20 years ago Dublin's Point Theatre was - yet again - the venue for the Eurovision Song Contest. To date it is the last contest that has been held in Ireland. 1997 is also the last time the United Kingdom won the competition. For the first time ever the public had a say in the outcome of the competition: Televoting was born!
Ireland won the Eurovision Song Contest four times between 1992 and 1996. Just like in 1993, 1994 and 1995, Ireland's broadcaster RTÉ hosted the Eurovision Song Contest again in 1997. Despite initial rumours that Australia had offer to host in Sydney’s Opera House and discussions that RTÉ were to team up with the BBC in Northern Ireland, they decided to go it alone.
Straight To The Point!
1997 marks the seventh, and to date, last time that the Eurovision Song Contest took place in Ireland; the sixth in Dublin, and the third at the Point Theatre. It was the fourth time in five years that the same country had hosted the event, a record that RTÉ, as mentioned during the broadcast, were extremely proud of. It is also a record that no other country has come close to beating since.
Security was tight in Dublin after a number of alerts which even saw the Point Theatre evacuated during the event week. Thankfully the contest took place without a hitch. The 1997 Eurovision Song Contest is remembered as one of the top productions of its time. As history shows, experience helped RTÉ to produce better and more spectacular shows every time. The achievement is even greater when the financial constraints facing RTÉ are taken into account given that they were hosting the Eurovision Song Contest for the fourth time in five years.
Eurovision Song Contest 2.0
Some important rules were changed from this Eurovision Song Contest onwards. Televoting was introduced for the first time in 1997 in five of the participating countries: Austria, Germany, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom. It was a successful experiment which was implemented from then on.
The orchestra had their days numbered as from 1997 full backing tracks were allowed without restriction, meaning that the songs could be accompanied by pre-recorded music instead of the orchestra. Four of the entries, including the home entry from Ireland made full use of this new rule, while the other participants still used the live musicians.
In the 1990s the number of countries that wanted to participate was higher than the available places in the Grand Final. The EBU raised the maximum number of participants to 25 and the audio pre-selection that was in place in 1996 was replaced with a new system. In 1997 the average results of all countries in the previous four contest would be calculated. The countries with the lowest averages would have to wait until the following year to participate. Israel withdrew voluntarily, and Bosnia & Herzegovina took their place. Belgium, Finland, Romania and Slovakia were all absent in Dublin that year. All, with the exception of Bosnia & Herzegovina, returned in 1998.
The opening sequence included messages from former contest stars, including Céline Dion and Morten Harket, beamed onto a massive video wall. Video clips with greetings from Eurovision legends including ᗅᗺᗷᗅ’s Benny and Björn, Johnny Logan and Julio Iglesias were also shown between the songs.
Walking on Sunshine
The UK and Ireland topped the ranking as in previous years, although swapping places this time with the hosts giving way to their neighbours for the first place. Marc Roberts was Ireland's runner-up with his strong rendition of the evocative ballad Mysterious Woman which included the cult line "Were you from as far away as the Gulf of Araby?" The Irish record was even more impressive now with four victories and a second place in just six years. In the 1990s Ireland was only out of the top ten twice.
While the presenters promised at the beginning of the show that “it’s not gonna be easy to pick a winner”, the juries and televoters had no trouble and the United Kingdom won the 1997 Eurovision Song Contest by a landslide. Katrina & The Waves scored an unprecedented 227 points with their song Love Shine A Light, a record at the time. It was also the record for most 12 points (10 times) and biggest gap between first and second place (70 points). The winning song gave Eurovision its biggest winning hit song since Hold Me Now in 1987 and it was also the band’s biggest hit since Walking on Sunshine in 1985. Despite this success, Katrina & The Waves disbanded shortly after their victory.
Boybands vs Girlbands
Presenter Carrie Crowley was one of RTÉ’s news editor at the time, and Ronan Keating was the frontman of the very popular boyband Boyzone. The group were the interval act presenting an original song called Let The Message Run Free. It was later released alongside their hit-single Picture Of You, which was a UK #2 hit.
Their appearance in the contest was an attempt to appeal to the younger generation. As host Carrie Crowley said: "Tonight, youth has its fling" which was timely given that it was time when type of boybands and girlbands were very successful. 1997 was a reflection of this trend with Sweden’s group Blond and Hungary’s VIP, representing the boybands, and Spice Girls clone group E.N.I. representing Croatia. Meanwhile The Netherlands sent a “ladies band”, Mrs. Einstein, which called themselves the Old Spice Girls in a funny reference to their age and the comparisons to the Wannabe hitmakers.
After the UK and Ireland most of the Mediterranean countries managed very good results in the 1997 final ranking.
According to the new rules of the time, Turkey had to achieve 115 points to be able to return in the following year, but they had never got more than 57, just one year before in 1996. So they sent the same singer to try to improve the numbers. Sebnem Paker amassed a wealth of 121 points with Dinle, ranking her country in the Top 3 of the competition for the first time since their 1975 debut and granting Turkey’s participation in the 1998 Eurovision Song Contest. Sebnem tried to represent Turkey again the following year with the song Çal which finished fourth in the national selection.
Italy was back for a one-off in 1997, as we mentioned in our recent story about Italy, returning for the first time since 1993. Representing the country in Dublin was the duo Jalisse, fresh from winning Sanremo with the song Fiumi Di Parole which also became their Eurovision entry. It was well favoured and placed fourth but, despite the good ranking, RAI withdrew Italy from the competition again, this time for 14 years.
Cyprus matched their best ever result, 5th, with the song that opened the show, Mana Mou in a mix of ethno and pop, which proved to be a successful formula that year. Spain offered a more traditional love ballad, Sin Rencor, written and performed by Marcos Llunas who took it to sixth place, while France’s Fanny performed a more contemporary one, Sentiments Songes, ranking one place behind, in 7th position.
Malta with Let Me Fly, a new age piece in the style of recent winners The Voice and Nocturne and Slovenia with the medieval sounding Zbudi Se closed the Top 10 ranking, at places 9 and 10 respectively. From other European territories, only Estonia managed to sneak in among the first ten, placing 8th with returning artist Maarja, and the ballad Keelatud Maa. Maarja-Liis Ilus, as she was referred to in 1996 had placed 5th in Oslo alongside Ivo Linna, Estonia's best placing at that point.
The language ban
For a number of years some countries were asking for the language rules to be relaxed. The rules in place in 1997 stated that every participating country had to perform in one of the official languages. There was a perception among many broadcasters that English language songs had an advantage, a feeling which increased after Ireland and the UK topped the rankings in almost all of the previous five years. In 1992 the top three songs were also the only three songs in English in the entire contest.
Some countries pushed the boundaries of the language rule. Norway and Austria used several words and expressions in English in their songs. It didn't appear to help with their final results though. Austria placed 21st with Bettina Soriat and her early 1990s dancefloor beats in One Step and Norway was last with 0 points with Tor Endresen’s 1960s retro rock-inspired San Francisco. It was the 8th time Norway finished at the bottom of the list, and it wouldn't be the last, although they were not alone this time.
Célia Lawson from Portugal also got no points for her ballad Antes Do Adeus, which was fully sung in Portuguese. The translates as "Before Goodbye" but, coincidentally, the entry performed before, from Bosnia & Herzegovina, was called Goodbye so, in the running order, it was actually “After Goodbye”. Seems like Bosnia & Herzegovina, which were excluded due to the new calculations, decided to give up on the possibility to return the following year by entering a farewell song. It was performed by Alma, who had already participated in 1994, and she managed to score 22 points only.
22 points was same amount of as Germany’s Bianca Shomburg, fresh from winning the most popular talent show at the time, the European Soundmix Show, in which she imitated Eurovision winner, Celine Dion. Sadly, she couldn’t imitate her success at Eurovision, and placed 18th with the Ralph Siegel ballad Zeit.
After failing to qualify in the 1996 audio pre-selection, Russia was back in the Eurovision Song Contest with one of their biggest stars, Alla Pugacheva. She was the wife of the previous Russian entrant, Philip Kirkorov, and performed her self-written song Primadonna. In the week of rehearsals she acted like a true Primadonna, arriving to the Point Theatre in a limousine, while husband Kirkorov used to get the shuttle bus with the rest of the delegation. Judging from her looks on the night of the contest, you couldn’t tell she was THE Diva, but her performance was definitely a top class one. After Alla finished in 15th place, Russia was out from the competition and came back only in 2000.
Icelandic singer Paul Oscar broke new ground with his performance on a white leather sofa, flanked by four women in leather dominatrix outfits who represented death in "My Last Dance", or as it was in Icelandic, Minn Hinsti Dans. The song scored well with televoters though; Sweden gave the song 8 points meaning that it ranked third in the national vote and the UK gave 6 points as it came fifth in the popular vote. If televoting had been used in all countries (it was only used in five as a trial) it looks likely that Iceland would have been in the top ten if these results are anything to go by.
A lasting legacy
1997 was a ground-breaking production and a triumph for RTÉ. The introduction of televoting would revolutionise the Eurovision Song Contest and it was extended to almost all participating countries in the following contest in 1998.
The Executive Producer of the 1997 Eurovision Song Contest, Noel Curran, has gone on to big things having recently taken up position as the new Director General of the EBU. In a twist of fate Noel is married to former Eurovision winner Eimear Quinn!