Chwilio am Seren: Loving The Search For Wales’ Singing Dragon

Llandudno Station is the end of the line. Originally built with five platforms, two of them have been removed, and the three that remain are ‘bay’ platforms where the tracks run right up to the buffers. The modern four-aspect signals are nowhere to be seen, with semaphore signalling harking back to the St. George’s Harbour and Railway Company which opened the station in 1858.

But if you turn around and look towards Belarus, you see something else. You see the tracks stretch out in front of you, gently curving past Conwy Bay. You see a journey ahead of you that will take you through the United Kingdom, into the mainland of Europe, towards the capital city of Minsk, and into the Junior Eurovision Song Contest under the Welsh flag.

Llandudno Station, S4C's Junior Eurovision National Final (Image: Ewan Spence)

Llandudno Station, on the way to  S4C’s National Final (Image: Ewan Spence)

Welsh broadcaster S4C has already been on quite the journey to get to this point. A journey of determination, discovery, and joy.

The Delights Inside Chwilio am Seren

Last Thursday saw S4C head to the Venue Clwyd in Llandudno for the fourth and final broadcast to find their performer for the Welsh Junior Eurovision song. Unlike the previous episodes, this was going to be broadcast ‘as-live’ not just to Wales, but across the UK and the world through the S4C website.

This was my first National Final for the Junior Eurovision Song Contest, but it’s not my first National Final. Apart from the age of the performers, the production behind Chwilio am Seren rivals that of many selection shows across the continent for May’s Contest for the older generation. There are certain broadcasters that will be looking at S4C’s broadcast and taking some detailed notes.

S4C's Junior Eurovision National Final (Image: Ewan Spence)

Starting in five… four… three… (Image: Ewan Spence)

The goal of this Contest was to find a singer for Wales. Not someone who could dance, not the performer who had the best light show, this was just about the voice. In the first round, the six finalists would be whittled down to three by a jury vote. Along with their mentors, that round was an open book choice of any song to impress the judges (and going with a Welsh version of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’, as Ella did, was a high-risk, high-reward choice).

If you didn’t watch Chwilio am Seren, take a bit of time to watch Ella’s performance. Naturally the singing is live, but perhaps more importantly is the lack of backing singers. There’s no support on tape or in the hall, all the vocals are Ella’s. If you are entering a singing contest, you want to find a singer.

There’s also a lack of backing tape for the music. It’s not highlighted by the camera shots (because the focus is finding a singer), but stage left was S4C’s ‘House Band’ that not only provided the music for the six performances in the first round, but six different variations of ‘Hi yw y Berta’ (the chosen song for Junior Eurovision 2018). Even though only three were broadcast, all six were rehearsed and ready to go, and all six were in different styles tailored for each singer.

While it’s not an orchestra that a subset of Eurovision fans like, the idea of a house band for other National Finals, and perhaps even at the main Contest itself, should not be discounted.

S4C's Junior Eurovision National Final (Image: Ewan Spence)

Chwilio am Seren’s house band at S4C’s Junior Eurovision National Final (Image: Ewan Spence)

The Secrets Of Live-To-Tape

There are two things I want to highlight. The first is that the artists were given space to get it right. The mentor system wasn’t a token effort to have three voices pass judgement on the live show; there was a genuine bond between everyone. That came across on-screen, but in the moments between the songs it was clear for all to see that nobody was being forced, everyone was enjoying the chance to perform at the highest level, and it was a positive experience.

From a production point of view, the show actually started around thirty minutes before the broadcast slot. In essence this was ‘live to tape’ and as the night progressed, the ‘studio’ time caught up with ‘broadcast’ time so by the time the phone lines closed, everything was in sync.

S4C's Junior Eurovision National Final (Image: Ewan Spence)

S4C’s Junior Eurovision representative, Manw Lili Robin (Image: Ewan Spence)

That meant that after the big opening number the tape was paused, all six performers had a chance to rest, get changed, and be in the best possible condition to sing in the first round. It also meant that if there had been any minor technical issues in the Venue Clwyd, then it was an easy enough matter to call for a second take.

Although the performers were all told ‘you get one go’ I suspect that if there had been any major issues, with time in hand the producers would have made the smart call. In the end, no performer needed the safety net, but it was there. Did anyone else use it? I couldn’t possibly comment.

The second is that S4C is hungry for success. That may not necessarily come from the final leaderboard – Junior Eurovision is heavily biased towards eastern European entries and that means more votes are coming from audience and jurors used to an eastern pop sound – but success can be measured in many ways: the commitment to the whole process, the promotion of Wales and the Welsh language across Europe and the world, and the ongoing success of all of the performers involved in the process.

S4C have also laid down a yardstick to the BBC. Yes, Junior Eurovision in November is not the same Contest as the Song Contest in May, but Chwilio am Seren has provided a yardstick that Eurovision: You Decide can be measured against. With a live band, no backing tracks, and a focus on the singing capabilities, S4C has brought a new focus and renewed energy to the process. The contrast between the approach of the two broadcasters will be clear.

What would be interesting is if the EBU receives entries from two broadcasters looking to enter Junior Eurovision in 2019 – one from S4C and one from the BBC. Strictly speaking, the BBC is seen as the ‘national’ broadcaster and would be expected to get priority, but S4C have previously built up a reputation at Eurovision Choir of the Year and now at Junior Eurovision.

That would be a tough decision for Geneva…

Don’t Stop Believing

Which leads me back to Platform 3 at Llandudno. There are times that covering the Eurovision Song Contest is like a train service. There is a timetable to follow, everyone knows the regular stops along the route, and for the most part everything stays the same.

Llandudno Station, S4C's Junior Eurovision National Final (Image: Ewan Spence)

Leaving Llandudno, Next Stop Minsk (Image: Ewan Spence)

It’s not always about where the track goes. It’s about the people you meet along the way, it’s about making new friends and expanding horizons. It’s about showcasing the infectious joy of discovering something new, showing it to the world, being proud of your home but also the delight of sharing.

S4C, welcome aboard. You’ve earned your seat reservation, get yourself something from the trolly, and enjoy the ride. Minsk is just around the corner.

  • Chwilio am Seren: Loving The Search For Wales’ Singing Dragon

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