This month marks the 60th time that Europeans will gather around their electronic hearths to participate in the annual festival of song, performance, and national aspiration that is the Eurovision Song Contest.
This anniversary is marked by the publication of two books about the competition by men who, between them, piloted RTÉ's participation in Eurovision for a significant part of the last 25 years. Ireland and the Eurovision, by David Blake Knox, and Inside the Eurovision Song Contest, by Julian Vignoles, offer fascinating accounts of Ireland's relationship with the event.
Knox was head of entertainment and drama – and head of the Eurovision delegation – at RTÉ from 1990 to 1994, during which time Ireland won the contest for a record-breaking three consecutive years.
His book charts the contest’s history, from its origins, in 1956, as a means to showcase the then new capacity of public-service broadcasters to share signals across borders, to Conchita Wurst’s spectacular victory for Austria last year in Copenhagen.
Ireland and the Eurovision is at its most engaging when it charts the early 1990s, when Ireland seemingly could not set a Eurovisual foot wrong. As Knox underlines to The Irish Times, this streak of success didn't happen by accident. "While up until then there had been a desire to do as well as possible, certain key people moved into key positions," he says. "There was a determination to advance the contest, to make it work and change it and move it forward."
Among these innovations were changes to the National Song Contest to allow artists to submit only one song a year (submissions had previously been unlimited) and to require a relationship with an established Irish music publisher. “There was an initial reaction that we were excluding amateurs, but we were trying to focus,” Knox says. He also oversaw increased attention not just to songs but also to staging.
Knox provides entertaining accounts of internal debates about the now famous one-armed dress in which Linda Martin won the 1992 contest, in Malmö, and recalls Niamh Kavanagh's performance of "understated elegance" at Millstreet in 1993.
He counters the frequent argument that RTÉ chose the low-key ballad Rock 'n' Roll Kids in 1994 in an attempt not to win for a third consecutive time. "It would be grossly unfair and dishonest to select performers in such bad faith." He does allow that "there was undoubtedly some sense of fatigue inside the station" by 1997, when Ireland was hosting its fourth contest in five years.
In the next two decades the contest nearly doubled in size – from 25 competing countries in 1997 to 43 in 2008 – and came to be dominated by new-entrant and first-time winners from eastern and southern Europe.
Julian Vignoles, who was RTÉ’s head of delegation for seven contests, between 2005 and 2012, describes his book as “part memoir, part analysis, part history” of this turbulent period in Ireland’s engagement with Eurovision.
Vignoles argues that external factors have contributed to Ireland’s relative lack of success in Eurovision since the late 1990s, including the increased number of competitors and a change in language rules that means all participants now may sing in English. He also points to a change of perspective within our own national broadcaster. “I don’t think RTÉ takes it seriously enough. I’ve said this to controllers of programmes: you have to treat it like the IRFU treats the Six Nations. You have to send your best.”
The financial downturn has played a key role, in Vignoles’s view. “It was a time of financial stringency. I don’t think RTÉ wanted to win when I was head of delegation – but at the same time nobody actively tried not to win. There is a subtle difference.”
This might sound like after-the-fact shifting of responsibility by the person in charge of contest decision-making, but Vignoles insists to The Irish Times that he was focused on success, while being realistic about Ireland's chances. "Of course if you go into anything you want to win it, but it did not take a genius to look around and say it was not going to happen, looking at the talent and the other songs."
His book and conversation gravitate towards Ireland’s most successful recent entries: Brian Kennedy’s 10th-place finish, in 2006, and Jedward’s headline-grabbing 2011 act, which finished eighth.
He acknowledges Dustin the Turkey’s 2008 participation as a low point. “That was not a good idea, in the end. I was an advocate – I thought the joke would carry – but it failed spectacularly.”
Knox is critical of RTÉ's frequently changing selection processes, which have not been "fully thought through". The introduction of the talent-show format You're a Star in 2003, while successful in terms of ratings, was an inappropriate Eurovision selection mechanism, in his view, in that the artists who won were amateurs unprepared for the scale and pressure of the contest.
This was part of a “divestment” of RTÉ’s “professional input” in the selection of entries, which was extended in the mentor system used from 2011 to 2014, in which “production decisions were devolved to people who, in some cases, had no experience of television production”.
This year, acknowledging that the mentor system was providing what the current head of delegation, Michael Kealy, calls diminishing returns, RTÉ reverted to an open competition. It was won by Molly Sterling, who is 17, and cowrote her entry, Playing With Numbers, with Greg French.
Beyond this year what does Ireland need to do to excel at Eurovision again? Both authors have strong – and parallel – views. “I don’t think there is a quick-fix solution,” says Knox. “There needs to be a structure put in place, and people put in place whose judgment you trust, and then you’ll begin to attract the performers and writers.”
Vignoles believes RTÉ should “invest in a series of TV programmes that culminate in a final, like the Swedish and Norwegian contests, and build the status so that this becomes a national event, records sell and it becomes prestigious. This has always been mooted, and it’s a way to go.”
Ireland and the Eurovision, by David Blake Knox, is published by New Island Books; his documentary of the same name will be broadcast on RTÉ One on May 18th. Inside the Eurovision Song Contest, by Julian Vignoles, is published by the Liffey Press
The Eurovision Song Contest takes place in Vienna on May 19th, 21st and 23rd