Rip’d from the pages of my childhood: Moomin by Tove Jannson

From left to right, Sniff, Snufkin, Moominpappa, Moominmamma, Moomintroll (Moomin), Mymble, Groke, Snork Maiden and Hattifatteners (image via http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moomin)

The Moomin series of books and comics by Tove Jansson were major literary touchstones of my childhood and youth, and another sign that my fascination with all things Scandinavian began quite early.

Along with Agaton Sax, created by Swedish author, Nils-Olof Franzen, these books about a delightful family of well-meaning, sweet-spirited trolls in Moominvalley in Finland, transported me far away from a childhood blighted by merciless teasing at school, and a sense that I didn’t quite fit in with my peer group. (I should hasten to add that my parents were caring, supportive loving people; even so they couldn’t insulate me against children who picked I was gay way before I did, and treated me like dirt because of it.)

Retreating to Tobe Jansson’s mystical, wonderful world was a joy, a chance to be a part of a universe where everyone was valued, and lessons were learnt. Thankfully though it wasn’t syrupy or soppy; the Moomins weren’t portrayed as sappy do gooders at all or doormats to be walked over. Rather, they were simply a loving family that accept anybody and everybody as equals and as people worthy of full and unconditional inclusion in their social group. It reflected very much the Scandinavian ideals of the time – that everyone, no matter how odd or strange was equally worthy of being treated well and loved and cared for, with no judgements made.

To a kid unconsciously struggling with his sexuality, and acceptance by his peers, and with a church environment that, though caring in parts, was also harsh, unforgiving and thoroughly judgemental too, spending time with Tove Jansson’s wonderful creations instilled in me a hope that things could and would get better. I knew, of course, they were only stories, and sometimes this cause me great sadness as I despaired that anyone anywhere could be as lovely as the Moomins, but then I would read some more of their adventures and be strangely reassured for that bubble of time at least that everything would be all right.

Moomin (image via catastrophicfindings.wordpress.com)

It was amazing to think there were just nine book in total because I felt like Tove Jansson took me on journeys uncountable. But then the books weren’t the only thing that this gifted writer came up with. She also wrote a series of amazing comic strips that further continued the story of this amazingly diverse family which by all accounts was based on Jansson’s own family.

The main members of the Moomin family were Moominpappa, Moominmamma and Moomintroll but they were joined by a whole host of other characters, including Sniff, Little My, Hemulen, Moomintroll’s best friend, Snorkmaiden, and her brother Snork. They either lived with the Moomins or in the surrounding valley, and were accepted as members of the family without question.

This sense of inclusion was based on Jansson’s own bohemian upbringing. Her parents, Vikter Jansson and Signe Hammarsten-Jansson, loved being close to nature and were extremely tolerant of diversity, a facet which was reflected in every book and comic strips about the Moomins.

Moomin celebrating (image via foodbeam.com)

The Moomins have now gone on to great success and worldwide popularity, affectionately referred to as the Moomin Boom, thanks largely to a 1990s animation series and even a Moomin theme park in Naantali, but they will always remain for me a loving family who took me away to an almost unimaginably safe place where it was totally acceptable to not be one of the crowd, and where individuality was valued and cherished.

For a young boy afraid of a world where he didn’t really feel he belonged, this was the greatest gift of all, and it is why the Moomins have journeyed with me from childhood to the wide open frontiers of adulthood.

 

Road to Eurovision – my top 10 picks

It says a great deal about the calibre of this year’s grand final songs that three of my favourite dance songs of the moment are all from the hallowed halls of Eurovision.

Of course there are some who will counter, my boyfriend chief among them, that a whole raft of great songs doth not a stellar Eurovision Song Contest grand final make since you are missing all the quirky, off beat songs that used to define the contest, but are now usually eliminated via the two semi finals. I’m thinking of The Netherlands, and Georgia this year especially as countries that put forward entries that were quintessentially unusual but who, in this brave new age of (mostly) Eurovision professionalism stand no chance of making it to the bright LED lights of the stage for the grand final in Crystal Hall.

But that is why we watch the semi finals is it not? To get a full picture of the rare talents on show, of the daring breadth of European musical culture so that the grand final makes sense. We know what was there, and what is there now, and are fully aware that the final 26 songs in this case are the ones deemed worthy by the voters of Europe to battle it out in the musical equivalent of the gladiator pit.

So here are my top 10 picks for the songs I think will rise up to the challenge, dazzle and charm Europe in these austerity-challenged times:

Sweden (to win): “Euphoria” by Loreen

I love everything about this song. The raised hairs on the back of my neck at the intense emotion contained in this three minute pop gem. The way Loreen channels the spirit of Kate Bush but remains resolutely herself. The fact that she commands the stage all by herself (bar the hulking hot man who lifts her up near the end) and does not lose our attention for a second. She looks winsome, fey and beautiful and never less than the total pop package.

Loreen (image via esceurovision.com)

 France: “Echo (You and I)” by Anggun

Apart from the rare use of English in an official entry from France, this song is unusual for La France because it eschews the operatic style of recent years in favour of zeitgeist-hugging dance number that has charisma, power and melodic force, and a singer who knows exactly what to do with it (and by all accounts, if she matches the look of her official clip, sizzlingly hot toned men lurking handsomely in the background).

Anggun (image via francesoir.fr)

 Russia: “Party For Everybody” by Buranovskiye Babushki

Who doesn’t love grandmothers especially these gorgeous women from Russia who bake – well fake bake but who am I to quibble? – and sing and dance on stage? They are beyond adorable, but thankfully the song is catchy as hell too so they have a good chance of doing extraordinarily well.

Buranovskiye Babushki (image via okok1111111111.blogspot.com)

Ukraine: “Be My Guest” by Gaitana

Christened the “lady with the flower topped shower cap” by some unkind (but funny) souls on Twitter, this is a foot-stomping 90s gay club anthem with all the trimmings. Yes Gaitana, I will be your guest… shall I bring the wine?

Gaitana (image via mirror.co.uk)

Iceland: “Never Forget” by Greta Salome and Jonsi

A soaring song of high operatic passion, sung with the requisite intensity by two powerhouse talents who bring equal amounts of power and vulnerability to their performance. This song stirs something deep within my soul, and even though I suspect Europe is ultimately craving a happiness-inducing dance fix, this song isn’t exactly an excursion into sadness and despair and should strike a chord.

Greta Salome and Jonsi (image via escflashmalta.com)

Estonia: “Kuula” by Ott Lepland

This song is all about passion whispered softly and is all the more powerful for it. The handsome and articulate Ott Lepland brings a perfect amount of heart and soul to this achingly beautiful number that stirs up a sense of hope rather than sadness.

Ott Lepland (image via eurovision2012winner.com)

Italy: “L’amore e Femmina” by Nina Zilli

Fantastically catchy song. Channeling the spirit of Amy Winehouse in a performance that is affectionate homage rather than blatant rip off, Nina Zilli brings a swagger and bounce to Italy’s entry to Eurovision that can’t help but charm the voters of Europe.

Nina Zilli (image via schlagertunes.blogspot.com)

Serbia: “Nije Ljubav Stvar” by Željko Joksimović

This was one of those songs I have picked not because I really liked it but because I thought it was the kind of song that would appeal to the masses. Željko has form having placed highly either by singing himself or giving his songs to others to sing, so it would surprise me if this doesn’t jump well into the top 10 early on and stay there.

Željko Joksimović (image via eurovisioon.ee)

Denmark: “Should’ve Known Better” by Soluna Samay

I know it isn’t the most ground breaking of songs, and in some ways, is years behind the sort of music on the charts. But there is a gentle beauty to the way Soluna sings this that has drawn me in. The way she also invests the song with believable emotion is a big plus too. Plus I like the jaunty sailor’s cap she wears (which one belonged to a now deceased busking friend of hers so she’s wearing it add a tribute).

Soluna Samay (image via allkindsofeverything.ie)

 Norway: “Stay” by Tooji

Another song, that while catchy and a bundle of dance floor fun, is a bit been there and done that. Still while it may be recycling sounds from a few years back, it does it very well, and taps into the sense that Europe wants fun and distraction at a time of great economic stress. Of course, it remains to be seen whether they will have their fill on superior numbers like Sweden or France’s. I am confident their appetite can stretch to Norway’s tasty little sonic morsel.

Tooji

* Important to remember that Australia views this on Sunday night, many hours after the original broadcast in Europe so I am not picking my top 10 with any foreknowledge whatsoever.

Later that same day once the TV has been switched off, everyone has left my big shiny Eurovision party, and the wisdom or otherwise of the above choices has become abundantly clear…

Who is the winner? Drum roll please!

SWEDEN!

Loreen in full glorious swing during her winning performance

It’s refreshing to be back in the winner’s circle after many years of picking the winning entry, broken only by completely missing the fact that Azerbaijan would win last year. I loved Loreen’s song and she performed it on the night with every last bit of energy she had and she swept the audience up along with her. She also managed to scoop up 372 points, just 15 points behind Alexander Rybak’s record points total back in 2009.

A thoroughly deserved win!

 

 

An exultant Loreen, whose song has already gone platinum in Sweden, having made itself in the number 1 position for three weeks, told fans:

“I love you so much. Thank you for believing in me – I wouldn’t have been able to do it without you.

“This isn’t mine, it’s ours.”

Here’s the full press conference she gave after her triumphant win where she thanks her countrymen and women for allowing her to do her “weird” performance.

 

 

The darling babushki from Russia came in second, followed by Serbia and proving that Azerbaijan can continue to surprise, they came in fourth. The biggest surprise was Albania in fifth with a song that while emotionally powerful, was not considered a contender for a top 5 placing. How wrong we were!

Top 10 results for Eurovision 2012

I was left gobsmacked that France didn’t get close to the top 10 – admittedly her performance live on stage wasn’t a match for the slick studio version of her official clip – languishing all the way down in 23rd place, barely ahead of Norway which came last, to the surprise of many. I am sure Tooji must be wondering, along with the rest of Norway, what he did to merit a total lack of support from the rest of the so-called Viking Empire, who usually scrupulously vote for each other. Perhaps the song was just too generic after all?

Given the landslide nature of Sweden’s win, it’s no surprise that all the other entries were placed way down the votes ladder. For instance, the much-loved Babushki, were way behind Loreen on 259 points, while Serbia sat over 40 points further still behind.

Official Eurovision results, 11- 20
Final 6 positions for Eurovision 2012

Of course, now that all the glitter has settled, and the Crystal Hall has grown silent once more – loved the flags being displayed on the outside of the venue by the way! – the usual recriminatory start has started about the biases in the voting system, the UK has begun it’s usual talk of exiting Eurovision altogether, and Jedward, from Ireland, undeterred by their 19th placing (after 8th last year) are talking about being back in 2013… representing Russia, which holds open auditions, which theoretically are open to all comers.

Regardless of all the post contest fallout, of which there will be plenty, I will bid farewell to the glorious absurdities of the Eurovision Song Contest for another year, with “Euphoria” destined to remain etched in my aural canal for quite some time to come, and thoughts of watching the event in person in Stockholm next year well and truly ablaze in my mind…

Road to Eurovision: Review of semi final 2

Another big night in the giant light-covered dome that is the Crystal Hall in Baku.

While the spectre of each country’s flag being realised as a series of coloured stripes on the impressive shell of the stadium had worn off a little, what hadn’t dimmed for one minute was the sheer enthusiasm of the entrants themselves.

They reached for the glittering prize – and this being Eurovision, the prize does actually glitter; no metaphors here thank you! –  with desperate dentist-enhance smiles (or, of course, the face of ice-cream eating sadness if the song called for that), they pretended to fold sheets (Croatia) or wear them (Turkey – I believe it was the sheet capes that sent this very ordinary song through to the grand final), or wave them behind themselves while the wind machines did their thing (Sweden). Whatever it took to convince the good people of Europe that they could sing, dance… and wash, clean and fold their laundry at the end of the night.

Sweden does her fabulous Kate Bush-esque best, and totally wowing the crowd (image via scandipop.co.uk)

What marked tonight out was how the amusingly quirky acts stayed resolutely quirky. Joan Franka of the Netherlands, and Ari Jokhadze of Georgia didn’t bow to the chic new Eurovision professionalism and carried on with their idiosyncratic acts, in the true spirit of Eurovision. They didn’t get through, it’s true but they are why you watch the semi finals. They embody the spirit of quirky individuality, channeling the spirit of countries that are willing to put forward an act that neatly represents engaging facets of their character.

They are in a way my favourite acts. Yes the songs leave a lot to be desired – although Joan Franka’s humble 70s-inspired folk ditty was on fast repeat in my brain last night as I went to sleep so it clearly had something going for it other than the headdress – but the singers themselves are not fresh from the cookie cutter of the Europop factory and are willing to do their own thing, come what may.

Donny Montell of Lithuania believes love is blind... and perhaps a little bit deaf too (image via omg.yahoo.com)

I like that. But the voters of Europe did not, only putting two semi-offbeat acts through – Lithuania (of the blindfold) and Turkey (of the slightly loopy sea shanty) through to the bright lights, big city-vibe of the grand final.

The rest of this semi final’s qualifiers were New Eurovision for the most part – bright, engaging songs, slick on stage performances and a sense of divine Eurovision destiny about them. The glitter gods saw fit to anoint Norway, Sweden, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Malta, F. Y. R. Macedonia (I did not see that one coming even though she has a powerful set of pipes on her), Ukraine (yes I will be your guest… shall I bring the wine?), Estonia (such a pretty boy is Ott), and Serbia (Zeljko returns!).

Now it is on to the night of nights when the 20 acts lucky enough to be chosen by the voters and juries join with the big 6 already in the grand final – UK, Italy, Spain, Germany, France and of course, the host, Azerbaijan – and one winner will stand triumphant, the Crystal Microphone firmly in hand.

And then go off and do their laundry I suspect…

 

Road to Eurovision: Review of semi final 1

What a magnificent eyeball-searing night.

The stage was a brilliant mix of autumnal reds, oranges and yellows, bright enough to rip your retina to shreds if you stared at it too long, the hosts were ridiculously perky with an interactive patter written by the same person who scripts Oscars telecasts, and there was a wonderful mix of consummately talented professional pop acts, and those singers who should never be let out of their small video game strewn rooms again… in sort, it was a perfect Eurovision semi final and of course I adored it.

The stage of blinding autumnal glory (via esc2012.webs.com)

I had seen all the acts viaYouTube already, of course – far more times that is likely healthy for an adult of average size and height – but what surprised again this year, as it seems to do every year (I have a goldfish brain when it comes to Eurovision apparently) is how different acts can be between their qualifying performances, their official clips, the studio version of the song and their (hopefully) Europe-impressing performance at Eurovision itself.

Izabo in full swing at semi final 1 (image via music.matia.gr)

For instance, Israel’s entry Izabo. They weren’t selected in my semi final 1 top 10 primarily because while the song has a certain jauntiness to it, it just didn’t grab me by the lapels and beg me to love it always and forever, enough. But on the stage at the Crystal Hall, they were bright, enthusiastic and a self-propelling tsunami of joyful exuberance that swept all before it. They almost made my make a last minute change to top 10 picks – include them and boot Latvia into Eurovision oblivion.

As it turns out, that is exactly what the voters of Europe did for me. Well, sort of. In a shock decision, they didn’t let two acts I thought were shoo-ins for the grand final – Latvia and Finland – through but happily welcomed two acts that should have shown the door by a pack of baying Alsatians that wouldn’t take “no” for an answer and were off their doggie meds.

Yes, Moldova – pretty to look at but the singing? Not so much – and Albania – wearing rat tails descending from your wasp nest around your neck is apparently all the rage in Tirana this year as is overwrought caterwauling – who redefined anguish and not in a good way.

Jedward with horizontal gelled hair this year... and a water feature! (via uk.omg.yahoo.com)

But at least the eight acts I thought would romp in did so – Romania, Greece, Iceland, Cyprus, Denmark, Russia (those babushki are so cute you want to wrap them and take them home), Hungary, and the holder of what was referred to as The Golden Ticket (the final one voted into the top ten for the night; their name was in a, you guessed it, golden envelope and walked to the stage by two of the hosts) was the, in the words of SBS host, Julia Zemiro, cordial-fueled boys from Ireland, Jedward. They leaped, bounded and cartwheeled onto the main stage with the other nine successful acts. The only thing they didn’t do was romp but who could fault them? They had the lottery that is semi final 1 and have one more shining chance of glory glittering before them at the grand final.

So onward to semi final 2 my friends and more wind machines, pyrotechnics, and as much overwrought emoting as the rules will allow!

And douze-point goes to… Eurovision?

There is nothing perfect in this scratched and bruised world of ours.

No one knew that better than the founders of Eurovision who, faced with a Europe divided as never before after the horrors of World War Two, decided that what the fractured continent needed was a bright shiny singing contest that would draw all of Europe together in a spirit of peace, love, and brotherhood (and sisterhood no doubt once feminism made its presence felt).

A brief history lesson
All very noble and ideal, it did suffer in its execution from the fact that Europe remained defiantly split between two (cold) warring blocs who stared angrily across at each other across the Iron Curtain, a fearsome barrier that no matter of singing would solve.

In fact, for years the Soviet occupied parts of Europe staged their very own singing context in direct opposition to the Eurovision Song Contest – the Sopot International Song Contest which became the Intervision Song Contest in 1977 (lasting only till 1980) – further entrenching the divide.

It appeared for a good few decades after the Eurovision Song Contest started in 1956 that while it drew Western Europe as closely together as it wanted to be drawn, that it was failing to unite all of Europe in one big Brady Bunch-like happy family.

And then the Soviet Union fell apart in the early 1990s. Eastern Europe sprinted like a people possessed from the Russians once-iron clad embrace, and rushed to be a part of everything Western Europe had on offer, which included, of course the gaudy delights of Eurovision.

Finally all of Europe was singing together, with the Eastern Europeans enthusiastically embracing the ideal of Europe singing together in a way that Western Europe had long since abandoned, and it looked like the founding fathers might get their wish.

Eurovision might finally be the bridge between warring nations, competing cultures, angst political blocs and all would be well among the European family of nations.

Eurovision voting pacts (graphic via lyricstranslations.com)

Then they let just anyone vote
And then everyone started voting by telephone. In 1997, televoting made its grand entrance onto the shining stage of Eurovision, and the previous system of national juries determining which songs their country would vote for was cast aside, like a cloak no longer needed by an emotionally overwrought (and clearly over dressed) singer.

Ostensibly this was designed to democratise the voting process so the people of Europe would finally have a direct say in which song was crowned the winner. On paper it looked like the perfect way to make the contest truly representative of the people who faithfully watched it every year.

But in practice? Well, like anything devised by the fevered hand of man, this one had some flaws. One unintended consequence of all this democracy was that people suddenly began voting in blocs. Small at first, they grew in the new millennium to encompass large groups of countries which banded together and happily allotted votes to each other, keeping especially the higher end larger votes safely in-house.

Naturally this flew in the face of the ideals of the founders, and the raison d’être of the contest, and so in 2009, the system was changed so that only half of the votes flowing from a country were determined by televotes. The other half were decided by juries made up of “small demographically-balanced juries made up of ordinary people” according to Wikipedia.

Problem solved? Well, sort of according to Derek Gatherer, a lecturer in Molecular Genetics in Liverpool who released a paper in 2006 which did a great job of analysing voting in Eurovision over the years. You wouldn’t think statistics could be exciting but Derek found a way to make them come alive (and oddly enough without the aid of spandex or pyrotechnics). His take on the new voting system?

“I think the EBU are probably congratulating themselves on smoothing out some of the most obvious irregularities. This is a pity for me as I always enjoyed trying to predict the winner, but it is probably better for the contest as a whole.” (quoted on the blog Mekkas der Moderne)

The UK votes in 2011 (image via escbet.com)

Why can’t we be friends?
But were the voting blocs really as bad people alleged?

Some commentators, like the UK’s Terry Wogan who hosted Britain’s coverage of Eurovision until his retirement in 2008, are convinced there was a conspiracy to pervert the course of voting in the contest.

“You have various blocs voting. We’ve got nobody to vote for us.

“I think the British music industry and the BBC really have to look at this and see how they can avoid this yearly debacle. At the very beginning of the year I said Russia would win for political reasons and they did.”

(quoted in The Guardian, Steven Morris, 26 May 2008)

Clearly he was speaking from a British perspective, specifically the fact that the UK, along with the other members of The Big Four who pay for the event – Spain, France and Germany – repeatedly post poor scores, usually ending up at the bottom of the pack. While people alleged that this had more to do with poor song selection than dark underhand voting conspiracies, there seemed to be some truth to the fact that people were indeed voting in blocs.

But was it indeed part of some dastardly conspiracy, hatched by shady political operatives in poorly lit back street rooms in Stockholm, Istanbul and Zagreb or was it simply people of like cultural mind voting for songs that resonated with them?

Well Mr Gatherer, whose paper by the way came with the scintillating title of Comparison of Eurovision Song Contest Simulation with Actual Resulting Reveals Shifting Patterns of Collusive Voting Alliances, believes there is some kind of bloc voting at play. He argued, and I quote, that Eurovision bloc voting was a “horizontally spreading cultural behaviour that has progressively colonised the contest. In other words, it started small but now everyone is doing it.

He pointed to the fact that the original voting bloc was Greece and Cyprus, borne out of political solidarity after Turkey’s invasion of the island in 1974. Since those early days, bloc voting has grown like topsy to the point where there are now five groups of countries who essentially trade votes with each other.

Eurovision voting patterns

According to Gatherer, and neatly summarised in a Guardian article Bloc busting: a geopolitical guide to Eurovision 2009 by Stuart Jeffries (14 May 2009), these are as follows:

There is the Viking Empire (Norway, Sweden, Estonia, Denmark, Iceland, Finland, Latvia and Lithuania) and the Balkan Bloc (Croatia, Macedonia, Slovenia, Greece, Cyprus, Serbia and Montenegro, Turkey, Bosnia Herzegovina, Albania and Romania) and the Warsaw Pact (Poland Russia and the Ukraine), the Partial Benelux (Belgium and the Netherlands) and the Pyrenean Axis of Spain and Andorra.

Regardless of whether its cultural or political imperatives driving this, the fact remains that it is having an impact on voting. For instance from 1999 through 2008, members of the Viking Empire or The Balkan Bloc won all but two of the contests. The other two years’ winners? Why members of the Warsaw Pact – Russia and Ukraine.

But not everyone sees this as part of an attempt to stitch up the contest and ensure the winners only come from a select group of countries. For while it is true that the winners cited above were all from one pact or another, the fact remains, as Duncan Stephen points in his blog post, Why the Eurovision bloc voting theory is bogus, that the winners have not all come from the same country repeatedly. (This is in stark contrast to the 1990s where the UK and Ireland won the contest five times in six years.)

“Furthermore, the past fourteen Eurovision Song Contests have been won by fourteen different countries. This is completely unprecedented in the history of the ESC (the previous longest run being eight). Incidentally, only 7 of those countries can be credibly described as ‘eastern European’.”

He further believes that instead of Eurovision becoming a closed club manipulated by cloaked men in back rooms pulling levers like the Wizard of Oz, that Eurovision is fairer than it once was, not less.

“Far from becoming predictable, the Eurovision Song Contest is more open than it has ever been. You can put this almost entirely down to the introduction of televoting in 1998. As Chris Applegate says, it is far easier to rig Eurovision when it is just a few jury members rather than the entire population of the EBU countries that have to be manipulated.”

This is not today there is some form of bloc voting going on. There clearly is. For instance you only see to watch the way the Nordic countries (Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark and Iceland) happily trade votes, or the vote swapping between Baltic neighbours, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. There is also what I like to call the “please Russia don’t victimise us” votes made by former Soviet bloc countries, especially those who border the former superpower like Ukraine or Belarus.

But this likely has far more to do with cultural similarities than it does any sort of coordinated campaign and also reflects a correction of Eurovision voting to include the former eastern block countries who weren’t as prominent in the contest back in the UK/Ireland golden age of the 1990s.

Regardless those of why it is occurring, many argue it doesn’t ultimately influence who the final winner is as much as people may think. Bjorn Erichson was quoted in a post on eurovisiontv.net “arguing that Russia’s first victory in 2008 was only possible with votes from 38 of the participating countries.” (from Wikipedia – Voting at the Eurovision song contest).

Similarly while Azerbaijan won in 2012 by virtue of a sizable chunk of votes from the former Soviet Bloc, it also attracted significant numbers of votes from the rest of Europe, cutting across all the voting blocs.

While Derek Gathered argues that “on at least two occasions, the outcome of the contest has been crucially affected by voting blocks”, others like co-author of a Eurovision handbook, Ein bisschen Wahnsinn (A Little Madness), Claas Triebel think it’s all bit of a storm in a glittery teacup.

“Of course there is neighbourly help but it’s harmless fun and a nice battle of the regions, with a few cliches thrown in with a bit of politics.”

It’s unlikely that the controversy will ever die down, given the potent ability of an enduring conspiracy to explain a myriad of failings by any one country at the contest. It is far sexier, of course, to claim that you were the victim of suspect voting by a bloc (or blocs if you’re really unpopular) than admit that you chose the wrong singer or song.

While there is no doubt voting blocs exist, and have an influence of some kind on the final result, what counts in the end, as it always has, is the ability to move as many people as possible as profoundly as you can, and hope they award the douze-point to you.

Academics can argue till the singing cows come home, but in the end that is all that matters.

Book review: “The Planets” by Dava Sobel

A former New York Times science reporter, Dava Sobel has become well known for her popular expositions on a range of scientific topics. She has a rare gift for taking complex issues and making them accessible to those without a physics or astronomy-friendly bone in their body.

The Planets reflects her ability to make arcane facts come alive in a fascinating way. She takes readers on a solar system-spanning tour of the planets but far from being just a recitation of facts and figures, she also weaves in the myth, history, astrology and even science fiction associated with Earth’s celestial companions.

What emerges is as full a picture of each of these heavenly bodies as you could hope to get. You learn why Venus is swathed in acidic clouds, and why it stays brilliantly visible for anyone on Earth no matter how far away its moves from us in it orbit. Or why Jupiter is not simply a boisterous ball of liquid nitrogen but the reputed source of fecundity and generosity for anyone born under its sign.

It is that rare book of non-fiction that compels you to keep reading, as one interesting fact after another is presented to you in a thoroughly engaging way by someone obviously in love with their subject matter.

Richly detailed, accessible without being condescending, The Planets is a perfect balance between scientific fact and storytelling. Dava Sobel reminds her readers that knowledge never exists in a vacuum as isolated facts but always finds its true relevance when it is placed in the context of human experience.

 

Road to Eurovision: Semi final 2

Ah the relief of not being the ones packing your bags for the far flung climes of home!

The 18 countries picked for semi final two no doubt watched the losers of semi final one shuffling off into the cold dark night of Eurovision oblivion, where not even a candle, let a burst of fire lights the way, and glitter is unknown and unloved,  thinking to themselves – “Thank the lord, that’s not us!”

Yet. That’s yet, people. Do not get carried away for tonight European time you face your music maker and only ten of you will be able to skip backstage, thrilled that all those sleepless nights sewing sequin-covered goat costumes, and practising the bazuki have proved their worth.

For the rest of us, rejected by all of Europe (try not to take it personally), there is no choice but to go home. If you live under a repressive regime then get ready for the cold hard lights, and freezing nights of the gulag for letting down the fatherland/motherland/weird dictator-ruled feudal kingdom while those of you in democracies can look forward to menial jobs cleaning toilets or being locked in a corporate cubicle for the rest of your life, your dance moves but a distant painful memory.

Gosh doesn’t losing sound like a whole heap of fun?!  All the more reason you need to sing your hearts out, delight the good burghers of Europe and live to sing another night. This is who I predict will be doing the “I won’t be beheaded at dawn for shaming my country” dance of joy and jellybeans…the rest of you should just look away…

Norway: “Stay” by Tooji
It sounds sadly like a million other Eurovision entries past, and more pop hits than I can remember but when was originality ever a fatal curse? He will romp into the grand final still bouncing like a maniac.

Sweden: “Euphoria” by Loreen
I have picked this one to win the whole shebang from almost the word go. This is as perfect as pop gets sung by a woman who knows how to deliver it perfectly. Why even bother turning up to the semi final really? (Um, not serious there Loreen, you kind of have to… yeah I hear you, you’re ridiculously talented with an awesomely catchy song but them’s the rules I’m afraid.)

Sweden

 

Portugal: “Vida Miha” by Filipa Sousa
Highly overwrought yes but I have decided after repeated listens (think I have the Eurovision version of Stockholm Syndrome) that it conjures up romantic images of drinking port wine in an intimate cafe somewhere in the back alleys of a trendy part of Lisbon. So yes I am letting this through because it is making me having fantasies of Mediterranean nightlife. There are worse reasons to vote for a song, you know…

Bosnia & Herzegovina: “Korake Ti Znam” by Maya Sar
Another woman who needs more therapy than a legion of Sigmund Freuds can provide in several life times but the song is heart bracingly beautiful and as moving as they come.

Malta: “This is the Night” by Kurt Calleja
Once more to the recycle bins at the recording studio my friend! This has been around the musical block more times than a hooker on a bad night but it’s upbeat, insanely catchy and the singer wears suit. You wouldn’t vote against a well dressed young man would you? Of course not.

Ukraine: “Be My Guest” by Gaitana
Taylor Dayne’s clone, far from being a laboratory casualty is alive and kicking and belting out this pounding dance song like her life depends on it… I will vote for it just as soon as I take it off repeat…

Estonia: “Kuula” by Ott Lepland
A ballad yes, which shouldn’t be ragingly popular in recession-laden times since presumably everyone wants to dance and forget their troubles. But I suspect this is so moving and beautifully sung that everyone will stop zipping across the dance floor long enough to cast a sweaty vote in its favour.

Belarus: “We Are the Heroes” by Litesound
This song has all the originality of those awful jokes you find in Christmas crackers, and is yet another song channeling that particularly Eurovision blend of Oprah-like positive exhortation and giddy self-absorbed arrogance that still manages to sound cheery and boy next door lovely. It’s life span is limited but it should make it into the grand final before the charm wears off.

Belarus

Bulgaria: “Love Unlimited” by Sofi Marinova
It’s back to the 90s with this bouncy fun number but I care not. It’s catchy, it’s sung in Bulgarian which I don’t speak so it can mean whatever I want it to do – is she doing her washing? Walking the dog? Mourning her lost lover? So much imaginative fun to be had! – and sung by a woman with a great set of pipes. This must do well or my investment in retro pop stocks will all be for nothing.

Serbia: “Nije Ljubav Stvar” by Zeljko Joksimovic
This man knows Eurovision. He practically is Eurovision – he’s written two Top Ten finishing songs in 2006 and 2008, been a runner up in 2004 and yes even hosted the event in 2008. So I think he knows his way around the sort of song that will attract the punters and I think this has a good chance. Not to my personal taste but then last time I checked I don’t speak for all of Europe who I think will love it.

So let the guessing begin? Am I even close to calling it correctly? Will Europe even care? Doubtful, but it’s fun trying to second guess then anyway  and seeing how close I get to the magic ten guesses right.

Whatever my strike rate, there will 10 happy glittery shiny people and eight people dragging their props behind them, and a big bright grand final to look forward to!

Road to Eurovision: Semi final 1

 

So at last we can stand close and gaze upon the vast and glittering edifice that is Eurovision towering above us!

What was once a far off promise of possible pyrotechnics, would-be Russian grandmothers, and the possibility of pop so fantastic it would make custard congeal with joy (I have no idea how that would work but it sounds oddly evocative) is now fully realised, a behemoth of Eurpoean diversity and culture writ large across the cultural landscape.

In other words, we have reached the first semi final of Eurovision and all is good. Well it will be for the 10 countries that make it through to the grand final. The remaining eight countries though will be mourning the end of their brief moment in the Eurovision spotlight, and packing their spandex carefully away and going home, the dream put on hold for one more year.

(Of course given that the chance of their country hosting the Song Contest next year has dwindled down to less than zero, their national broadcasting companies, by contrast are dancing jigs of pure unmitigated joy at the prospect of not being bankrupted by hosting the event.)

So who are the poor souls… I mean the lucky first 18 entrants to stand on the eye-blindingly colourful stage of Baku’s Crystal Hall and show the world what they have to offer ( apart from YouTube countless pre-Eurovision events and the Opening Party; apart from all that, it’s brand new to everybody right)? Why these eager members of the European community of course…

Now as I said only 10 of these countries can head through to the promised land of the grand final on Saturday night European time, so who do I think will find favour and bolt through to join the six automatic participants on Europe’s night of nights?

Well, based on my exhaustive reviews of all 18 songs, here’s my picks of the final 10 (for anyone reading from overseas, Australia doesn’t show the concerts live; for instance this semi final won’t make it to air till Friday night, which is why I am in full internet lockdown so the surprise isn’t spoiled):

Romania: “Zaleilah” – Mandinga
Silly bright bouncy fun with a gorgeous singer and her oddly attractive band. Who won’t momentarily abandon good taste and vote for this?

Romania

Greece: “Aphrodisiac” by Eleftheria Eleftheriou
Once more to a synthesis of modern dance music and the bazooka my friends! And get a saucy young maiden to present it too! Watch the votes flow like drachmas…

Latvia: “Beautiful Song” by Anmary
She’s has so many tickets on herself, she will likely rip herself going on multiple journeys at once – there’s a memorable stage routine! – but but hey I keep singing along to the song so it has something going for it.

Iceland: “Never Forget” by Greta Salome & Jonsi
Exquisite melody, two amazing singers and Icelandic quirk. Enough said.

Iceland

Finland: “Nar Jag Blundar” by Pernilla
This is delightfully quirky but heart-stoppingly beautiful all at the same time and passionately sung. Douze points from me without even breaking a sweat. Hopefully thinks likewise.

Cyprus: “La La Love” by Ivi Adamou
Yes this is not the most lyrically challenging of songs, and frankly we’ve heard not all before but it’s still dance-y, fun and irresistible enough that I suspect enough people will vote for it in the heat of the moment.

Denmark

Denmark: “Should’ve Have Known Better” by Soluna Samay
Another sad song and from a country that is in relatively good economic shape! But that said, it’s bright, poppy and catchy enough that it will attract enough attention to make it through.

Russia:  “Party For Everybody” by Buranovskiye
C’mon people! This has Russian grandmothers in it – they bake, clean, tend the grandkids and sing. To a funky Kate Bush-esque dance song! You know you want to vote for them… and hug them.

Hungary: “Sound of Our Hearts” by Compact Disco
Yes their band name still reminds me of those teeny-tiny Polly Pocket Toys but it is a big, polished emotionally-drenched sound that will have teenage girls voting by the lip-glossed gross ton.

Ireland

Ireland: “Waterline” by Jedward
Yes I know. They’re back again, and with a song that’s not a patch in last year’s effort. Even so I can’t see these bouncy, effervescent bundles of energy with hair high enough to brush orbiting satellites from turning in a lacklustre performance. They will capture all those “what was I thinking, OMG the beats hypnotised me” votes.

So there we are! My incredibly well-informed picks for the ten countries that will be given another chance to wow, delight and impress Europe all over again on Saturday night European time.

Naturally given that Europe and I aren’t psychically linked, I will likely have failed to prophetically pick the actual countries to go through which is why you shouldn’t listen to my stock picks or predictions when the world will end.

There’s nowhere safe for “Sanctuary” anymore

Amanda Tapping stars as Dr Helen Magnus in the now cancelled "Sanctuary" (image via SciFiPulse.net)

The news I had been expecting but hoped would never be announced, has lobbed its most unwelcome way into my despairing inbox. (After the renewal of Community was almost fatally tarnished by the removal of Mark Harmon as show runner.)

Sanctuary, one of the most imaginative, clever and well-realised shows on television, which focused on a bunch of unique individuals led by the enigmatic Dr Helen Magnus (Amanda Tapping, Stargate SG1) whose mission was to protect the Abnormals who shared this planet with homo sapiens, was cancelled this week by syfy. It seems to be making a habit of axing shows with plenty of life left in them with Eureka another example of this disturbing trend.

While I understand how the mechanics of television finance works, and that shows become progressively more costly as they age till they reach a tipping point where the costs become prohibitive, nonetheless, syfy seems to be axing shows that I would have thought could have gone at least 1-2 more years at least.

The main members of the cast of Sanctuary (clockwise) - Amanda Tapping (Dr Helen Magnus), Robin Dunne (Dr Will Zimmerman), Ryan Robbins (Henry Foss) and Agam Darshi (Kate Freelander) - image via SciFiPulse.Net)

Having said, when delivering the death notice, they at least said some warm and fuzzy things about the show which while small comfort to the fans, at least acknowledged the great contribution this show made to the television industry specifically and the art of storytelling in general.

“We’re honored to have been part of this incredible series. In addition to garnering unmatched devotion by fans worldwide, Sanctuary was a bona fide trailblazer, setting new standards with its highly innovative production techniques — including pioneering green screen and RED camera technology — and Emmy-nominated visual effects. It’s been an amazing ride and we look forward to our next project with Amanda Tapping, Martin Wood and Damian Kindler.” (Mark Stern, President, Syfy Original Content and Co-Head, Universal Cable Productions)

For their part, Amanda Tapping and her fellow executive producers, Damian Kindler and Martin Wood had this to say:

“We couldn’t be prouder of the four seasons we made on Sanctuary. We are very grateful for the opportunity and must acknowledge the wonderful work from our cast and crew, the support from our studio, the Beedie Group — who have been with us right from the start, the networks who worked so hard with us each week, and most of all the fans…we owe so much to the fans.

“From Sanctuary, we also started our charitable foundation Sanctuary for Kids which has raised over $250,000 for children in crisis worldwide. We will be continuing our work with Sanctuary for Kids and are so thankful for the Sanctuary fans and their amazing support and generosity.”

The show will be greatly missed.

* I will leave you with Amanda Tapping and Robin Dunne being interviewed by tvweb at Comic Con in 2011.

 

Who ripped out the beating heart of “Community”?

Dan Harmon (image via newsinfilm.com)

Alas I celebrated a little to prematurely about Community being renewed for a 13 episode fourth season.

For while one of the most innovative and clever sitcoms on television is back for another season, it will be without it’s creative heart and soul, Dan Harmon, who created the hilarious boundary-pushing masterpiece in the first piece.

Amid reports of behind-the-scenes tensions between Harmon and one of the show’s stars, Chevy Chase, and creative differences between NBC/Sony and Dan Harmon, executive producer and show runner of Community has been shown the door in the most public of ways. According to reports, they failed to contact him directly, leaving him to learn his fate along with the rest of us.

“They literally haven’t called me since the season four pickup, so their reasons for replacing me are clearly none of my business,” Harmon wrote on his blog.

Reportedly this was due to Dan Harmon’s unwillingness to sacrifice Community‘s idiosyncratic story lines in favour of ones with more mainstream appeal, and you can only surmise that the people handpicked by Sony to helm the sitcom, Happy Ending‘s Moses Port, and David Guarascio are much more inclined to do their master’s bidding than was Harmon.

The cast of Community rendered as X-Men (image via whatanart.com)

Even if they do turn out to have minds of their own, Community can’t help but be a different sitcom entirely without Dan Harmon’s unique comic imagination. While Happy Endings is a funny show, it lacks the spirited sense of intelligent writing that marked Harmon’s now all too brief reign. Harmon was willing to centre an entire episode around mock documentaries on blanket forts, play with multiple timelines during, of all things, a Yahtzee game, and turn paintball games into homages to spaghetti westerns or sci-fi space operas.

It was not your usual sitcom fare, and that is what made it so watchable. There was the sense that you didn’t know what was coming next, that the storyline could go off in directions you couldn’t even predict which in a TV environment where surprises are few, and really innovative talents are even fewer, was a joy. In fact so talented was Dan Harmon that newsonfilm.com put him in the same league as a number of other cutting-edge TV luminaries who aren’t content to just make TV-by-numbers:

“Harmon was acclaimed by critics and fans for the series’ authorial voice, praising him among the upper echelon of current TV creators. The distinction put Harmon in a league with the much-discussed Matthew Weiner (“Mad Men”), Vince Gilligan (“Breaking Bad”), Lena Dunham (“Girls”), and Louis CK (“Louie”), among others. Writers that have been granted the creative freedom to stretch narrative boundaries and let their freak flags fly. Except, Harmon managed to create something truly great, original and unexpected in network primetime.” *

Chevy Chase and Dan Harmon - Community (image via avclub.com)

And while Chevy Chase clearly isn’t a fan:

“I want people to laugh and this isn’t funny. It ain’t funny to me because I’m 67 years old and I’ve been doing this for a long time. I’ve been making a lot of people laugh a lot better than this.”

(This is part of a cyber feud between Harmon and Chase that became public around the same time as the cancellation, though both made it clear the feud wasn’t related to it; while there has been a semi-reconciliation between the two men, it is clear Chase wasn’t happy the trajectory of his character Pierce Hawthorne who has become an angry racist ranter with few redeeming qualities.)

Many other people are, and they, like me, are devastated by the news. While I want to believe that the new team will adhere to the inspired insanity of Community up to this point, all signs point to a new more compliant regime that will turn the show into something more appealing to Joe Average, which means a lot of what it truly unique will be lost.

* Here’s an excellent rundown on the whole saga by newsinfilm.com

Here’s Community’s Gillian Jacobs, Ken Jeong & Yvette Nicole Brown, with the now departed Dam Hamon at WonderCon 2012 Panel in March.