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Eurovision 2014: Semi-final 2 May 08

Hello from Copenhagen!

My first experience of Eurovision up close on Tuesday was terrific fun and we found ourselves sitting right behind the “green room” with a great view of the acts. The favourites got through, the main surprise qualifiers for me being Iceland and the Netherlands. I was gutted to see Moldova go, but there’s a replacement Bond theme waiting in the wings tonight, ready to rise from the ashes…

In one sense it’s marginally easier for the acts in the second semi-final as only five, rather than six, will be knocked out of the contest. But on balance I’d say the competition is tougher, with more strong songs in the running. Let’s look at who they are.

  1. Malta – We start with this year’s obligatory tribute to Mumford and Sons, for Malta do love their tweeness. It’s cheesy – even more so when you add the schmaltzy video – but at least it will differentiate itself from everything else.
  2. Israel – Mei Finegold delivers toe-tapping anger with a big-lunged key change. And that’s all I really want from a Eurovision song.
  3. Norway – It’s worthy and your man can sing. So no, it does nothing for me. A little bit haunting and a little bit boring.
  4. Georgia – So. Based on the video, a group of ageing hippies got drunk at a barbecue and decided to put together a Eurovision entry, couldn’t agree on a song so decided to play three at the same time, and coerced a family friend – who felt too polite to refuse – into improvising some vocals on top. Based on the song itself, I reach the same conclusion. It has moments of musical interest but overall it’s rather baffling.
  5. Poland – This one’s fun and insistent if a little bawdy. Will split the audience down the middle. Possibly with an axe.
  6. Austria – With Moldova gone, the path is clear for this year’s other Bond theme – and you can hear the style from the opening note to the final sting. It’s Conchita Wurst, the bearded lady, and that alone will help this to stick in the voters’ collective memories. Plus she’s got a good set of lungs on her. With a strong staging, Rise Like a Phoenix could do very well indeed.
  7. LithuaniaAttention grabs exactly that, but not for the right reasons. The official recording is better than the national final recording, which was pretty awful. This could well go the way of Latvia and Estonia – i.e. home.
  8. Finland – The contest is light on guitar bands this year but Softengine do a creditable, sub-Killers job of filling the gap. Cornering the market may see it through.
  9. IrelandHeartbeat starts off somewhere south of the Corrs but it’s enjoyable, if forgettable, once it gets a pulse. Not a patch on last year’s Irish entry but that came last in the final, so what do I know?
  10. Belarus – Return of the cake! This reminds me of Pasha Parfany’s Lautar, Moldova’s 2012 entry, although it’s not as good. The clumsy pop culture references in Cheesecake will date badly but it’s laid back and fun – although I could do without the touch of Robin Thicke. As it were.
  11. Macedonia – An OK bit of Eurodance.
  12. Switzerland – You do know how to whistle, don’t you? If you do, now’s the time to join in. Sebalter is massively endearing and the song is good, catchy fun. I hope it makes it to the final.
  13. Greece – I should hate this. Really, I should. It’s funky (although I feel embarrassed to use the word), it’s upbeat, it’s positive, and while it might not be the absolute freshest sound, it’s certainly within its Use By date. If you told me this was a new act from London rather than a Eurovision entry, I’d believe you, and that’s high praise indeed.
  14. Slovenia – This is a cracker. It kicks off with a flute that will make your heart sink, but fear not – it was a cunning ruse! It bursts into life as a thoroughly modern pop track. Tinkara deserves a place in the final, but if not, at least there’ll be a place in the Sugababes.
  15. Romania – And finally, it’s an above average pop track, boosted by some powerful vocals. I can’t remember how it goes but there’s a circular keyboard to distract you.

And that’s your lot, apart from an interval act that will see Autralia’s first participation in the contest – discounting Olivia Newton-John’s fourth place for the UK in 1974, of course.

I’m not one to predict but I could see the eliminated five including Georgia, Poland, Lithuania, Ireland and Macedonia. I may be live tweeting (on @willhowells) but I’m in the standing section this time so I may be busy dancing. Or just be too hemmed in by gays enjoying the semi.

Eurovision 2014: Semi-final 1 May 06

It’s Eurovision time!

Of course you have Saturday’s final circled in your calendar, but don’t forget that before we can tackle the main event, we have to whittle 31 countries down to 20. With two fewer countries taking part this year, the entrants stand a marginally better chance of making it through to their semi-final – but all the more gutting for the 11 who don’t. The 10 successful countries from each semi-final will join the Big Five – France, Spain, Italy, Germany and the UK – alongside last year’s winner Denmark in the final.

The UK can’t vote in the first semi-final – so don’t even try – but the show will be broadcast live on BBC Three. I won’t be watching on BBC Three though because – touch wood – I’ll be sitting in the Alexander Rybak stand in the hall watching it in person. Oh yes.

Contenders, ready!

  1. Armenia – And we’re straight in with one of the favourites. If you didn’t know already that this song is called Not Alone, you will once you’ve heard the phrase repeated – and I’ve counted – 32,000 times during three minutes. It’s a builder and its popularity rather rests on a textbook crescendo – although this also means that a third of the song is pretty dramatic, but only a third of it. I’m not a fan of Aram MP3’s voice (or his questionable views) but this will surely make it through to the final.
  2. Latvia – Eurovision is, of course, famous for its more eccentric entries and you don’t have to wait long to find one of this year’s. It’s called Cake to Bake. It’s about baking a cake, alongside an eclectic range of other activities (including working with Sherlock Holmes and Indiana Jones) that a less charitable commentator might suggest add up to a nonsense song. There’s an outside chance that Cake to Bake could be a euphemism but it genuinely seems to be about baking. The music uses one of the most hackneyed chord progressions there is, giving the overall impression of a song thrown together at the last minute when someone woke up hung over and realised the deadline was about to pass. My jaw dropped when I first heard this. And yet, you’ll still be humming it tomorrow.
  3. Estonia – An OK, upbeat ditty from Estonia, although you may tire of it before it ends.
  4. Sweden – Sanna Nielsen’s Undo is another favourite and particularly popular among the Eurovision fan clubs across the continent. It’s an upmarket ballad, performed well and, like so many songs every year, livens up once it gets going. I like it much more now than I did the first time I heard it – but at Eurovision, first impressions count.
  5. Iceland – There is a specific category of Eurovision song: the well-meaning polemic. There is another category: the “fun” band. Draw the Venn diagram of the two and Iceland’s Pollapönk sit squarely in the intersection. The song is called No Prejudice, which may give you the subtlest of hints what its message is. Its intentions are good and the verses are passable but – after an uncomfortable segue – the chorus makes it sound like a theatre group performing a morality play at a primary school. A disco breaks and a key change can’t make up for that.
  6. Albania – This is straightforward although the melody comes and goes. There’s a nice if outdated guitar solo then the whole thing goes a bit Evanescence.
  7. Russia – Ah, Russia. Everyone’s favourite European country at the moment. No surprises that they’re going as clean cut and photogenic as possible with the Tolmachevy Sisters – who would want to boo them? The song itself is gentle and inconsequential – and sounds like a hundred Eurovision entries before it.
  8. AzerbaijanStart a Fire is another simple, classy ballad. It’s perfectly pleasant enough but, despite its name, the fire never catches light.
  9. Ukraine – I really shouldn’t like Ukraine’s Tick-Tock. The lyrics alone – “Tick-Tock, my heart is like a clock” – should be enough to send them packing. And yet it’s a by-the-numbers pop track so it’s difficult not to enjoy despite yourself. There’s a bit of whistling, of which more later in the contest, and a hamster wheel reminiscent of Svetlana’s 2009 entry. Catchy nothingness.
  10. Belgium – Ah, yes. So, Belgium. Axel Hirsoux seems like a nice chap. He’s got a tailored dinner jacket and a great singing voice. This is a heartfelt ballad. But everyone – and I mean everyone – is going to go away thoroughly disturbed and wondering about the exact nature of the his relationship with his mother. After all, a boy’s best friend is his mother.
  11. Moldova – “Let the sky fall…” Wild Soul is the first of the contest’s two wannabe Bond themes and it’s lucky for Moldova that the other is in Thursday’s semi-final. Like a good Bond theme, it’s an echoing ballad with some darting strings, a syncopated chorus and a strong female vocal. Like a good Eurovision song, it’s got a cracking key change. It might not be a favourite but I want it to do well.
  12. San Marino – Valentina’s back, for the third year in a row representing San Marino, a country so small it only has one singer. Received wisdom is that this doesn’t reach the dizzy heights of 2011’s The Social Network Song. It doesn’t exactly stand out but this is actually my favourite of her three songs and it’s about time she finally made it to the final. Despite the spoken bit.
  13. Portugal – This conjures up the feeling of sipping cocktails on a cheap package tour on the Iberian peninsula, which you can take either way. It might be the lacklustre production but the song doesn’t quite gel – but at least has the decency to end on a high.
  14. NetherlandsCalm After the Storm is the Netherlands’ answer to Islands in the Stream. Tired now. Next.
  15. Montenegro – Ethnic flutes. Middle aged man singing lonely ballad. Come on, Balkans, it’s time to break the cycle. And this is one of the better ones.
  16. Hungary – It might sound facetious but I’m being completely serious when I say that András Kállay-Saunders has pulled off the impossible: a dark, depressing song about domestic abuse that you can dance to. Any questions about the subject matter are dispelled by the official video, which pulls no punches. What’s more, it’s a pretty good song and should do well.

There we go. Only 6 of these well be sent packing. The other 10 we’ll meet again on Saturday. And on Thursday 15 more songs will vie for the last 10 places…

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I may have miscounted.

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Dark Shadows: The Enemy Within Jul 30

Dark Shadows: The Enemy Within cover

“Cyrus, I haven’t been completely honest with you…”

Cyrus Longworth has a secret. On the outside, he’s the quiet handyman helping out with odd jobs. But his neighbours don’t know about the voice inside his head.

Sabrina Jennings has a secret. She’s just moved in across the street, here to teach at the local school. But her new husband is nowhere to be seen.

They could live happily ever after. But the dark secrets of Collinsport cast long shadows…

So, nearly a year ago I pitched a treatment to the producers of Big Finish‘s Dark Shadows audiobooks. It was for a story called The Enemy Within featuring the characters of Cyrus Longworth and Sabrina Jennings. It was commissioned at the beginning of this year, the script written in the winter and the actors recorded in the spring, in both the UK and America. All those performances were edited together, atmospheric music was added, a lovely cover was designed and today the final hour-long drama is released to the world.

Most people in the UK who have heard of Dark Shadows will know it from the Johnny Depp film, but the original show was a soap opera that ran on American television from 1966 to 1971 – though sadly never broadcast on terrestrial TV over here. Unlike other soaps, it took a distinctly supernatural turn and over its run of more than 1,200 episodes featured vampires, werewolves, witches, warlocks, time travel… all produced at a rate of five episodes a week, with the added challenge in the early years of recording as live. It was a brave, innovative and brilliantly mad show and one of the many cult series that Big Finish has brought back to life on audio.

The good news is that you don’t need to be familiar with hundreds of episodes of the TV show to follow the plot of The Enemy Within. We learn about the main characters as they learn about each other, so although they have back stories, you can enjoy the drama (and, dare I say, the comedy) even if you’ve never seen an episode of the show. And if you do know the show… well, there are what I hope are a few treats scattered through the story.

I’m really pleased with the finished play. The cast are great and I’m particularly chuffed to be bringing back Lisa Richards’ Sabrina and Chris Pennock’s Cyrus for the first time since 1970. (Although not exactly this Cyrus – on TV we only met a Parallel Time version. Yes, they did parallel universe plots too!)

Thank you to all involved in bringing this to life, and in particular producers David Darlington and Joseph Lidster for commissioning the story, and to them and script editor Alan Flanagan for their excellent script notes. The play is available on CD for £9.99 and as an immediate download for £7.99, so do go and buy it!