It's surprising that in more than fifty years of delighting and horrifying TV audiences, an official history of Eurovision has never been written before. Step forward John Kennedy O’Connor who has done just that.
British journalist and broadcaster John Kennedy O’Connor has been an avid Eurovision fan since the tender age of seven. His die-hard love of the contest combined with his journalistic experience makes him a perfect candidate to document the rise – and some might argue, fall – of the sparkly, day-glo camp fest we know as Eurovision.
His book, The Eurovision Song Contest: The Official History, is thus far the only biography of the event officially commissioned and endorsed by the European Broadcasting Union (EBU), published as part of a limited run of commemorative memorabilia released to celebrate Eurovision’s 50th birthday.
Needless to say John Kennedy O’Connor was present at the 2011 Song Contest - the 40th he has watched - and in between keeping an eye on the results of the recent semi-finals and fielding myriad interview requets on the telephone, he took time out to talk to Deutsche Welle about this very unique publication.
Deutsche Welle: John, how did you come up with the idea of writing the book?
John Kennedy O’Connor: I got involved primarily because I am an enormous fan of Eurovision. I’d seen a few unofficial books come out onto the market that I was personally disappointed with and I suppose in that terrible, arrogant way that all writers have, I thought, I can do better than that. It’s been a long struggle though. I think I first pitched the idea to the EBU in 1999.
The book was finally published in 2010 so why the long delay?
The EBU refused to do it on the grounds that they don’t do any commercial projects. It was only when they released the commemorative Eurovision CD that I thought I ought to go back and re-visit this and by then they had changed their mind. At that time the 50th anniversary was coming up so it made perfect sense.
So what sort of format does the book take?
It is a chronological story. It follows Eurovision year by year. Unfortunately if you are chronicling 56 years of an event there is only so much information you can squeeze in. I don’t think there’s anything in the book that a fan wouldn’t know already so it’s been written with a wider audience in mind. Perhaps for people who are nostalgic and love Eurovision. I hope it works for them. There is a section at the back with every single statistic in there you could ever think of and that is very much geared towards the hardcore fans.
It’s quite an achievement convincing the EBU to go ahead with this project. How involved were they deciding on how the book should be presented?
Interestingly they were very keen that it should be totally straight. I did originally write it with quite a lot of humor and that was all taken out. Not that I was in any way mocking the contest because I adore it but if something is ridiculous you have to say it’s ridiculous. I would never say that the contest as a whole is ridiculous but if there’s an act that is, you have to say it is. Otherwise you lose credibility.
How easy was it gathering material on Eurovision’s earliest years?
It was surprisingly easy actually. I was able to get copies of all the shows bar 1956 and 1964 which I believe were wiped. The news archives are surprisingly full, even on those early contests. There was a lot of information particularly if you widened your search radius. We looked in Norwegian archives, German archives, Dutch archives and there was an awful lot of information to pull. Unfortunately too much. The book had to be a relatively short précis of what happened in each contest.
Going back to the first Eurovision in 1956. Were there many differences in the contest back then?
There were a lot of differences in that first event compared with Eurovision as we know it today. For a start, it was essentially a radio event because so few of the participating countries had television. Only seven countries took part and each country performed two songs. The judges were sat in the audience as well and marked each song based on what they saw on the stage. For some extreme reason, Luxembourg decided not to send any judges so the Swiss judges voted on their behalf and you could vote for your own country and lo and behold, Switzerland won. I find this bizarre!
Do you have a favourite Eurovision anecdote in the book?
My favourite story concerns the lovely Katie Boyle who hosted the contest four times for the UK. The last time she hosted it, in 1974, seconds before she went on stage the producer ran up and said, I’m sorry but your underwear is showing through your dress, you’re going to have to take it off. And the stage hands literally just put their hands up her dress and ripped her underwear off. Now Katie Boyle was actually a viscountess, very genteel, very polished and the image of these burly stage hands man-handling her to get her knickers off is just too bizarre for words! Katie told me that story herself.
How many people connected with Eurovision did you interview for the book?
Surprisingly few actually. I gave up interviewing very early. I tried it and the singers will either feign they don’t remember anything until you say something wrong and then they leap on you to correct it or they simply won’t talk about it. I got into some very strange almost confrontational discussions with the first people I spoke to and I thought, this isn’t going to work. So I just had to go with archive material, watching the shows, talking to people who were there but didn’t perform and my own personal memories.
Being connected with Eurovision, especially as a singer, can have positive or negative connotations for your career. Is that something you’ve experienced yourself?
First I should say that doing the book was my dream come true although I would say that it’s had a slightly negative impact on my career in the sense that now I am just branded as the Eurovision Guy. It’s very flattering of course to be interviewed as some kind of expert but I do also feel that I’ve said all there is to say… See you then! (laughs) Exactly! I’m just frightened sometimes that I bore the audience and I wonder if I should take a break. But having said that, if ever they want the book updated, I’m certainly not handing it over to someone else!
And in more than 40 years as a fan what has been your personal Eurovision highlight? But please don’t say ABBA.
Oh no, I didn’t want ABBA to win. I wanted the dreadful UK entry to win. I was a child, I had no musical taste whatsoever. Of course the minute ABBA won I was fan! No, I think probably the highlight was coming to the 50th anniversary show and having the book presented during the interval. That meant an awful lot and that probably will be the highlight forever. You can’t really top that.
Text: Gavin Blackburn
Editor: Rick Fulker