The first thing that strikes about the 1959 Eurovision Song Contest is that it looks and feels a lot more like a TV show than the previous years, which had an air of the filmed concert. For the first time (though this may just be the DVD I’m using) the broadcast starts with a view of the host city – Cannes, France. Nowadays celebrating the host city and nation is an integral part of the show, and while we only get a brief glimpse of it here before we enter the auditorium, it’s an intriguing little harbinger of what’s to come.
Another distinctive new element is the central role played by the host, Jacqueline Joubert. She introduces each song individually and makes full use of the larger, grander stage, including using a giant stick to interact with the scoreboard (give her a break, it was the fifties…). Most spectacularly of all, she introduces each performer who is then unveiled via one of three rotating stages. Each performer stands in front of a unique backdrop featuring landscapes from their home country. All of this is genuinely very impressive, and can’t have come cheap.
The first singer is Jean Philippe, competing on home turf for France with the song Oui, oui, oui, oui. It’s a pleasant midtempo ballad very much in the style of the time. The particularly repetitive chorus certainly sticks in the head, but beyond that there isn’t a great deal of substance to the song. Philippe performs much of the song with his eyes closed so tight that I thought for a few minutes that he was Eurovision’s very first blind performer. He isn’t. He does seem to be enjoying himself, and he gives a likeable performance. The song obviously resonated with the juries, as he finishes a respectable third.
Denmark next and a second appearance for Birthe Wilke, who we first saw in 1957 duetting with (and snogging the face off of) Gustav Winckler on the romantic ballad Skibet skal sejle i nat. Alone this time, she delivers the playful, uptempo Uh, jeg ville ønske jeg var dig (Ooh, I’d Wish I Were You) with coquettish vigour. In stark contrast to the stately ballads and light novelty numbers we’ve heard from solo women so far in the contest, this feels like a show-piece that someone like Marilyn Monroe or Jane Russell could have vamped her way through during one of the popular screen musicals of the decade. In a long-flowing sleeveless evening gown, Wilke pouts, gesticulates and fair writhes with pleasure, hitching up her voluminous train as she dances gently around the stage during the instrumental section. I suspect this must have gotten a few of the male jurors quite hot under the collar. For me, one of the most likeable and energetic performances I’ve seen so far. A total pleasure, and I’d have put it a fair bit higher than the 5th place she ends up with.
Having topped the charts all over the world – including five weeks at number one in America – with 1958’s Volare, coming back to the contest must have felt like a no-brainer for Italy’s Domenico Mudugno. Piove (Ciao, ciao bambina), is very similar to Volare, but not nearly as catchy. As a result, despite being the biggest name in the lineup by a country mile (one assumes, any experts on 1950s continental celebrity can feel free to correct me), he fails to win or even replicate his third place from last year, ending up in 6th. Nevertheless, the song was another hit for him, charting across Europe including #29 in the UK. In America it got no higher than #97.
Luxembourg withdrew from the contest this year – returning in 1960 – but numbers are kept up both by the return of the United Kingdom, and the first appearance by Monaco, who perform fourth. The singer is Jacques Pills, a Frenchman who had been married to Edith Piaf between 1952 and 1956. His song Mon ami Pierrot (My Friend Pierrot) is quite a lively chanson which Pills sings with arm-flailing enthusiasm. It comes dead last with a solitary point, but I don’t think it’s that bad really. Perhaps a little forgettable.
For the first time The Netherlands aren’t represented by Corry Brokken, who made her final bow as a performer in 1958 after three attempts including a win in 1957. This year the mantle is passed to Teddy Scholten, another comely Dutch lady – and wouldn’t you know it, she wins for them too! What sets Een beetje (A Little Bit) apart? It’s a bit different from the three songs that have won previously – being quite uptempo and playful. It’s a gentle swing number that I imagine could easily have been a hit in English for one of the popular girl singers of the time such as Connie Francis or Alma Cogan. Scholten is a very charming performer with a lightness of touch that’s perfectly suited to the song – in which the singer responds to her lover questioning whether she truly loves him with “A little bit”. A very likeable, well deserved winner.
If Denmark was inspired by the rise of the big-screen musical number, Germany’s entry reflects another popular source of entertainment – the vaudeville show. The first ever twin siblings to appear on the Eurovision stage, it’s tempting to call Alice and Ellen Kessler the Jedward of their day. They became popular throughout Europe for their identical good looks, and the song certainly plays on their obvious charms. Heute Abend wollen wir tanzen geh’n (Tonight We Want To Go Dancing) is the first Eurovision song to feature extensive choreography, as well as a slightly campy ‘Hello Boys!’ refrain. Totally featherweight, which might be why it only finishes 8th, but good, lively fun.
The second Swedish entry is performed by another popular variety show veteran, Brita Borg. There’s a lot more fun to be found among this year’s entries, and her song Augustine continues that theme with an expressive, humorous performance. The song is sung from the perspective of a young girl on the eve of her twenty-second birthday (though dear old Brita is pushing credulity a bit with that one…) pleading with her mother to be allowed to go out at night to meet her titular boyfriend, who is “Young, and a king, and as handsome as he is popular”. Despite coming joint 9th out of 11 with a mere four points, I rather like this. But then it’s Swedish, so I would.
In previous contests the dominance of the classic female chanson pushed my tolerance for the genre to a limit, but so far there haven’t really been any this year. Enter Switzerland, saying goodbye to Lys Assia and hello to Christa Williams with the first proper old-school ballad of the evening. Irgendwoher (From Somewhere) is very pretty, and prettily sung. There isn’t much to say about it, but given that it’s in a field of one for this genre this year I enjoy it more than I might have otherwise. That she has a very natural sounding, effortless vocal quality also helps. Fourth is about right for this, and as luck would have it that’s where she finishes.
Austria next, and from the song title alone you can tell we’re back abroad the novelty express. Oh Austria, how you love to live the stereotype of bizarre provincial humour. Der K und K Kalypso aus Wien (The K & K Calypso from Vienna) hi-lariously combines the popular afro-caribbean calypso musical style with more recognisably Austrian yodelling. For a horrible moment, I think performer Ferry Graf is even performing in blackface, but on closer inspection I’m fairly sure it’s just a combination of the poor picture quality and a dodgy tan. Needless to say, this is absolutely terrible and it joins the undeserving Brita Borg in joint-second-last.
The United Kingdom set the tone for sixty years of Eurovision grumbling by stropping off in 1958 after their debut entry didn’t do as well as they’d hoped. (It wasn’t actually very good). However, they’re back after a 12 month break, and from here on in a consistent feature in the show. But oh God, what fresh hell is this? Sing Little Birdie by husband and wife team Pearl Carr and Teddy Johnson may even give the K & K Calypso a run for its money for the title of most irksome performance of the year. To be fair, the song is very catchy – if puppy-kickingly twee – but the performance, oh the performance. Bear in mind this is a country that would spend the next six decades bemoaning the supposedly ludicrous tastes of their continental cousins compared to our supposedly more refined British musical palate. Maybe such condescension was already at play here. Carr and Johnson perform the song as if they’ve wandered onto the set of a children’s show, all wild-eyed mugging (particularly from Ms Carr, who looks frankly deranged from start to finish) before, with grim inevitability, actually whipping out a finger puppet of a bird and whistling to it. That’s right folks, the 1959 British Eurovision entry basically predicted Dustin The Turkey 49 years early.
Every remotely tasteful bone in my body is steeled against this, but there is another dark, undiscerning voice in the back of my mind that faintly enjoys the whole ridiculous spectacle – and it is a maddeningly catchy song, and rivalled only by Denmark for energy. The juries – who should be as deeply ashamed of themselves as I am – totally go for it, and the couple become the first of a record fifteen British runners up.
After that, we get a bit of a comedown for the closing performance from Belgium. Hou toch van mij (Do Love Me) by Bob Benny is a decent enough ballad, and he fair belts it out, but it doesn’t really distinguish itself and feels like a bit of a nothing-y closer. It finishes joint-6th.
From Bob Benny we proceed almost immediately to the voting, with Jacqueline Joubert making good use of her pointing stick while interacting with the jurors. Again, ten jurors for each country pick their favourite songs, which equate to one mark per juror. The early voting is fairly open, with France, Switzerland, United Kingdom, Denmark and The Netherlands all attracting a good spread of points. The highest single score of the night – a seven from Italy – pushes The Netherlands into the lead towards the end.
Unusually, and for the only time in the contest’s history, the entire top 3 is allowed to reprise their songs in reverse order, so we get France, then the United Kingdom and finally Teddy Scholten for The Netherlands re-doing their performances. A nice idea, but it makes the whole thing feel quite dragged out and I can see why this experiment wasn’t repeated.
After the Contest
Een Beetje was recorded in German, French, Italian and Swedish after the contest for maximum exposure. The Dutch version reached #3 in The Netherlands and #12 in Belgium. Scholten remained a popular figure in The Netherlands, and provided commentary for the Dutch broadcast of the contest in 1966.
Sing, Little Birdie was the first home entry to reach the UK charts, reaching #12 and helping to open up the commercial possibilities of the contest for British performers. Piove’s relative failure also did no harm to Domenico Mudugno’s career, and he’d be back again before long. On the whole, the contest seems to be finding its feet, with established performers entering hit records for the additional exposure promised by the show. The trend would continue into the sixties…
A highly enjoyable year with a nice variety of sounds and some memorable performances, 1959 is definitely my favourite show so far. You can feel the contest falling a little more into step with popular culture, though of course not having been around in the fifties it’s difficult for me to tell with any real authority whether the more poppy performers like Teddy Scholten and Birthe Wilke felt bang-on-trend or merely slightly less dated than everyone else. The sixties will of course see some huge changes to the contest, but I suspect it’s not going to happen overnight…
Votes from the Lucas Jury (given in the traditional 12-0)
12 Denmark – Uh, jeg ville ønske jeg var dig
10 Netherlands – Een beetje
08 Sweden – Augustine
07 United Kingdom – Sing Little Birdie
06 Switzerland – Irgendwoher
05 France – Oui, oui, oui, oui
04 Germany – Heute Abend wollen wir tanzen geh’n
03 Italy – Piove (Ciao, ciao bambina)
02 Monaco – Mon ami Pierrot
01 Belgium – Hou toch van mij