), always happiest with a waltz rhythm, performs Love Will Set You Free, with his hair resolutely stuck in 1972 and a giant shower curtain in the background.
Not just the hair stuck in 1972 – the song itself could comfortably have been a hit 40 years ago. Still, it has a certain class about it, although I’m really not sure about that strangled shriek that he ends on. The bookies have it as one of the favourites, although being drawn first isn’t great news: on only three occasions has Eurovision been won by the first act of the night – Teach-In in 1975, Brotherhood of Man in 1976 and Herreys in 1984. My suspicion is that we won’t be bringing Eurovision home this year, but nor should we disgrace ourselves.
Performing ninth in the running order on the big night will be France. Last year they started out as one of the hot favourites with a big operatic number, but in the final finished some way down the table. This year’s offering is more conventionally pop, with Anggun (an Indonesian-born recording veteran, albeit not of as many years as Engelbert Humperdinck) singing Echo (You and I). The video, with Anggun the sole woman surrounded by strapping butch men drowning in their own homoeroticism, is reminiscent of nothing so much as Total Eclipse of the Heart. With added gas masks. And some pink gas that has the pleasing effect of making the soldiers kiss each other.
A strong performance on the night (preferably with some male backing dancers who don’t wear too much, as in the video) could lift this one above mid-table. Finally today it’s Italy, who’ll be coming straight after France in the final. Last year saw the Italians return to Eurovision after a self-imposed exile of 14 years. And, as Italy always seem to do when they return to Eurovision after a break, they sauntered in nonchalantly and ended up finishing, rather surprisingly, in second place, courtesy of their answer to Jamie Cullum. This year they’re represented by Nina Zilli, who appears to be their Paloma Faith, singing L’Amore È Femmina (Out Of Love). The Italian bit translates as “Love Is Female”. She should certainly get the vintage vote with this one – in fact, the bookies seem to think she’ll get lots of votes overall, as Italy are second favourites behind Sweden.
It’s a catchy number and taps into a retro pop sound that’s been in for a few years now (although having said that, Serbia tapped into the same trend last year and only finished a modest 14th in the final), so it’ll be interesting to see how it does on the night.
So that’s three of the six countries who can sit back and watch the rest of the competition sweating it out next Tuesday and Thursday night. Tomorrow, it’s the final part of this year’s Eurovision preview, as we look at the 2012 offerings from hosts Azerbaijan, plus Spain and Germany. And we’ll take another look at the bookies’ predictions to see who their favourites are to host next year’s Contest.