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Film & Music, World

When Eurovision came to town

In 1993, as war raged in the Balkans, the Eurovision circus descended on the tiny Irish town of Millstreet. It was with the emergence of nations from the former Yugoslavia and the Soviet bloc, the beginning of the modern era of the competition. Tim Cooper was sent to report

No one in Millstreet can remember the last time they cancelled the Vigil Mass. But even St Patrick’s Church will be closed when this tiny town in rural Ireland hosts the 38th Eurovision Song Contest on Saturday night. The faithful, like everyone else here, are far too busy riding the gravy train that rolled into town as soon as local tycoon Noel C. Duggan clinched the contract that put his hometown (pop: 1,500) firmly on the international map.

An hour’s drive from Cork and half an hour from the tourist town of Killarney where everyone is staying – there are 13 pubs but no hotels in Millstreet – the town is perfectly situated by virtue of its isolation to cash in on the invasion by contestants and media from 15 countries. And if there’s anybody failing to cash in on its surprise selection, it could only be because they cannot face the music.

Memories of Millstreet

The paint is not yet dry on the shop fronts and they already have the video Memories of Millstreet (“Music, song, dance and beautiful scenery”) available for £12.99 as well as the lavishly illustrated book, Us, at £5. To the bemusement of the locals, there are helicopter trips and, to their huge amusement, guided walking tours of the town. There’s even a special postcard – a snip at 20p – promoted by the Post Office with a catchy slogan that echoes a past Irish winner, Dana: “All kinds of everything... Reminds me to send a postcard from Millstreet.”

There seems to be some sort of price war going on over the T-shirts. You can get all sorts but the officially licensed one seems to be going up as the big day approaches. Officially priced at £6.99, it re-emerged in the mobile merchandising shop at £8 yesterday, prompting raised eyebrows and snorts of derision from the locals, not to mention red faces at the Euro Bureau, where they had sold out of them at the proper price.

The town’s shops and pubs have each “adopted” one of the Eurovision nations for the duration, devoting their window displays to the country of their choice. “Velkom,” says a sign in O’Connor’s shoe shop, with a colourful window display featuring cardboard clogs and painted tulips in front of a windmill. Inside, however, there is no sign of a clog. “A couple of people have come in asking for them,” confided the assistant. “I told them to try in Cork.”

The Danish display is an inviting sight for any passing Danes. “Velkommen Danmark,” it beckons amid a sea of red-and-white. For good measure, the window display includes a copy of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy story, The Ugly Duckling. Meanwhile, at Pat and Ann’s Haircare, Pat and Ann are hedging their bets with a mixed bag of Toblerone bars, spaghetti, clogs, Russian dolls and a bottle of Bordeaux to cater for haircuts of all nationalities. There’s even a plate depicting the Prince and Princess of Wales together.

Britain is more fully honoured at Wordsworth’s newsagent, where they’ve had a run on the Eurovision postcard and their own T-shirt, featuring Millstreet as the centre of Europe. Which, for three hours on Saturday night, it will be for millions of television viewers.

"By the time I got to the front of the queue, there were only two left – Finland and Israel”

Dave Curtin’s Boston Bar is bedecked with signs for Helsinki but the lad cleaning the windows is not sure exactly where Helsinki might be. He should have gone in for a pint the night before, when he would have had the pleasure of meeting the Finland delegation, including their contestant. At the time, Dave was still awaiting delivery of some special Finnish vodka, courtesy of the Embassy, but it didn’t matter because the Finns were going native. “They wanted to drink black porter,” explained Dave, who told Mr Manley in the clothing shop across the road about his freebie from the Finnish Embassy. “He’s doing Iceland, so he said he’d get on to their Embassy and ask for a salmon.” As it happens, Dave had not exactly picked Finland as his first choice. He drew the short straw at a town meeting where the 25 nations were divvied up among 45 shops and pubs. “By the time I got to the front of the queue, there were only two left – Finland and Israel,” he admitted. As a result, Israel, for its sins, has been left with the dubious honour of a window display in Pat’s £1 Shop.

To see the real Millstreet, you have to track down Sean Radley, curator of the town’s museum, which is holding a special Eurovision display. It sits strangely alongside the more historical exhibits, including a gallery of “Millstreet’s Famous People.” There’s a picture of the actor Brian Dennehy, though it’s actually his not-at-all-famous grandfather who came from here; there’s the Bishop of Kerry; there’s Ann lane, personal assistant to the Irish president, Mary Robinson; and there’s Tommy Burke and Denis “Toots” Kelleher, whose caption describes them as “two famous footballers.” The museum’s most recent exhibit is also its oldest, an 11,000-year-old fragment of antler from the long-extinct Giant Irish Deer, and there is a 1,600-year-old boat found in a nearby lake, as well as an oar from a bog.

“What Noel C. did has been a miracle”

Sean’s free guided tour, however, is literally priceless. Undeterred by the fact that much of historic Millstreet has been covered in marquees and fast-food trailers for Eurovision, he proudly pointed out the clubhouse for the pitch-and-putt course (“established 23 years ago”) and took us to see what’s left of the most historic part of Millstreet – the mill. “Hence the name Millstreet,” he added helpfully. Sean’s tour was something of a party political broadcast for Noel C.Duggan, the local entrepreneur who put Millstreet on the map by building the international equestrian centre that is now hosting the song contest.

But he could be forgiven for that – without him, the town would remain a forgotten backwater. “What Noel C. did has been a miracle,” Sean gushed historically. “A dream come true.” Spotting some local youths on a bridge, he warmed to his theme of the Millstreet renaissance. “The young people of Millstreet are the luckiest because they can witness the transformation. They are truly living through history,” he declared.

That was not all. We learned that, in an earlier age, Millstreet once had 15 shoe shops. We were shown a rare bicycle from Cork that was used to deliver bread. And we discovered that the bus depot doubles up as the Malpaso Bar. “Notice the new litter bins,” Sean remarked, “installed specially for Eurovision.” Noticing them carefully, we moved on to the grandly-named Main Square, which is marked with a small concrete cross on a plinth. “This would be Millstreet’s Eiffel Tower,” announced Sean, his face betraying no trace of a smile. He moved quickly on to show us a window display featuring Elvis Presley reading about Millstreet’s new-found fame in a newspaper. “And perhaps wishing he could be there and taking part,” added Sean.

Now that really would be something. Elvis in the Eurovision Song Contest.

“Flame-haired Sonia”

They’ve had to lay on extra security for the UK’s Sonia during her stay in Ireland. But, to be perfect fair, her song is not bad enough to provoke a physical assault or terrorist attack. Not quite.

In truth, after a gruelling two days of rehearsals, videos, press conferences and non-stop Europop on the radio, anyone would be forgiven for resorting to violence just to halt the endless stream of musical banality. But the song, Better The Devil You Know, is no worse than the 24 others and “flame-haired Sonia” as she is invariably described – “the bubbly Scouser” as she is also invariably described – has won many friends here, if not with her song, then with her permanent smile and easy laugh.

More importantly, she has the crucial edge in the unofficial Hair for Europe contest. In fact, she has already been voted top of the tonsorial pops by no less an authority than the official Eurovision hair stylist. Gary Kavanagh is the man responsible for the frizzy mound that cascades from the head of Linda Martin, last year’s Irish winner and this year’s special guest. And he’s on hand here for any of the 25 nations who need to be teased or tweaked into shape for the big night.

There’s certainly plenty of scope for change among the contestants and their entourages. The chap who sings for Luxembourg looks like an outgrown Rod Stewart circa 1973 but he’s pretty representative of the trend for Big Hair. And that’s just the men. “It’s pretty wild – a frightening sight,” agreed Gary, who knows more than most about Eurovision hair. “Like most of the men taking part, he’s slightly behind the times. I’ve noticed a lot of long hair on both men and women this year but the old scrunch-dry look that was the big Eurovision fashion for the last eight or nine years has disappeared overnight. The women look better than the men, especially the younger ones who go for the fashionable ‘70s look. I think the girl from Iceland is going to look prettiest – she has a nice figure, nice clothes and nice natural hair. She wants to go a little bit wild for the show, without going crazy.”

Gary despairs of his clients’ showbiz tendency to go over the top with the clothes and the bleached-blond highlights. “They think wild is wonderful and they always think more is best – but less is best really,” he confided. So who is the worst? Malta’s William Mangion springs immediately to mind, with his ‘70s-style Kevin Keegan close perm: one of several styles whose inspiration would seem to come from the football fields of a bygone era. In fact, Denmark’s Tommy Seebach, with his tight perm and moustache, is a dead ringer for Arsenal’s Danish player John Jensen.  But Gary gives his vote to Enrico Ruggeri from Italy, an superannuated punk whose greying hair is sculpted into a would-be Mohican. “he looks like he ran out of juice on the Fly-Mo,” observed Gary, whose cutting is evidently not limited to the salon, with cruel but professional accuracy. “The Luxembourg chap has horrendous hair too:  it’s elbow-length with a parting that starts behind the left ear. A nightmare.”

Sonia, by contrast, has hair with “a beautiful quality and good colour, which is nicely styled.” The girl herself has been busy rehearsing her routine, and has devised a finale in which she puts a hand on one hip, raises her eyebrows and winks conspiratorially into the camera, leaving us with her trademark cheeky grin.

She’s here with her boyfriend Mark, her sister Carol – who is also one of her backing singers – and her manager Albert. He says he says Sonia has only had one day off in the last month, although she will get another on Sunday, the day after the contest, before going back on the road on Monday to promote her new album. “She loves it,” confides Albert, adding that Sonia would rather give her time to children’s or Aids charities than take time off. “I can honestly say she is one of the most professional people I have ever met.”

Sonia is the bookies’ joint second-favourite with Ireland’s Niamh Kavanagh, though the favourites are Croatia’s student ensemble Put, who would appear to have the perfect Eurovision formula – a mixed boy-girl line-up including some very pretty girls, a song that sounds like a Christmas carol, and lyrics with a message for peace in their war-torn homeland. “Don’t every cry,” they sing plaintively, “Never say goodbye, my Croatian sky.”

They could yet be pipped by their near-neighbours and fellow victims of war from Bosnia-Herzegovina, whose poignant press conference yesterday provided an antidote to the triviality of the contest and the banality of its music.

Bosnia: All The Pain In The World

They described how the group, Fazla, recorded their demo tape for the qualifying contest despite the handicap of living in besieged Sarajevo without water, electricity or enough food, buying black market fuel to power a generator in the basement studio of the radio and television station. Their entire entourage of 17 ran across the runway at Sarajevo airport under heavy Serbian military bombardment to catch their plane to the qualifying contest in Slovenia. Five of them, including their conductor, did not make it. “We later discovered that six people were killed on the runway that night,” said their spokesperson, Ismeta Krvavac. The sympathy vote may yet clinch victory for the Bosnian entry, All The Pain In The World, a love song from a soldier at the front line to his girlfriend back home – “but also a love song for our country,” explained Ismeta – with its mournful pipe refrain, Arabic wails and lyrics that bring a tear to your eye if you speak Serbo-Croat.

Striking a discordant political note at their press conference, the group expressed anger at the world’s failure to intervene in the war in Bosnia. Ms Krvavac said: “This is a great opportunity to say something to the world about the situation in our country: to say we desperately need help – not yesterday, not today, but now at this very moment.”

Newly-wed singer Muhamed Fazlagic, after whom the band is named, is combining the contest with his honeymoon. “I have very very mixed emotions being here,” he admitted. “I am very happy to be in a position to be the first representative of Bosnia-Herzegovina in the Eurovision Song Contest but, at the same time, I am sad and very upset because I don’t know what is happening to my family at this moment in my home country.”

After skilfully deflecting questions inviting the group to draw a parallel between their country’s conflict and Northern Ireland, they were asked how they would have felt if they had been in competition with a Serbian entry at Eurovision. “Let them come to the competition,” replied Ms Krvavac, to general surprise from the journalists. “With their guns they do terrible things to our country –  but they cannot do anything to anyone with a song.”

Sonia(UK) came second behind the winner Niamh Kavanagh (Ireland). The sympathy vote didn't help the Balkan countries with their peace songs - Bosnia & Herzegovina came 16th, one place behind Croatia (15th).

Tim Cooper has written for most national newspapers and many magazines on every subject from politics to pop culture. His first published work was in his own punk fanzine, Cliché, and his last (before this) was online at He lives in north London with his wife, two children and a dog, indulging his passions of writing, reading, cinema, music, football, cricket and vegetable gardening.

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