Fifties & Sixties


The Eurovision Song Contest was the brainchild of Marcel Baisoncon of the European Broadcasting Union, and made it’s bow on May 24th, 1956 in Lugano, Switzerland (a Thursday night). Seven countries participated and they were each allowed two songs. Both Luxemburg and the winners. Switzerland, used the same singer for both, and indeed the same jury!. No information has ever been made publicly available about the 1956 result, other than Switzerland’s victory on home soil, although an authentic looking manuscript with scores did surface……… one April 1st. The winning singer, Lys Assia is still going strong (she appeared at the 50th anniversary show) and interesting trivia is that she was the first ever singer to record “Oh Mein Papa”. This is one of two contests (the other being 1964) where no complete recording of the event exists.


The UK made a rather faltering debut with a song that still stands as the shortest Eurovision entry ever, the last note petering out at one minute fifty-two seconds, utilizing just sixty-two percent of the available three minutes. Patricia Bredin remains one of the least heralded UK entrants but her song forever has a place in history as the first ever English language song to be performed at the contest.
The Netherlands’ Corry Brokken scored the most one-sided victory in the early years of the contest (given that the 1956 scoring remains shrouded in mystery). Her song well exceeded the three minutes that is now the maximum duration of any entry. The previous year’s winner Lys Assia came home eighth of ten, a sad demise after the previous year’s glory. Ms Brokken was not to learn from this precedent; her 1958 entry finished equal bottom, just one point from Nul Points. Denmark provided the first duo in contest history, and a memorable one at that, as Birthe and Gustav enjoyed a lingering kiss at the songs climax.


After the less than scintillating performance of Patricia Bredin in 1957, the UK decided to take a year off. This year’s contest provided the first Eurosong to become an evergreen, even though it languished in third place. Yes, “Nel Blu Dipinto Di Blu” from Italy is none other than “Volare, who-oh-oh-oh”. In the autumn of 1958, the song made the British top ten and the US number one and went on to become an enduring standard. Singer Domenico Modugno sang twice more in the contest. Lys Assia became the first of several artists to have two top-two finishes when Switzerland’s “Giorgio” finished a close second to France, and would have won the contest if today’s voting methods were in place, being the favourite of more countries than the French winner. So I guess you could say 1958 saw the very first voting controversy!.


The UK’s second appearance brought it’s first second place, a recurring feature of Britain’s Eurovision history. Also, “Sing Little Birdie” captured the public’s imagination in a way that Patricia Bredin’s contribution had failed to a couple of years earlier. For the first of many times the UK were just pipped as the Dutch came up with something equally chipper. “Een Beetje” thus goes down as the contests first “perky” winner (so you know who to blame for the next forty years). It was also a very even contest where the voting system had an arguably undue effect on the result. Each one of the first five songs received votes from seven of the other ten countries. The Netherlands hefty seven from the Italians effectively swung the result their way, although in fairness they were the outright favourite song of four of the ten other juries. The Dutch became the first country to win the contest twice. Unfortunately this was to be a high watermark. Their record in the 1960s (despite the shared win in 1969) was the worst of any country and a win in 1975 with the English-sung “Dinge-Dong” was the only other time they’ve tasted victory).


This was the first contest to be held in the United Kingdom and the first to be compered by the redoubtable Katie Boyle (or Kathryn Boyle as the BBC’s commentator David Jacobs, called her). Luxemburg’s return after a years absence meant that all twelve countries who had previously entered were present in London and joined by Norway (whose now indelible place as the thirteenth country to enter the fray would bring countless bad luck in the years ahead). The contest was truly a two-horse race, between the songs that opened and closed the running order, France receiving votes from eleven of the twelve other countries, UK from ten, while no other country received votes from more than seven (that was 4th placed Norway on it’s debut). The winning song was also the first Eurovision winner to chart in the UK, “Tom Pillibi” peaked at number 33 in a two-week chart stay.


Some of the deficiencies of the 10-person jury one-man-one-vote were highlighted this year. On the face of it the UK came a reasonably close second to Luxemburg; however Luxemburg’s thirty-one votes came from twelve countries while the UK’s twenty-four came from just seven. BBC coverage of the event now seems very endearingly quaint. including coverage of engineers “connecting” the power supply (two guys connecting a set of huge cables outside the venue on Cannes seafront!). Three new entrants brought the total number of entries to the mid teens, a level of participation which would remain pretty much constant for the next two decades. Western Europe had embraced the contest. Winner Jean-Claude Pascal made a rather alarming attempt at a comeback twenty years later in 1981. He finished 11th of 20.


This was the first year that a country scored “nul points”. To lessen the ignominy, it actually happened to four different countries. This was surely because of the new voting system which only allowed each jury to award points to their three favourite songs. In these circumstances Isabelle Aubret’s victory was all the more impressive – scoring a top-3 vote from 12 of the 15 other countries. Mlle Aubret returned six years later and finished a creditable third. A lot has been made of the benefits of a later draw in Eurovision. In 1962 there was the most stark disparity until (arguably) 2001. The first quarter received just four votes (including three nul-pointers), the second fifteen, the third forty (including the winner) and the fourth thirty seven. Conny Froboess German entry, though languishing in sixth, became a schlager evergreen.


The good old BBC delivered a distinctly low-budget production. No grand auditorium (or even small auditorium), the show was broadcast from a couple of BBC studios. Katie Boyle compered the second of her four contests, but she was not the first to present twice as France’s Jacqueline Joubert beat her to that distinction two years earlier. The contest was blessed with several soon-to-be stars, none of them representing their homeland: Esther Ofarim sang for Switzerland, Francoise Hardy for Monaco and Nana Mouskouri for Luxemburg. The voting ended in controversy when the Norwegian jury was recalled at the end of the voting to check it’s votes. The second time around it awarded Switzerland one point instead of three, and Denmark four points instead of two, thus reversing the placings at the top of the leaderboard.


Gigliola Cinquetti’s victory was the most clear-cut to date, and remains arguably the most one-sided in history, given that it is impossible to compare victories achieved under different scoring methods. The songs performed on either side of Italy each ended up with nul points. This is the only contest (with the exception of the very first in 1956) which is unavailable on videotape. Regrettably, Danish TV lost their only recording of the event. All that remains today are a few extracts (including thankfully the winning performance). The stage was invaded by a protester between the Swiss and Belgian songs. An anti-fascist demonstrator ran on with a placard protesting about Franco’s regime in Spain. However he came on one song too early, and was quickly bundled off without causing serious disruption to proceedings.


Sandie Shaw’s 1967 winner “Puppet On A String” has often been credited with changing the face of Eurovision by leading in an era of bouncy pop songs to replace the more austere ballads of Eurovision’s early years. However, two years earlier, the ground was first broken by France Gall’s winner, composed by the legendary Serge Gainsbourg. There was a strange quirk in the voting when Belgium’s turn came. Points were supposed to be awarded 5-3-1 but the Belgian jury apparently only “liked” two songs so were allowed to award 6 to the UK, helping Kathy Kirby to an excellent second place. Kathy’s “I Belong” was the second song to be performed, historically the arguably worst draw in the contest, and the only song in that draw position to ever make the top 2 in 50 years of the event!. This contest saw the debut of the contest’s most successful country, Ireland.


Udo Jurgens finally hit the bullseye after finishing 6th and 4th in the two previous years. Herr Jurgen’s success was a rare bright spot in Austria’s mediocre Eurovision history. Take away his contribution and Austria would be languishing in the basement of the Eurovision league table with the likes of Portugal and Finland. His success also marked the end of an era in some ways. Male balladeers had triumphed in 1958 and 1961 and had generally fared OK through the early sixties. However, Jurgens would be the last male soloist to triumph for thirteen years, until Johnny Logan claimed the first of his brace of victories in 1980. This was also the last year when a jury only awarded points to three countries. Three very different systems have been utilised since then, all of them designed to splash points about more liberally than was the fashion in the early sixties. It is no accident that most of the nul pointers in Eurovision history originate from this period.


This was the last contest to only be filmed in black and white and the staging was rather peculiar. A revolving door with mirrored faces spun round behind the performers, which was a little too distracting at times. Each song was prefaced with a caption of the song title in French, English and German. There were many problems with the scoring. The (obviously manually operated) scoreboard continually malfunctioned, although thankfully scrutineer Clifford Brown was vigilant enough to correct things when necessary. Presenter Erica Wahl added to the chaos when announcing the winner before the Irish jury had delivered it’s votes!. At long last the United Kingdom had a winner. In the preceding 11 years if Eurovision, the UK had competed 9 times (all bar 1956 and 1958) and had finished second in 1959,1960,1961,1964 and 1965 ! Sandie Shaw’s victory this time however was a runaway one and never in doubt.


The UK’s first victory meant that the 1968 contest was staged in the grandiose surroundings of the Royal Albert Hall in London. The UK had already staged the contest twice previously, in 1960 and 1963, both times because the winning country had declined to host. In this era songs had to be in a native language, and the winning song whose chorus consisted entirely of “la”s, circumvented the rules in a way that was to be copied with similar success by Norway in 1995 (with a de facto instrumental) and Israel in 1998 (with a polyglot chorus). The winning singer, Massiel was late replacement for Joan Serrat, who had insisted on singing in Catalan rather than Spanish. The Norwegian entry “Stress”, performed by the aptly named Odd Borre, has gone down in Eurovision folklore for it’s unremitting banality. The aforementioned Odd stares at his watch singing “Bra Bra Bra Bra, Ma Ma Ma Ma”. However to be fair this song was second in the Norwegian selection and was promoted when Odd’s original song was deemed to be just too similar to Cliff’s “Summer Holiday”. Ireland’s song was performed by the father of boxer Barry McGuigan.


By 1968 the contest had been running for a dozen years and yet no-one had thought of a tie-breaker. Given the small number of points awarded in those days this was an accident just waiting to happen, and happen it did in 1969 when FOUR songs tied. The scoreboard after the final jury had voted read: France 18 Netherlands 18 Spain 18 United Kingdom 18. The hostess Laurita Valenzuela pleaded with Clifford Brown, I got to learn the term ‘ex-equo’ and all four somewhat bewildered winners reprised their songs.
The interval was bizarre: spooky music played over images of Spanish art and architecture. Well it gave me the shivers anyway! Then there was the dodgy floor: Finland’s Jarkko and Laura spinning around like skaters, Kirstie Sparboe (Norway) almost toppling over when she courtseys and the wonderful sight of Massiel teetering onto the stage in an enormous fur coat and somehow managing not to go arse over tip. One of the most memorable contests of all time.