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11 May 2018

How a 17th century war, the Queen and a desperate Swiss TV executive led to Eurovision

No wonder that nothing that happens at Eurovision ever makes much sense.

By Ed Jefferson

Did you know: there’s a scene in the film The Talented Mr Ripley where, if you squint, you can see the Eurovision Song Contest being born? Admittedly you to have squint really very hard indeed, because it was made by Anthony Minghella, and not say, me. But really focus on the background during the sequence where Jude Law and Matt Damon visit an Italian jazz festival. Focus so hard that you start hallucinating things that aren’t there. And then, somewhere in the distance, imagine you can see an exasperated Swiss television executive suddenly exclaim: “J’ai compris!”. (“I’ve got it!”, at least according to Google Translate.)

One reason this isn’t actually in the film is that Mr Ripley’s creator, Patricia Highsmith, knew absolutely nothing about Eurovision at the time – her original novel was published in 1955, a year before the first song contest took place. But both the book and the film feature a cameo from San Remo’s music festival – an annual event centring around a competition to determine Italy’s best songwriter. Originally an attempt to revive the city’s tourist trade, which had been, to say the least, dented by the Second World War, the festival has continued to the present day, and now doubles as the selection process for Italy’s Eurovision entry. But more importantly for European television history, it was an inspiration for the Eurovision Song Contest as a whole.

The exasperated Swiss television executive in my imaginary “deleted scene” is Marcel Bezençon, a key figure in the early history of European Broadcasting Union, an alliance of (originally) European broadcasters, formed in 1950. Bezençon was a keen advocate of EBU members showing each other’s programmes: partly out of a sense that it would promote cultural exchange and understanding (he was a friend of Jean Monnet, now considered to be one of the EU’s founding fathers), but also because of his keen awareness that Swiss television, like many smaller broadcasters at the time, didn’t have that much money to make its own shows.

This idea picked up steam when the 1952 coronation of Queen Elizabeth II provided an opportunity for a technical demonstration: live coverage was successfully broadcast from the UK to four other EBU members. The EBU itself hadn’t been involved in that, but in order that the new organisation didn’t become a total irrelevance, everyone immediately agreed that Bezençon must have known what he was talking about all along, and that they needed to get in on the act.

Bezençon’s concept was given a snappy new name when British journalist George Campey coined the term “Eurovision” in the Evening Standard. The BBC’s director of television was appalled and demanded that the BBC would refer internally refer only to “Continental Television Exchange”. Not only did that fail to stick, but the Eurovision name was officially adopted by the EBU, who put Bezençon in charge of it.

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For 1954, a summer season of exchanges was broadcast, including everything from a tour of the Vatican to coverage of a Danish cattle show. The highlight was the first ever televised World Cup, hosted in Switzerland – Bezençon having managed to secure the rights for the bargain price of zero francs, albeit with a guarantee to provide compensation if too many people decided to watch at home instead of attending the matches. A good start: but he couldn’t televise a World Cup every year. Still, he had heard about this song contest thing Italy had been doing in San Remo…

And so on May 24, 1956 (a Thursday), the first ever Grand Prix of the Eurovision Song Competition was held. Only seven of the 23 members of the EBU sent competitors – notably the six of these that weren’t Switzerland would become the first members of the EEC a year later. The BBC didn’t enter until the following year, but were still interested enough to broadcast it – has Britain’s relationship with Europe ever not been complicated?

But how did that first contest start?

In the 17th century a French composer called Charpentier wrote a tune called Te Deum in honour of a French victory in the Nine Years War, a generally bad time to be in Europe (or any immediately associated continents) thanks to Louis XVII trying to do more or less everyone over. Forgotten for centuries, when Te Deum was rediscovered in 1953, everyone thought it sounded absolutely smashing, and it was adopted by the EBU as the jingle played before all their continent-wide broadcasts – which is how it came to be the first piece of music heard at the first Eurovision Song Contest, and indeed every contest since.

A song, written to celebrate a battle, used to herald a music competition, which was created to encourage peace and harmony between nations. No wonder that nothing that happens at Eurovision ever makes much sense.

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