“Plan”. What a vile word. Sure, it may look innocuous enough on the written page, to the point of appearing exceedingly dull and unassuming, but just try saying it out loud. “Plan”. “Plan”. “Plaaaurghn”. Bleurgh. Things start off well when I try to form this word with my mouth – you know, in that way we do when we want to speak a word using our voice – but then I hit that third letter and I feel the bile rising in a way usually reserved only for particularly-Welsh town names. By the time I reach the “n”, I’m practically spitting the word out, anxious to release it into the wild and get away from it as fast as possible. It’s not a word with which I have ever been eager to associate myself.
And who can blame me? What good has ever come of a plan? Hitler had a Plan and we all know how that one panned out. Stalin had a fair few of them and look what they did for him. And the less said about the many plans hatched by the luckless Wile E Coyote, the better. However carefully-crafted the plan, there’ll always be one crucial cog that’s been left out of the mechanism, one that sends everything crashing down around the instigator in a very unsatisfactory heap, often just as Columbo turns at the doorway to ask “one final thing”. No, the road from “plan” always leads to some kind of extremely ugly pile-up.
Thus far, as long-suffering readers of this irregular series of over-written essays may have spotted, the ramshackle series of happenings that have led me from cradle to gravy aisle have been reassuringly devoid of too much by way of advance planning. Even the holiday currently being recounted on this very site, for all the talk of a “Master Plan”, very much fell into place almost by accident. From time to time, though, something will come along that will give me occasion to decide that rigorous planning will be necessary in order that things will slot together in the desired fashion. Perhaps foremost amongst the moments requiring such forward planning is Eurovision Night.
Eurovision Night has become something of a fixture in my flat since 2006, with this year’s being the seventh such annual gathering. Truth be told, perhaps owing to my being so unaccustomed to the art of planning, it’s very likely that I veer too far in the other direction when Eurovision Night wheels its way around again, insisting on a tightly-regimented programme of events in the couple of hours leading up to the contest itself.
Over the years, the nature of Eurovision Night has changed somewhat, owing to the (entirely self-inflicted) belief that each Night must surpass the last. The first couple of years were fairly simple affairs: in 2006, there was the not-inconsiderable matter of Doctor Who being on, so that took care of the time between people arriving and the contest beginning. In all honesty, the first few Eurovision Nights all rather blend into one when I try to recall them now, but it was somewhere around 2009 that things stepped up a gear.
In 2009, you see, I decided that the run-up to the contest itself needed a bit more structure in order to entertain those present. So began a search for anything with even a tenuous link to Eurovision. In that first year, the schedule consisted of an episode of Terrahawks centred around the World Song Contest and an edition of Maid Marian and Her Merry Men that saw the staging of A Song for Worksop.
Just showing these programmes, however, wouldn’t really do. These things would need to be presented correctly, in order to let the evening flow organically from the commencement of the pre-amble to the contest itself. As the latter was an immovable feast, it was important that the lead-in be timed to finish at precisely the right moment. And the easiest way to do this was to edit everything into a continuous schedule, the programmes interspersed with caption cards, idents and the like (this definition of “easiest” may not, I admit, be quite the one with which most readers will be familiar). To cap it all, most of the people attending Eurovision Night would not have tuned in to the semi-finals during the week, so a recap of the countries that didn’t make it all the way to the final would be needed, by way of a short programme compiled at great speed after the second semi-final, held two days prior to Eurovision Night.
This first enhanced Eurovision Night was a moderate success, although the large amount of last-minute work required to get it all finished had a knock-on effect in terms of the number of baked goods that could be prepared, which of course brought forth unnecessary feelings of guilt.
In 2010, the archives were raided once more to provide further Eurovision-based entertainment before the main event, this year in the form of top-flight sit-commery from The High Life and Beautiful People. 2009 had seen various songs from the previous year’s contest played out over static caption cards in between the programmes, but this year had to go one better, so whilst 2009’s contest was still represented, it came in the form of footage from the show itself. It was at this point that this particular Night came unstuck, as a technical fault with one of these videos led to two and a half minutes of embarrassing dead air (thank goodness I’d anticipated failure and created a “breakdown” slide). The final countdown to the contest was also somewhat lacking, having been cobbled together at the traditional eleventh hour. Still, all in all, things went fairly well, even if things did get a little fraught as I sat by the computer, desperately trying to sort out that technical fault.
Come 2011, I felt I’d rather got the hang of things – to the point, mayhaps, of becoming cocky. The big-hitters having been used up in previous years, programming this year included The Goodies’ trip to the Eurovision Raving Looney Contest, that episode of Father Ted that everyone’s seen seventeen thousand times but which thankfully retains its ability to amuse and an edition of Danger Mouse, in which a maniacal dog tried to rid the world of music. Following on from the previous year’s smattering of music videos, this time round I decided that, as usual, things had to go one step further and to this end I constructed a faux-edition of the much-missed Top of the Pops, featuring a chart countdown of the previous year’s entrants and half a dozen of the better or more noteworthy efforts in full. Linking these videos and providing the countdown was, perhaps a little inadvisedly, a voiceover by yours truly, giving me at last an insight into how much worse my voice sounds to everyone else than it does in my head. As a natural extension to this, linking these programmes were self-made Eurovision Night idents and caption cards, again with my dulcet tones at hand to introduce proceedings.
This year, then, for completely-understandable reasons, I’d had more than enough of my own voice and, as such, looked for ways in which the same sort of thing could be presented without any need for a voiceover. The Top of the Pops chart countdown had worked well in principle, but what was really needed was a VJ-free alternative. Fortunately, my advancing years came to my rescue and I recalled a mainstay of the time I spent growing up in the nineties: The ITV Chart Show.
The Chart Show, later The ITV Chart Show and later still The Chart Show again, was a delightfully garble-free roundup of the tunes that were topular of the populars that week, being as it was an hour-long (including adverts) presentation of various charting or up and coming music videos, complete with the obligatory titular chart. Pleasingly straight-forward and simple in is presentation, I couldn’t help thinking that it would be easy enough to recreate the look a decade or so down the line, what with the incredible advances made in home computing in that time.
And easy it was, really, in the main. Having located and reviewed a few recordings of the programme from its mid-nineties heyday, I set about mimicking the look as best I could (although I will confess that, such was my revulsion upon noting the programme’s use of the Comic Sans typeface, I decided that this was one aspect that I could ditch without feeling I had failed to recreate the overall feel of the programme). I’d recently taken delivery of a video editing package somewhat more sophisticated than the one on which I’d relied in previous years and saw this as an excellent opportunity to get to grips with it (instruction manuals have always struck me as being dull and uninspiring ways to learn how to use something; far more satisfying to press all of the buttons to see what they do). An incredibly long string of video inlays, carefully-crafted caption overlays and flying text boxes later, I had a programme with which I must confess to being rather pleased, even if the many evenings of toil were not perhaps quite proportionate to the effect of its being viewed on the night. I almost feel it would have been appropriate to insist on everyone watching a genuine edition of The Chart Show first, in order that they may fully appreciate how accurate was my version.
Having exhausted my supply of Eurovision-related programmes the previous year, 2012 posed something of a problem for me, as any amount of head-scratching or Googling did not bring forth anything with which I could fill the gap. Typically enough, though, after six months of despair, in the space of a few days I went from empty coffers to an embarrassment of riches, with a pool of three programmes from which to pick the two needed. So it was that this year, the Night started with Danny Wallace’s attempt to register his Lovely new country as a member of the UN, backing up his claim, luckily enough, with an appropriately-cheesy Eurovision song, in the final episode of How to Start Your Own Country. After this only slightly tenuous introduction came A Song for Eurotrash,. which I must confess had passed me by on the occasion of its original broadcast back in 1998, in spite of my being a regular viewer of that series. And what a find this programme was, it being rather more directly connected to the contest than most of the other items shown in previous years.
With the by-now-traditional twenty-minute run through this year’s non-qualifiers completing the line-up, that would have been very much that. Idents had been composed to link the programming together, providing a voiceover-free recap of delights yet to come between programmes. For once, with the exception of that dratted semi-final round-up, everything was in the can and ready to go several weeks in advance. My forward planning had paid off: now, I could sit back, relax and wait for Saturday. It was at this point that I spoke to Dan.
Previously regular attendees at Eurovision Night, Dan, Ruth and JTA had been absent from the festivities since 2011, having by this point decamped to Oxford. During our conversation, Dan mentioned, in passing, that he rather missed Eurovision Night – and wouldn’t it be great if there was some way of including ex-attendees across multiple locations? This was a simply splendid idea, I must say – and I’m very glad that Dan suggested it, as it’s not the sort of idea I’d have wanted to put forward for fear of foisting on someone an event from which they’d long-since escaped. Co-ordinating things across a couple of locations shouldn’t be that much hassle, all things considered. I’d need to have everything finished a little earlier than normal, but since nearly all of the Night was already in the can, that shouldn’t be a problem at all. But wait – having had one brilliant idea, Dan was clearly on a roll and there was more to come.
Songs excepted, an aspect of the Eurovision Song Contest always anticipated with fervour is the short vignettes, or “postcards”, shown in between the acts. These are the host country’s chance to showcase the delights on offer across the land, in the hope of generating a bit of tourism to offset the cost of staging the contest. And what’s good for the goose…
Dan’s idea of producing our own postcards to show between this year’s Eurovision Night programmes was truly inspired. Time constraints meant that we had to move quickly: Dan and company whisked a camera around various photogenic sites in Oxford, whilst I picked up my trusty camera phone and did likewise in sunny Aberystwyth. Work commitments meant that editing time was at a premium, so on Thursday night, the second semi-final was followed immediately by a frantic night of cobbling various disparate shots together to create a set of five vaguely-themed postcards – two showing off the delights of Oxford and the other three showcasing Aberystwyth. The results were slightly hit and miss and some of the editing was remarkably slapdash, but I think they got the point across. I’m told that the third postcard, which featured shots of the various houses occupied by former residents of Aberystwyth, elicited a couple of cheers Oxford-side, which is nice and more than makes up for the hour or so spent rushing round town, recording footage so shaky it could not fail to betray the fact that it was powered by caffeine alone.
The best way to get all of these files over to Oxford in time would of course be to upload them online, but fearful that Plans Always Go Wrong, I posted a DVD copy, by way of Special Delivery to ensure it would arrive in time, on the Friday. A day of work would mean that I would have precious little time to sort out an online version before Friday night. As it was, I found myself feeling rather unwell on the Friday, leading to my passing out on the bed within moments of arriving back from work, meaning in turn that I wouldn’t get round to uploading everything online until that traditional last moment.
Saturday arrived, I felt much better and everything looked like it might work out after all, which came as something of a relief. The file containing the Night’s programming had managed to edge approximately 90% of its self online when disaster struck.
I have, as may have been mentioned in passing, rather a large back-catalogue of archive television (and occasionally film), by way of an ever-expanding DVD (and dwindling VHS) collection. Currently numbering something in the region of a thousand or so discs, the DVD wall takes up rather a large amount of space in the living room, stretching from floor almost to ceiling and being some twelve feet or so in length. Across this flat and the last, this DVD wall has held firm for some ten years now, so I had very little reason to believe that it would fail to do so for at least as long again. How wrong I was.
At approximately 1305hrs, sat at the desk situated a couple of feet away from the wall, I suddenly became aware of movement to my right. Turning to face the DVD wall, I had mere moments to shield my face before the whole lot came tumbling down around – and on top of – me. Years of careful chronological cataloguing and arranging of DVDs, torn asunder in a matter of moments. And as the DVDs fell, all before them was swept away: various items fell from table to floor; a lampshade and a couple of mugs suffered instant death by DVD, the sheer weight of the tumbling wall smashing them to pieces; and my computer, located in what had previously been considered a safe haven to the other side of my desk, was knocked over, sending various connecting wires all over the place, jolting several inner components from their correct position and severing its power connection, thus wiping out the hours of patient uploading at which it had been working for some hours previous.
In short, with less than five hours to go, my living room had been wrecked by this DVD avalanche. Such was the chaos caused by this catastrophe, it took me fully twenty minutes just to dig my way out from my chair, in order more accurately to survey the damage and make what amends I could. It took a further three hours to have all of these wayward discs at least stacked into neat-ish piles in the living room, bedroom and kitchen, so that my visitors that evening might be able to enter the flat and find a seat.
So much for forward planning. So much for having everything sorted out in advance. And so much for having plenty of time that afternoon to do a load of baking. This episode had left me rather shaken, it must be said. It also left me, I noted some time later, with a fair few scratches on my face where some particularly vicious box sets had left their mark. Still, as they say, pick yourself up, dust yourself down and get on with it – so, that’s what I did. And then the fire started.
Saturday 26th May 2012 was rather a warm day. My flat having only limited ventilation, I was concerned that air conditions in the living room may not be at their most desirable once people started to arrive, but as luck would have it I was in possession of a working electric fan, so this was pressed into service to reduce the ambient temperature in advance of the first arrivals. Approximately twenty minutes before Eurovision Night was due to commence, I became aware of a slightly-worrying smell akin to that produced by something burning. My attempt to locate the source of this stench was soon aided by a discreet plume of smoke emanating from the fan’s motor, rapidly followed by a small flame. Switching off the device immediately, I was able to extinguish this fire with minimal effort, but it meant that Eurovision Night would be taking place in a very warm flat with no effective cooling system.
So, so much for plans. After a multiple-year learning curve, I’d finally managed to plan a Eurovision Night to the hilt with, I had thought, minimal scope for mishap. Alas, fate had other ideas and this was possibly the most fraught of the Nights I have hosted.
That said, once we reached 1757hrs and the Night proper began (the original scheduled time of commencement was 1800, but the addition of the postcards had necessitated an earlier start), things did manage to progress without too much by way of hitches. The live link-up with Oxford, Preston and West Yorkshire, by way of Google Hang-outs, went remarkably well, although certainly here in Aber the placing of the webcam was perhaps not ideal – certainly, it was great to have the old gang “together” again for the night. Of course, I was watching through the eyes of someone who could only see the bits that didn’t go quite according to plan: I’d produced two versions of the postcards, as on the first attempt I’d botched the cross-fades between various shots. The second edit had tidied these up, but irritatingly I’d then used the first edits by mistake. Bah. I’d also accidentally used the third edit of The Chart Show, missing the fact file for Moldova, instead of the fourth edit in which this was corrected. I have a feeling that the copy of The Chart Show sent to Oxford may have had a couple of sound issues, also, which had been corrected for the ultimately-abortive online upload.
Of course, nobody else was particularly concerned by any of this and if I’d taken a step back and watched through their eyes, I wouldn’t have been bothered, either, but there we go. Everyone seemed to have a good time, which is the main thing. And so did I, especially once we’d got through my two-hour introduction and on to the contest proper.
The relocation of the majority of its attendees means that this will, in all likelihood, be the last Eurovision Night that I shall host. It wasn’t without its drama, but I hope it’s at least managed to go out on a bit of a high.