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A diamond day for the Eurovision Song Contest


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Gordon Roxburgh
Gordon Roxburgh
Posted 19 October, 2015, 1:00

Sixty years ago today, the 19th October 1955, the annual General Assembly of the European Broadcasting Union was held in Rome, Italy. Among the items on the agenda was to give the approval for a Grand Prix Eurovision De La Chanson. The Assembly accepted an offer by Swiss Television to host the first event in Lugano in the spring of 1956, and the event we know better today as the Eurovision Song Contest was given the go ahead.  

Today we look back at the events and the people involved in the formation of the Eurovision Song Contest, and to that first contest in 1956.

EBU

The European Broadcasting Union, which runs the contest, was formed on the 12th February, 1950 when the BBC hosted a conference with broadcasters from 23 organisations in Torquay, Devon to discuss creative cooperation and exchange of television programmes.

Eurovision

The name Eurovision was coined by journalist George Campey, in an article in the London Evening Standard on the 5th November, 1951 when referring to a BBC Programme being relayed by Dutch television.  Here, in a recently discovered interview he recalls how he came up with the simple name.

Early Events

One of the first big events witnessed on television was the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II on the 2nd June 1953, which in addition to the United Kingdom was broadcast in France, Belgium, Netherlands and Germany.
One year later there was a season of international exchange programmes, relaying live events across Europe, and broadcast over the Eurovision Network, this included such events as the Narcissus Festival in Montreux, a tour of the Vatican and a Royal Navy parade passing Queen Elizabeth. However the highlight was probably the transmission of World Cup football matches from Switzerland, the first time the tournament had been televised. 

Marcel Bezençon 

Marcel Bezençon, the Director General of the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation had shrewdly paid nothing for the rights from the Swiss Football Association, to televise the World Cup matches, but had instead offered to make up any shortfall in gate receipts up to 10,000 Swiss Francs.
With the success of the football, and the season of programmes behind him, Bezençon, who was also President of the EBU's Programme Commission, along with Vice Presidents, Rene C McCall (BBC Television Deputy Director) and Jean d'Arcy (Director French Television) were keen to find new ideas to promote cross-border television cooperation each year.

January, 1955

The EBU Programme Committee meets in Monaco to study two projects, a European song competition and a Top Town contest for amateur entertainers. The latter was quickly fell by the wayside, leaving the way open for a song competition.
The aim of the contest was 'to encourage the creation of original songs and to stimulate, by means of an international competition, a spirit of friendly rivalry between writers and composers'.

Ian Jacob

Ian Jacob had been Director General of the BBC since December, 1952 and had been involved in the establishment of the EBU, and served as its first President (until 1960). It was under his Presidency that the EBU gave the approval for the Eurovision Song Contest at the General Assembly held in Rome on the 19th October 1955.
Ian Jacob
Ian Jacob
It is interesting to note that in his role as Director General of the BBC, Ian Jacob, had also given approval on the 12th October 1955, for the BBC to have a British song competition, the Festival Of British Popular Songs.

Michael Brennan

Although not directly associated with the creation of the Eurovision Song Contest, actor Michael Brennan was to have an influence on the format of the contest.
It was back in March, 1954 long before the initial ideas for a Eurovision Song Contest were discussed, that Brennan submitted a proposal to the BBC for a song contest; the aforementioned Festival of British Popular Songs, which had its origins in the San Remo Festival.
At this stage the San Remo event was still a radio contest, and Brennan came up with a format adapted for television. As in the San Remo Festival he suggested having each song in the contest performed twice, once with a full orchestra, and the second with possibly a quintet. 
Most significantly he came up with the idea of regional juries, and a scoreboard on which the viewers could follow the proceedings. 
An edition of the Festival of British Popular Songs was viewed by the EBU in the autumn of 1956, and this impressed the EBU so much, that they decided to incorporate a similar voting process and a scoreboard into future editions of the Eurovision Song Contest.
It was the Festival of British Popular Songs that would go onto be used as the platform for the the BBC to select its first entry for the Eurovision Song Contest in 1957. 

Initial ideas and rules

Having given the go ahead for a contest, a Planning Sub Group was set up to come up with a set of rules for the first competition. This was headed up by the Swiss Television Director - Eduard Haas. They also took the existing San Remo Festival as a basis for their starting point, and came up with several amendments and additions, many of which have stood the test of time.
Among the ideas that were rejected was to have prize money awarded, and for each song to be performed in a second version with only a piano accompaniment; also rejected was that each television organisation should have its own producer in charge. However, having a different music director from each country was approved, and that each song should be between three and three and a half minutes. Each country would be permitted to send a maximum of two songs, and they were encouraged to use a national contest to determine the entries (though not all broadcasters opted to do this). 
Seven countries participated in the first contest, Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg, Netherlands and Switzerland.
The closing date for entries in the first contest was the 10th May, 1956, when each broadcaster had to submit a recording and a copy of the lyrics in their original language, as well as translations in English and French, for the benefit of the jury member and commentators. 
The juries comprised two members representing each country, who would watch the proceedings on a small television screen in the venue in Lugano, in conditions as close as possible to home reception.
Rehearsals commenced on Monday the 21st May, 1956 with the 24 piece orchestra. The contest itself taking place three days later in the Teatro Kurssal in Lugano. For the first, and only time to date, the contest was hosted by a solo male presenter, Lohengrin Filipello.

Going Live

The contest was broadcast live on television at 21:00 local time, and apart from the seven competing countries taking the live transmission, it was also taken live by Austria and Denmark, whilst the United Kingdom only took the second half of the show live - it was perhaps therefore fortunate that the winning song came from the second half of the running order.   
Probably more people experienced the first contest via the radio, with seven radio networks taking it live, and a further 13 recording it for later transmission. As a contrast, for example only just over 4 million viewers watched the programme on the BBC.
You can read more details on the 1956 contest in our history section.
The winning song was Refrain sung by Lys Assia representing Switzerland. The votes of the international juries were not disclosed at the time, and no paperwork has been retained in the EBU archives  in relation to the voting. 
Unfortunately it appears that no broadcaster had retained a copy of the television broadcast in their archives. Although audio exists of most of the contest, and some newsreel footage of the winning reprise by Lys Assia also survives.
Watch our interview (recorded in 2011) with Lys Assia, as she recalls the early years of the Eurovision Song Contest.
A lot has happened in the last 60 years since that General Assembly met in Rome on 19th October, 1955. Many of the highlights over the years can be found in our special 60 years microsite
What makes the Eurovision Song Contest special to you? Let us know!
Contributors
Gordon Roxburgh
Gordon Roxburgh
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Switzerland1956ebulys assianewshistoryBBCMarcel Benzençon
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