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Memories Of The Last Time: Israel And The 1999 Eurovision Song Contest Written by on April 25, 2019 | 4 Comments

After successfully convincing the Eurovision world he was a journalist for Birmingham 1998, Roy Delaney decided to try again as Israel hosted the 1999 Eurovision Song Contest. As the 2019 contest draws near, he reflects on the controversies and triumphs of 20 years ago and asks how the changing times and changing contest might make things different this time around.

The whole Eurovision charabanc is poised to head off down to Israel in early May amidst talk of boycotts, ticketing issues, a venue that was too small, budget worries and the aftermath of an election that could very well change everything at the last minute. But what was it like the last time that they held it in this small-yet-history filled nation? Pretty much exactly the same, to be be perfectly frank!

Friend of the Parish Roy ‘Hacksaw’ Delaney was there, and he brings us tales of a remarkably similar run in to a very distinct pair of Eurovision Song Contests.

Roy D Hacksaw in his happy place

Roy D Hacksaw in his happy place

Accreditation Number Two

After unexpectedly blagging accreditation to my first Eurovision in Birmingham as student press way back in the distant mists of 1998, as many of us do I’d got the bug, and the moment that Dana International was announced as winner in that thrilling finish I began plotting my journey to Jerusalem – never expecting that I’d even come close to being so lucky a second time round. But these was the early days of the internet, before the endless swathes of fansites has burst into fruition, when the bulk of the contest’s web presence was on email message groups like ESC_Gen. So much to my surprise the Eurovision press people were happy to snap up an application from an international journalist – no matter how minor – and when May came around I was on my way.

I’d also learned over the year that elapsed that our favourite contest wasn’t just the dress rehearsals and the live shows, but a full week (yes, week) of rehearsals, press events and parties. It seems strange to say it in these days of instant live broadcasts the moment an artist so much as sniffs, but back in those old dark days, information about Eurovision was a premium guarded closely by only a handful of insiders, and I had to learn quickly.

The run in to the 1999 Song Contest had been fraught with issues – both political and structural. People across the continent had called for boycotts because of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, ultra orthodox clerics called for the Contest to be sent elsewhere because it had been brought to them by a transexual performer – and they didn’t want to be represented to the rest of the world in that light. Various rent-a-gob politicians were claiming that the whole thing was too expensive for a such a tiny country, that nobody wanted it here anyway, and that they couldn’t afford to keep it fully secure even if it did go there.

There were also issues with the venue. The ICC, previously home to the Contest back in 1979, was a small venue even by the standards of the day, and more akin to a reasonably sized concert hall than the enormodomes that we have today. The official capacity for the whole venue was little over 3000, but it is estimated that there was space for considerably fewer on the big night – and nobody was entirely sure how to get their hands on tickets for the big show.

International Convention Center, Jerusalem (Creative Commons)

The International Convention Center, Jerusalem (Creative Commons)

On top of all that, the run-up to the show saw the country bang slap in the middle of a bitterly fought election campaign that saw the contest used as a political football. With the ballot being held only mere days before the artists were due to arrive in Jerusalem, nobody was entirely sure how things were going to turn out – not least the locals themselves.

In the end the comparatively left-leaning outsider Ehud Barak beat the incumbent Benjamin Netanyahu, and by the time we all arrived in town there was an almost tangible atmosphere of positivity in town, which allayed many people’s fears. Although sadly, that didn’t last long and Barak was out of office inside two years.

Hold The Front Page

The press facilities were a little less regimented back in those days. You had to wait your turn to use one of a small bank of computers that were connected on dial up to the internet – although to be fair there were only a fraction of the people that you’d get nowadays there to use them. People were openly smoking at their desks, and you could walk right up to pigeonholes and pick out your own stuff – a concept unthinkable these days (especially as they’ve finally done away with them for the press – Ed).

However, access to the artists was much easier, as they weren’t getting swamped with endless requests for interviews and selfies, and you could spend some quality time with the singers rather than the snatched moments on the clock in a sweaty interview room like you get today.

The trips were also something of a revelation. I spent a smashing day out at the Dead Sea with the Estonian delegation, who fried in the harsh desert sun before my very eyes, and had a lovely boat trip on the Sea of Galilee with the charmingly smashing German commentator Peter Urban and a lady who hosted the German version of Songs of Praise. There were plenty more opportunities like this, including walking trips around Jerusalem and all sorts of other delights, but with there only being a week to watch all the artists perform, time was tight. But it was clear that despite the mutterings of there being no money to pay for the thing, somebody somewhere was splashing the cash to ensure that we got as positive a view of Israel as possible.

The Israel Museum (Creative Commons)

The Israel Museum (Creative Commons)

This was evidenced at the opening party – a glorious bacchanal that led us through the grounds of the Israel Museum, serenaded by local folk musicians as we went, then being given a tour through all the historic delights within, before being spewed out into the spectacular gardens behind, being wined and dined all night, and never being allowed to have an empty plate or glass. Precious, the UK’s entry for 1999, were runnings around like girls who’d peeled off from a school trip, hoovering up any tasty delight that fell before them, and I’d strangely begun to be followed around by a photographer who seemed to be obsessed with taking my picture with all of the artists…

Precious, UK 1999 (Creative Common)

Precious, UK 1999 (Creative Common)

The delegation parties were also something of a treat. There was a delightful Slovenian outdoor soiree close to the old city, where Darja Švajger serenaded us while we were encouraged to nibble on slices of cured horse meat, and lovely little Stig Van Eijk rented a much cooler bar type venue nearer the main shopping drag – but there were little shindigs popping up all over the place, rather than all being crammed into a central Euroclub venue like they often are today.

Another great difference to the contest was the late disqualification of a couple of the songs. Whereas these days a call of plagiat is swiftly dealt with in mere days, both Germany and Bosnia & Herzegovina had to swap their songs at the very last minute – and for many of us in the building, their first run throughs were the first time that we’d heard the songs – a situation that would be scarcely believable today.

Security was, as you would expect, tight – but nothing like as tight as you would expect today, and it got considerably more relaxed as the week went on, and at times it seemed like anyone who was a cousin of anyone important could ship up at the gate and get a day pass with a nod and a handshake.

Of course, with it being Israel, the rather complicated issue of shabbat loomed heavy in the Song Contest schedule.

On the Friday night, just before the light was about to dim, we were all issued packed lunches as we were told that there would be nowhere left to buy dinner – which was a nice touch I thought – and the evening dress rehearsal that night was something of a race through manned by a skeleton staff of gentile crew. At one point on my way out of the show I’d happened down the corridor behind the editing desk, where a small team of clearly non-local editors were clipping together the recaps at a pace – quite literally fast forwarding to somewhere in the middle, playing a few seconds and saying “Yeah, that’ll do!” – if you watch the ’99 contest back today this is pretty apparent

The production also scrimped on a few bits and pieces along the way. The hastily knocked up commentary booths were impossibly hot, so the usual walls of clear material at the front of them weren’t put in place, leading to a horrible echoey effect from the commentators on the big night. It’s amazing how simple little considerations like that can have such a big effect on the night. It’s fortunate that we have such a professional dedicated international crew to look after all that these days.

Show Time

And so it was that we came to the big night. After having full and free access to the hall for the whole week, suddenly we were required to come in the back door, as a constant crowd of dignitaries and great and good were ushered into the venue. The entire place seemed to be full of people who’d been given their tickets or been invited to attend rather than fans of the contest itself, and when you watch it back the atmosphere is pretty muted because of it.

With all the issues with ticketing this year, as well as having a considerably smaller venue than we’re used to, there must be concerns that the crowd won’t be anywhere near as vibrant as we’ve cone to expect – although back in the old days folks still used to turn up wearing their best ball gowns and tuxes, so hopefully things have changed just enough for it to be a lively show despite all the potential issues.

So we were resigned to watching the show on a flickering projected screen in the bowels of the press centre with about 50 or 60 other folks. But just as everyone was lumbering onto the stage for that endless version of Hallelujah at the end, a woman from the press centre burst into the viewing area, barking; “One from each country, now! Follow me!” As I was the nearest Brit to the door I dashed after her, and along with a dozen or so others scuttled into a service lift. From here we were whisked into the green room to collectively interview Charlotte Nilsson. As you can imagine, this was something of an ESC nerd’s wet dream, and while we waited for the victorious Swedish party to arrive, I milled about looking at all the discarded flags, stubbed out fag ends and lippy encrusted glasses that littered the sofas and tables around us.

After a quick chat and some gloating from the songwriters (plus a quick gander at that fateful trophy close up – it was flipping massive, so no wonder La International went for a pearler!), we were all whisked off to the after party – another great big hootenanny, where there was singing, drinking, dancing, more drinking, and one of the biggest spreads of free food I’ve ever seen – including what was advertised as the biggest plate of hummus in history, and a pile of Ferrero Rocher that nearly reached the ceiling.

It was then that I discovered why that photographer had been following me about all week. He grabbed me together with even more of the artists than usual for another seemingly inexplicable snap, when the Portuguese singer Rui Bandeira sidled over to join us. He took one look at Rui with his long hair, then a glance at me, Roy, with my long hair, and gave off a visible sigh. Every picture he’d taken of me with some singing star had erroneously been of me and not the Portuguese lad – and he must have had dozens. And of course, this being the days before digital photography that was a whole lot of wasted film. I like to think that he keeps an album of pics of me somewhere in his arsenal, just to remind him of his foolishness.

After this I strode off into the night as the Romanian cameramen were stuffing their pockets with Rochers, and Israel’s Eden were collectively trying to get off with Malta’s Times Three, and thought that I really would have to do this again sometime – little imagining that I’d still be at it some decades later.

Doing This Again

So what have we learned in our look at these two Song Contests, some twenty years apart?

Well there are many parallels. In both years, local politicians have been quick to state that it was too expensive or culturally wrong for Israel, but at the end of it it seemed as though this was never actually an issue. Likewise, the call for boycotts fell across many deaf ears, and people (albeit considerably fewer of them) decided to go out and see things for themselves and make their own minds up. The ticketing concerns do seem very real, however, and there are fears that they’ll once again fall into the hands of the back scratchers and favour makers. It only remains to be seen whether the resetting of sales will have any structural effect on this.

But we also learned that despite all of the issues, Israel have been able to put on a pretty decent Eurovision despite all of the wrangling and hoo-haa around them, and these days the support and sponsorship from the EBU is immeasurably more significant.

There will be bumps and glitches between now and the Grand Final, it’s almost guaranteed. But having seen with my own eyes how they managed it in a much less sophisticated era, I am mainly full of hope that they will manage it very ably again. And after a brief co-incidental visit to the city back in December I can tell you that the citizens of Tel Aviv are very much up for it, and excited for our arrival. So fingers crossed, I think this is going to be a good one!

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4 responses to “Memories Of The Last Time: Israel And The 1999 Eurovision Song Contest”

  1. ThumpCrumpet says:

    Fascinating reading!
    Quick question for the time being, how did Precious and the Cypriot lady feel out their result? Did you see them about at the after-party?

  2. Roy D Hacksaw says:

    Good question! It was always telling who was and wasn’t there. Precious never showed, but you always got the feeling that their visit was more of a PR jolly to showcase their burgeoning career at EMI more than an active attempt to win the thing. I really can’t remember if the Cypriots were there, though – which means they possibly weren’t. Selma was, though, and she got beautifully sloshed.

    That’s another thing that’s changed over the years – the afterparties were, more often that not, in the same complex as the hall, so the acts just had to shuffle from their dressing rooms to drown their sorrows rather than being ferried across town to some swanky dance palace, so you used to get more of them, and they were generally more accessible.

    I still think the contest is better in nearly every way these days, but as a journalist I miss the kind of access you used to get to the acts when there were only a few of us.

  3. Shai says:

    Roy, your anecdote about the Portuguese singer is priceless. Won’t happen these days, of course, but does underline how the contest has changed.

    If there is a difference between the 2 events, it lies in the interference, or lack of it, from Israeli politicians.
    In 1999 the person in charge of everything was a politician from an ultra orthodox politician party.
    If you ever wondered about the postcards of the 1999 contest, just look who was in charge.
    The lack of political involvement has everything to do with the fact that the contest is held in Tel Aviv and not in Jerusalem. There is no political coupon to gain from Tel Aviv.
    On the other hand the politicians took revenge by not helping finance the whole thing.

  4. Dermot Manning says:

    Same thing happened to me in 2008. I tried for a week to get a picture with Boaz, the Israeli singer that year. I finally managed to get it at one of the parties in Belgrade, and was happily showing the prized snap to my friends, when someone pointed out that the guy in the picture was actually one of Andy Abraham’s backing singers!

    As for access to the singers these days, the arrival of the so-called “Delegation Bubble” has changed everything. Before we traveled, mingled and ate together at the venue. Now the only place to really meet the singers is if you happen to be staying in the same hotel as them, especially also as delegation parties are essentially a thing of the past too! I miss those halcyon days of old!

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