Yes, it's Eurovision time again. "I don't know where some of those shots were taken, but that's not the Moscow I'm staying in," said Graham Norton over the opening sequence - damn right, I've seen Moscow, it's a concrete hell. Personally I'm amazed they found a bit of Moscow with trees in it for their half-time vox pops. Overall we think Norton measured up well as a replacement for Terry Wogan. That Norton was off the booze owing to his recent injury may have helped - Norton dry has just about the familiar tone of grumpiness we used to get with Wogan drunk, but with an extra dash of bitchiness thrown in.
An even more subdued contest this year - where were all the comedy entries? (Filtered out in the semi-finals, one assumes.) And why so much monochrome? We were starting to wonder if the TV was working properly (and then the Portuguese entry appeared...). Also disappointing that the second half should be so dominated by songs sung in English - it's a lot more noticeable when they all come along at once like that.
On the plus side, the voting was a lot more balanced this year - you mean they actually got panels of industry experts to judge the entries on their musical merit? The very idea! On the other plus side, not a lot of echoing of last year's winner. It's usual to see more than one knock-off of the previous year's most successful act, so I was bracing myself for several Peter Andre lookalikes in white jackets, but in the end we only got one, which was a mercy.
And now, read on...
Lithuania. Sung half in English. Not much to say about this one - decidedly hum ho. Is he really playing that piano? (The rules may say the lead vocal has to be performed live, but do they say anything about instruments?) "Aaaaaaaahhhhhh - my hand's on fire!" seem to have been the final lyrics.
Israel. Sung half in English. Barring a couple of minor scrapes on the high notes, pretty damn good. Scores for some nice harmonies, also scores bonus points for worthiness. I quite like the olive oil tin drums too. The only obvious downside is that presentation is close to zero. I mean, it's all well and good not having explosions, giant props and so on, but one can go too far the other way. The audience aren't very likely to remember this one when the voting starts.
France. What, no comedy entry? No pissing about at all? From the French?! Truly, Eurovision died tonight! A very ordinary ballad, and the surprise Tales of the Unexpected ending can't rescue it from its mire of dullness.
Sweden. Sung half in English, half in... French? Say, aren't these extruded, reconstituted Beatles lyrics? By and large I quite like what Graham Norton calls "popera", although it does go a bit Fifth Element towards the end (well, if you've seen the film, you'll know what I mean). But what the hell is going on with those masks?
Croatia. Surpriiiiise! Now where was he hiding her? Ew, put her back! Put her back!! At least he can sing. This song could've been a contender if it weren't for the female vocalist.
Portugal. Wouch, my eyes! I think we see who's stolen all the colour from the previous five entries. The overall effect is something like a live action Magic Roundabout. Good selection of instruments on show, that's always a plus. There's a very familiar song hiding underneath this one - but what? If I were to listen repeatedly to this for a week, I expect it'd come to me, but there are some questions that just aren't worth answering.
Iceland. Sung in English. Look out - giant dolphin! It's amazing to think that we've got through six whole entries without a single bad key change. Alas, no sooner did I think that... Look out - nuclear attack! A very bland song, and the background material seems to have been lifted straight out of a five-year-old girl's head (well, apart from the apparent nuclear blast at the end). I'm sure it's exactly what Europe's looking for, god help it.
Greece. Sung in English. And here he is, the only act trying to imitate last year's winning Russian entry. So what we have here are Chicane offcuts being performed by Petros Andropoulos while he suffers some sort of convulsions on a conveyor belt. Red Alert! Red Alert! Key change incoming! Nice of them to signal that one in advance for us. Apparently the bookies rated this one highly. Ha ha ha ha ha, ha ha ha ha ha.
Armenia. Sung half in English. Hey, ladies, why not just pick a note and stick to it? Oh, now you're just shouting. "Sister - here we go!" Ugh. Foul indeed. Throw in a key change and you've got the complete misshapen package.
Russia. Hey, it's Servalan! Now what I want to know is, how on Earth does she manage to sing out of tune with herself? All things considered, this is an extremely wretched item. It's pretty clear Moscow doesn't want the cost of having to host Eurovision again next year.
Azerbaijan. Sung in English. Now, what we seem to have here is Napoleon in the Wild West cat house. It's by no means a bad number. The balalaika middle eight is a very nice touch. Bonus points for having no nasty key change. Should do well.
Bosnia & Herzegovina. And here's another act in bloody Napoleonic jackets. Is there some sort of vogue in Europe at the moment for Napoleonic jackets? And if so, dammit, why wasn't I told? (Memo to self...) Definite militaristic undertones to this one - must check the news tomorrow to see if there's been a coup... This pretty much forms a matching pair with the previous entry. Think I might give this one the edge for singing in their own language.
Moldova. An interesting choice of brass sounds to open with - it sounds like a folk version of "Casino Royale"! Ick, morris dancing. And what's the guy at the back doing with that mop? The rap middle eight was, putting it charitably, a bad choice.
Malta. Sung in English. The synth pan pipes are a bit 1990s. Hmm, took a bit of panning for the camera to get her in shot. This is a very static performance - ha, she had to move the microphone stand to make it look like something was happening on stage! A very ordinary song, and with a key change too. Not a contender.
Estonia. Nice use of strings. You get bonus points for cellos. Hey, look, she plays the violin too! And extra points for no key change. Definitely a goer.
Denmark. Sung in English. What can I add to Graham Norton's own comments about this one? Who's that playing the keyboard? It looks like Tom Jones dressed as a tramp. And astonishingly, sixteen acts in we get the first gratuitous pyrotechnics of the evening! (Well, apart from the Lithuanian guy's flaming hand.) Now that deserves extra special demerits.
Germany. Sung in English. After last year's horrific wrong turn, they've gone back to the swing band sound. More pyrotechnics - once they've popped, they won't stop. Whose idea were the Bacofoil trousers? Hmm, more than a little evidence of robbing from "Minnie the Moocher" here.
Turkey. Sung (or rather, shouted) in English. Couldn't they have found a singer who could, well, sing? Or a fill-in dancer in the same costume as the others (or at least of the same gender)? Bondage acrobat - attack!
Albania. Sung in English. Now here's a thing. We have a seventeen-year-old vocalist in a tiny pink baby-doll outfit, and she's by far the least interesting thing on the stage. Look at the freaky backing dancers! A green mirrorball-faced gimp and two breakdancing mimes! Get rid of the singer, let's just have three minutes of these guys! Deserves strong bonus points for sheer visual freakiness, but sadly we'll have to dock those back off again for that very nasty key change.
Norway. Sung in English. A disturbing mixture of Riverdance and "Save All Your Kisses For Me", this is just nasty. Someone, get the Square Jaw Kid and his stick-on eyebrows out of there. Bring the gimp and the mimes back on, why not. Apparently this one's the bookies' favourite (and, as with last year's contest, they were proved right - there's no justice).
Ukraine. Sung in English. You know you're watching Eurovision when you've just seen three semi-naked Roman centurions pelvic-thrusting their way across the stage. Eye bleach, please. The singing's very bad, but she gets points for playing her own drums and for sticking to the original key.
Romania. Sung in English. Apart from the women morris dancing, utterly unremarkable. Doomed to sink without trace.
United Kingdom. Nng, R&B singing. I hate R&B singing. Ooh, an interesting time signature. Damn, dramatic key change. And the violinists were doing such a good job of holding it together. Well, we've put 'em on the line with this one - a reality TV show, a Continent-wide promotional campaign, and the gnome-like one himself playing the piano on stage. But let's be honest - we don't really want to win the contest. We don't really want that cost in the present economic climate, not when we've already foolishly taken on the 2012 Olympics. We just want to do moderately well. I'm confident that we can manage that - this is clearly better than a lot of recent UK Eurovision entries, and it's not up against an awful lot of competition tonight.
Finland. Sung in English. Whatever happened to Vanilla Ice? Well, I think if we just look down this alleyway... Seriously, whose idea was it to dress the set with oil drum braziers? Pyros to the max! As if the fire jugglers and the oil drums weren't enough.
Spain. Sung half in English. Send in the Barry Manilow Tumblers! Ooh, a little stage magic as well. This act's got it all. Sadly including gratuitous pyros and a very shrill final note.
So, here's my personal top five this year. Let's see if I can get any of them right: Estonia, Israel, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Portugal, and why not, the UK. Actual top five: Norway (bah!), Iceland (bah!), Azerbaijan (fair enough), Turkey (bah!), and... the UK! Good news for the UK there. Still, the best act of the evening may well have been the crew of the International Space Station declaring the voting lines open.