IT may be the ultimate in kitsch Saturday-night TV entertainment, but for all that, the Eurovision Song Contest is increasingly becoming mired in geopolitical dramas.

This year's final, which is taking place in Tel Aviv on Saturday, is a case in point. Haaretz, a leading Israeli newspaper, has already described it as one of the most political Eurovisions ever.

The Palestinian-led BDS campaign - 'Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions' - has called for a widespread boycott of this year's contest, alleging that "Israel's regime of military occupation, settler-colonialism and apartheid is shamelessly using Eurovision as part of its official Brand Israel strategy, which tries to show 'Israel's prettier face' to whitewash and distract attention from its war crimes against Palestinians."

Israel says it will block activists intent on disrupting the event from entering the country.

In January, a number of prominent British cultural figures, including Roger Waters, Peter Gabriel, Maxine Peake, Al Kennedy and Julie Christie, signed a letter urging the BBC to cancel coverage of the Eurovision event. "Eurovision may be light entertainment but it is not exempt from human rights considerations," it said, "and we cannot ignore Israel's systematic violation of Palestinian human rights."

Last month, however, other celebrities, including Stephen Fry and Sharon Osbourne, put their names to a letter critical of the BDS plea, saying the cultural boycott movement was "an affront to both Palestinians and Israelis who are working to advance peace through compromise, exchange, and mutual recognition."

The matter doesn't, however, end there. Waters has also urged Madonna, who is due to sing two songs during the final (in return, it's been reported, for $1m, paid for by a businessman now living in Tel Aviv), to cancel the engagement.

Furthermore, Iceland's contender this year, Hatari, who describe themselves as an 'anti-capitalist, BDSM [bondage, discipline, sadism, masochism] techno band' have noisily threatened to use their turn in the spotlight to denounce Israel for its treatment of the Palestinians. They have also challenged Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, to a traditional Icelandic trouser-grip wrestling match.

This is hardly the first time that politics has intruded on Eurovision, of course.

Two years ago, the Russian entrant, Julia Samoylova, was not allowed to travel to Kiev, that year's host nation, because she had visited occupied Crimea. Russia pulled out of the contest.

As the European edition of the Politico website noted then, Eurovision has "always been as much about geopolitical drama as it has about music. That's what keeps linguists, diplomats and political junkies as glued to their television sets as fans of treacly pop."

Politico listed no fewer than 13 occasions when Eurovision had got 'super political' in the past.

Eurovision's distinctively-clad contestants and their songs are often the source of wry amusement.

Writing in the New Yorker nine years ago, Anthony Lane observed: "The mission of Eurovision is to bring the nations of Europe together in the harmony. And the effect of the singing, little of which could be described as harmonious, is to pull them apart."

Lane was also taken aback by some of that year's hopefuls. "To gaze upon this year's Bulgarian contender, for instance, was to learn what would have happened to Tintin if he had decided to retrain, in bleached middle age, as an Elvis impersonator, And which choreographer, back in Sofia, had ordained that the presence of two male dancers, writing around the singer with oiled torsos and what appeared to be shimmering incontinence pants, would truly be in the national interest?"

Politics, the high quotient of camp and the sometimes dubious quality of the songs themselves aside, there is no doubt that the annual contest has the ability to reach a substantial audience of enthusiasts.

Last year's grand final in Lisbon, which was won by Israel, attracted some 186 million viewers, making it, in the words of the contest's organisers, the European Broadcasting Union, 'the world's biggest live music event'.

The audience for the 2010 final, in Tallinn, Estonia, was around 200 million, twice the size of the audience for America's Super Bowl.

* Graham Norton presents coverage of this year's final on BBC1 next Saturday from 8pm until 11.40pm.

Flying the flag

AMONG the many notable acts who have represented the UK at Eurovision over the years are Kenneth McKellar (1956) and Lulu (1969), Matt Monro (1964), Sandie Shaw (1967), Cliff Richard (1968 and 1973), Olivia Newton-John (1974) and The Shadows (1975).

The last winner from these shores were Katrina and the Waves, with Love Shine a Light, in 1997.

Previous winners were Brotherhood of Man (1976), Bucks Fizz (1981), Lulu (1969) and Sandie Shaw (1967).

The UK made its Eurovision debut in 1957. In addition to winning it on five occasions, the UK has also finished second a record 15 times, and holds the record for the longest running string of Top 5 placings.

Recent UK hopefuls have included Lucie Jones, Joe and Jake, and Electro Velvet. This year's contender is Michael Rice, singing Bigger Than Us.

Edinburgh staged the grand final in 1972, when the contest was broadcast live to Asia for the first time, with viewers in Japan, Taiwan, The Philippines, Hong Kong and Thailand, all able to watch the show.

"It also was the first year that a video wall was used to present song titles and artists," says Eurovision.

Luxembourg won the song contest for the third time with Aprés Toi, sung by Vicky Leandros.


FEW of the winners of the Eurovision Song Contest have subsequently enjoyed the kind of global success that came the way of the group that won in 1974.

The group was ABBA, the song was Waterloo. And suddenly the world was theirs for the taking.

Over the course of their record-breaking career Agnetha Fältskog, Björn Ulvaeus, Benny Andersson and Anni-Frid Lyngstad sold an estimated 400 million records.

Agnetha Fältskog Benny Andersson Björn Ulvaeus Anni-Frid Lyngstad

"ABBA" reads their 2010 induction into the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame, "made waves in the pop culture of the Seventies that still resonate today. Producing one infectious hit after another, ABBA inspired a movie, a musical, and a mania. Thirty years later, their popularity is still going strong."

ABBA were the first of six Swedish winners of Eurovision (Ireland has won seven, a record in its own right).

Celine Dion was largely unknown in Europe when she won for Switzerland in 1988 with Ne Partez Pas Sans Moi. She went on to become one of the world's biggest-selling female artists.

Humble beginnings

THE Eurovision Song Contest had just seven participating countries when it made its debut in 1956.

The numbers have grown steadily ever since. The end of the Cold War in the early 1990s saw many former Eastern Bloc countries eager to compete for the first time

This year, there are 41 countries taking part, from Albania to the UK, from North Macedonia and San Marino to Estonia and Moldova.

According to official Eurovision statistics, more than 1,500 songs have been sung in the contest over the decades.

In 2006, the Irish singer, Brian Kennedy, delivered the 1,000th entry to the contest, Every Song is a Cry for Love.

If you listened to all 1,500-plus songs without a break, you would be sitting up for nearly 72 hours.


YOU might not have heard of Ralph Siegel, but Eurovision fanatics probably have.

Eurovision says the German songwriter and composer is a 'true Eurovision addict', having taken part no fewer than 22 times. His 22nd occasion saw him write the song for San Marino. He won once, in 1982, with the song Ein Bißchen Frieden, performed by a singer named Nicole.

Conchita Wurst

ONE of the most colourful, and popular winners, of Eurovision was the 2014 Copenhagen winner, Conchita Wurst.

Conchita's eye-catching victory for Austria, singing Rise Like A Phoenix, made headlines in countries across the world.

The bearded drag artist was born Thomas Neuwirth, who was a huge fan of Eurovision while growing up. "I loved it. I watched it with my mum. Back then, being on stage was just a big dream," he told an interviewer shortly after his win.

Conchita will make a special guest appearance at this year's event.

The 1998 Eurovision winner Dana International, the Israeli transgender singer, will take to the stage in the first Semi-Final and the Grand Final, while actress Gal Gadot, star of Wonder Woman, will also appear during the final.