The one with tea-cups and polar bears Written By Andrew Brook
The 23rd Eurovision Song Contest took place 40 years ago, on 22nd April, 1978. Following the surprise win by Marie Myriam it was hosted by France, for the first (and so far, only) time, in Paris. Other notable firsts for Eurovision were the two presenters, the use of a split screen during the voting, and a laser beam. Oh, and the word for word enunciation of the entire rules, in English as well as French, during the interval, whilst the laser did its best to entertain the audience.
In 1978 the thing that really caught people’s attention was the orchestra. Gone were the days when they were seated in the pit. In 1977 they had been centre stage, with the stage moving around them, and for the 1978 edition the French went one better, and seated the orchestra in a massive rotating tea-cup. It must have been a strange experience for the musicians to be moving whilst playing.
The competition should have belonged to Baccara. They were riding on the success of their pan-European smash-hit single ‘Yes Sir, I can Boogie’. But instead of representing Sweden, they went for Luxembourg, singing in French, with a song that was just that bit too close to their big hit. As so often happens in Eurovision, the big stars were overlooked. Parlez Vous Francais? came 7th. At least they beat their own country, with Spain finishing in 9th place.
They were not the only contestants to under-achieve. Both Italy and the UK were expected to do well, only to find that the orchestra and sound mixing fought against their songs, both of which relied upon the harmonies of the groups. The UK suffered its worst result so far, even if 11th would be seen as quite a result these days.
1978 was the first year since 1972 that all contestants had to sing in their own language, and Björn Skiffs wasn’t happy. He decided to sing his Swedish entry in English, only to change his mind at the very last moment. This caused him to forget the Swedish lyrics, and the first few lines turned out to be gibberish. He still managed to beat six other acts.
The contest will be remembered equally for the winner and the loser. 1978 saw the first nul points of the douze-points voting system. Jan Teigen needs no introduction and is arguably more famous than the winners.
Israel was never fancied to win in 1978. But on the night their disco number shone out, and they won by a big margin over second placed Belgium. Five singers joined Izhah Cohen on stage for their tightly arranged up-beat number - and, for the first time for a winning song, a woman conducted the orchestra. ‘A-Ba-Ni-Bi’ became a hit across Europe, though not of the level the contest was used to producing. It is fondly known as ‘I wanna be a polar bear’ in English-speaking countries.
So - is it worth 90 minutes of your time if you haven’t seen it before?. The contest has a completely different feel to today’s events. The concert hall atmosphere and backstage shots of the singers getting ready to perform let you get close up to the competition itself. And the songs, whilst not containing any classics, are mostly toe-tappers.
At the end of the contest the laser operator valiently tried to make the beam project the Star of David on the back of the stage. It didn’t quite work, but that didn’t matter. Israel had finally arrived on the Eurovision stage. And, of course, they would host and win again the following year, in Jerusalem. Halleluia. I wanna be a polar bear.