The Latvian Job
Thursday, May 22, 2003. Heathrow Airport, London, UK
It's all Michael Ball's fault.
Where it not for the denims-and-blazer preferring warbler forcing me to tune into a certain pan-European music festival on May 9, 1992 , convinced he would be bring the trophy back to Blighty, I probably wouldn't be, 11 years, one week and six days later, patiently flicking through a borrowed copy of Breakfast at Tiffanys in the not unpleasant surrounds of Heathrow's terminal three waiting to be called for my flight to Copenhagen.
Yes, after more than a decade of umming-and-aahing, not to mention a fortuitous New Year pay rise, I was finally indulging my huckleberry passion (and everyone should have one of those) to sit among a multi-thousand crowd of cheering fans and flag bearers in the audience of the Eurovision Song Contest in Riga, Latvia. In just over 48 hours time I would leave all of the street credibility I've never been convinced I have in the cloakroom of the Skonto Hall and wave my union flag like a card-carrying Prommer to 26 songs from Iceland to Slovenia and really not give two hoots who knew about it.
And, like most things in life, fate has stuck its nose into my first proper trip to the contest. When not half-reading novellas by Truman Capote, I'm a reporter for a weekly newspaper in Wirral, just a hop, skip and a jump (well, a river's width) from Liverpool, a city some like to call the home of popular music. The title is debatable (my money's on Memphis or Detroit), but an irrefutable truth was the UK entrant to the 2003 song contest - Jemini.
The chirpy duo of Chris Cromby and Gemma Abbey call the Mersey capital home and, inevitably, when someone at the city's Daily Post newsdesk discovered an employee from their weeklies division was off to witness all the musical shennanigans at first hand, it wasn't long before the request came in for reports to be filed from Latvia documenting the progress of the local hopefuls.
Despite work intruding on a holiday I'd been looking forward to for a long time, I agreed, because (a) it's always good to get your byline in the dailies and (b) nobody really cares about Eurovision in the UK, Jemini were expected to get a middling result on the night and disappear into obscurity so quickly the 600-word post match report required could be reeled off on Sunday morning with the obligatory ESC-trivia padding before I hit Riga for the sight-seeing.
I mean, what could Jemini possibly do in Latvia that would generate ream upon ream of column inches?
Friday, May 23, 2003. Skonto Hall, Riga, Latvia
Never, ever, buy new trainers before you go to the Eurovision Song Contest.
But if you must, make sure you break them in first.
I had arrived in the Latvian capital at 1.10am local time, having enjoyed a lovely Scandinavian Airlines meal on the first leg to Copenhagen and a ham batch from a white paper bag when Air Baltic took me from Denmark to Riga.
Due to a tussle outside a Rigan nightclub my cab driver dropped me 100 metres around the corner from my hotel and didn't seem at all perturbed I had no clue where I was going. When I finally located it, the receptionist at Hotel Forums was especially keen to ascertain if I was alone (I was) before carefully deciding to plonk me in Room 42. The significance of this never really became clear, but if it was the one they had the secret CCTV cameras in for pervy underground cable station purposes, I never got up to anything whilst in residence to send subscriptions through the roof.
Anyway, having risen and showered, it dawned on me that by 6pm UK time (8pm Latvian) I somehow had to track Jemini down and interview them on all the crazy celebrations their families were holding back in the 'Pool whilst the contest was on, as well as finding some fans from Merseyside who had made the trip to Riga especially. After the receptionist informed me the only way to the Skonto Hall - the venue for ESC 2003 - was by cab and I toddled off to find one, I realised I had become the journalist in ABBA: The Movie, but with an incredibly more generous deadline.
It was only after picking up my press accreditation and an ESC 2003 satchel chock-full of press-type things I noticed how much skin my new trainers were hacking from my heels. Determined to soldier on, I braved the stern security guards, entered the press centre like an auditionee for the Ministry of Silly Walks and found... about three people.
Fortunately, one of these three people was Richard Crane from the OGAE (it's a fan club) who told me most people involved with the contest were sleeping off their hangovers in advance of that afternoon's dress rehearsal and - shock horror - no press conferences by performers would be taking place that day. Those valuable few minutes with Jemini were surely out of my grasp now and the definite lack of buzz in what was reportedly the largest ESC press centre ever brought on an ominous sense of anti-climax, so I went to the canteen for a bowl of corn flakes.
I did have another plan up my sleeve though, and her name was Kirsty Campbell. Kirsty was a member of the BBC delegation in Riga and was also the woman I had to approach for accreditation at the event. She had given me her mobile number along with the indication she was more than happy to help with any press inquiries, so if this wasn't a press inquiry, I didn't know what was.
One problem. Since leaving Copenhagen my mobile had turned into a nicely slimline, but extremely ineffectual, lump of chrome and the press centre phones only allowed emergency outgoing calls. This led to my first exploration of Riga, finding out where to get a local phone card from, as Lattelekom aren't too chuffed at having their public telephones operable via handfuls of loose santims.
My trainers remained resolutely unbroken as I half-hopped around various shops making the universal hand-gesture for a telephone, then drawing the shape of a phonecard in the air, not unlike Uma Thurman instructing John Travolta not to be so square in Pulp Fiction, but all I got were mystified shrugs from some surprisingly frosty Latvian store assistants. After half-an-hour of searching, and flirty banter with the receptionists back at the press centre in a cunning attempt to extract the source of the bloody things, it became clear the place to get them were the white magazine kiosks dotted on street corners about the city. I wish I knew the Latvian for bingo.
By the time I dialled Kirsty's mobile number, dress rehearsals were in full throttle. I didn't really want to see any performances before the night as I was well aware how the contest is rehearsed to death, and wanted to observe everything 'fresh' when it really mattered. Not a chance, matey, as the link to the hall was projected on massive screens everywhere you looked. Trying my best not to watch an eight-foot Alf Poier, but remembering a friend of mine wanted me to get him his autograph if I could, I got through to Kirsty who was just passing the security gate and said she would meet me in there.
I allowed myself a sigh of relief. Transcripts of the various press conferences were pinned up everywhere and I had been hastily taking notes from the British ones in an effort to cobble something together for the deadline in case the interview never happened, but this was the chink of light I needed (am I making this sound more serious than it really was, heh-heh...).
Kirsty was extremely helpful, and the poor soul looked absolutely run off her feet. She later explained she had been in Tallinn in 2002, but that was three times busier and she'd been one of a team of three, but this time she was on her own. Had to feel sorry for her, the British fans are notoriously vitriolic towards the Beeb, and it's not a broadside I'd like to face on my own several hundred miles from home. Cutting a short story even shorter, it was agreed that, in order for me to get my interview and for Jemini to make it to their hotel and back for the evening rehearsal, I would have to get on the bus back with them (rock 'n' roll), get my quotes on the outward journey, jump off at the hotel, then get back to the press centre under my own steam to write the thing up. Sorted.
Not only that, in order for the 'win, lose or draw' post-match report to come to fruition with the minimum of fuss, I was offered a ticket to the after-show party, on the proviso I didn't broadcast the fact to other fans, where I'd get my precious five minute chinwag with Scouseland's finest.
I'm told you could hear the sigh of relief back in Birkenhead.
All I had to do was meet Kirsty back at the same place at about 4.30pm and the necessaries would be necessitated, which gave me my first chance to explore a boiling hot Baltic capital with a clear conscience for a few hours. That bit wasn't terribly exciting, so I'll see you at 4.30 as well.
4.30pm. I was back at the same place - more or less - and it seemed a few more people were waiting for their after-show tickets as well. One person whose name I was glad to put a face to was BNF (Big Name Fan) of the UK, Julie Wright, who had very kindly pointed me in the right direction of places to find a hotel when my first enquiries had proved fruitless, so I finally had the chance to thank her. A bit more luck plopped at my feet when Kirsty suggested I should interview Chris and Gemma in the press canteen whilst they had a quick bite to eat, instead of embarking on a magical mystery tour with the UK delegation.
In order to collar the elusive pair, we had to wait at the end of the corridor linking the press centre to the Skonto Hall, which various entrants were a-strolling having completed their rehearsal. This did mean I caught a glimpse of Portuguese singer Rita Guerra and the Irish bloke Mickey (if he's 29, he had a bloody hard paper round) as they went to meet the press/feed their faces, which felt somehow surreal after only seeing them on preview tapes in the weeks leading up to Riga.
Then, Chris and Gemma arrived in surprisingly thick parker jackets (considering the weather) but it was still good to see them. They seemed genuinely chuffed to speak to the local press, even though I blurted out the cheesy: "See, we've come all this way to check how you're getting on." (tsk, tsk, McLoughlin).
Two tables were pushed together so the five of us - their manager Mike Cockayne also joined us - could eat/interview. Basically, they were having a great time, missing their families who couldn't make it out to Latvia and parties were being held at a health club called Greens on the Dock Road in town and one of Chris's five other brothers was having a big do in a marquee. At one point, Mike told me it was vital I reminded the people of Merseyside to get their best clothes ironed for when Liverpool hosted Eurovision 2004, the irony of which is no doubt amplified ten-fold this long after the event.
That was literally all the info I needed, but yet another bizarre Eurovision moment took place when Chris asked me which part of Wirral I was from and if I knew one of his friends from Spital, quite an odd thing to talk about in the Latvian capital, but hey-ho. And I didn't know his friend either - Wirral's not that small, but my editor lives in Spital, so I threw that wee fact into the pot as compensation.
One interview down, one to go, but I had a pan-European song contest-thing to watch first.
Saturday, May 24, 2003. Latvia
Ooh s'exciting! Here it was, the day I was properly going to go to the Eurovision (tee-hee!).
Have to confess, the fact my mobile wasn't allowing me to contact any of my pals to share in the tee-heeness was proving a bit of a bummer, but, lo and behold, providence unfurled a finger and flicked me into the path of pal and OGAE member Neil Dickinson (he's a dentist, very good with nervous patients, if you require his services) outside one of Riga's finest eateries, McDonalds. I finally had someone to have a good gas with as we threw french fries to the pigeons - you get told off for doing that in London, I'm told.
This led to Neil offering me his spare ticket to the dress rehearsal - something I swore I wouldn't go to - but it was that or spend another afternoon not having anyone to talk to, so I gratefully accepted.
I then realised the hotel receptionist had told me shocking fibs as the Skonto Complex was only about 15 minutes walk from McDonalds, meaning the cab driver from yesterday must have gone via the outskirts of Estonia to justify the 5 Lat fare, but I was too excited about the whole occasion to give a stuff.
Latvian telly did do themselves proud. The hall was absolutely stunning, even if the stage owed a lot to the Beeb's Brum edifice of 1998, and the atmosphere was refreshingly warm. I sat next to three Cypriot blokes, one of which needs to be introduced to a strong brand of mouthwash, as a group of Latvian mini-popsters got the crowd going with a medley of Euro-classics, but it was reassuring to see the junior version of Ira Losco didn't go searching round her ladygarden for some glitter to blow into our faces. A group called The Hobos followed, but they were frankly shite, and I suddenly felt transported back to band night at the Hotel Victoria in New Brighton, trying to find something positive to write about a group of navel-gazing middle-class teenagers who'd asked for a journo from the local paper to come down and review what basically amounts to sub-Radiohead song-a-likes. But at least they tried.
The ladies who came on to wipe the video screen in the floor were good though - pity they never got their bits out for the Lats.
Having been told Jemini were by far the worst act there and not to expect anything from them, I was quite gladdened by their afternoon rehearsal (note, I said 'afternoon rehearsal') which went a lot better than expected. Some were even predicting a sneak into the lower echelons of the top ten. However, Turkey had more oomph than 76 sousaphones in a big parade once the main thrust of the song kicked in, and the rest of the competition, I personally thought, was knocked into a cocked hat by it. Also interesting to see only one half of cheeky fake-Sappho duo tATu perform at the Russian rehearsal, so it was only a matter of time before the rumour mill began its relentless grind.
Don't want to dwell on the rehearsal though, or this diary will become extremely repetitive.
Don't want to dwell on the rehearsal though, or this diary will become extremely repetitive.
As my first trip to the Eurovision was such a momentous one, my outfit had to reflect it. Therefore, when I should have been studying hard for the exam I had sat in Newcastle two days prior to my flight (which I passed, ay thang yoo...) I took time out from the books to iron the following words, carefully cut from white felt, onto a black T-shirt.
Geddit? (it's Royaume Uni, which is French for United Kingdom, in case you don't) and, along with the union flag tied around my waist sari-style a'la Becks, the ensemble was topped off with a bowler hat. Must have looked a right spoon, but you get more flamboyant displays of national pride at the World Cup, so I wasn't too bothered. Met up with Neil and his pal Hamish for an Italian at yet another dirt-cheap Latvian eatery before unleashing ourselves into the full-on ESCy experience. Can you feel the tension..?
And so we got to the Skonto. There was a sea of people outside and the rumour mill had been on over-grind as news filtered through one of tATu had just been released from hospital after suffering a miscarriage, which blew the cobwebs off the lesbian story - like anyone believed it. Having been assured both would be on stage that night, I still don't know how much truth there was to the rumour. Caught up with my pal Martin Faulkner outside though, which I was glad about, having not seen him since the gloriously scorching day England whooped Denmark 3-0 in the World Cup.
The OGAE tickets gave good specks. I was six rows from the front and among a crowd of British fans, most of whom I knew, with the spare seat next to me taken by a trendy-looking bloke with a Maltese flag who told me he was covering the event for some local radio station in the UK. I then told him I was doing some stuff on Jemini for the Liverpool press, but he was spectacularly and rudely unimpressed, therefore, I decided not to try and be his new best friend, and secretly boo Malta when they were on.
Unfortunately, I had to remove my bowler hat, as a very polite Irish gentleman behind me couldn't see the stage. I have since learned his name was Robin Scott and he's listed in the Whoops Fans R United database, so apologies for temporarily blocking your view, sir, if you ever get this far down the review. I imagine some have given up and gone for gas and air already.
Sitting a well-aimed spit away from the Eurovision stage and hearing the Swedish floor manager announce it was "one minute" until transmission is a moment I will never forget (sad, I know...), nor will the sheer euphoria which rushed around the 6,000 seats in that hall when Te Deum played and we duly waved our flags like the Townswomen's Guild at a Cliff concert. Reynars and Marie's jokes were not funny in rehearsal, they weren't on the night, but it was a very entertaining show.
I'd had good vibes about the Netherlands, Estonia, Turkey and Latvia before I left Blighty, and only one of those came good on the night. Iceland upped the vibe stakes the second the intro bounced off the walls of the hall - which did look suspiciously like an out-of-town cash and carry close-up - and it's a pity Birgitta never sneaked it into the Top Five.
Now, reviews of all the performances have been clogging up the Eurovision-centric webspace ever since May 24 and it would be dull to do the same here. What I will say is, what you don't see on TV, but really should, is the absolute mayhem which hits the stage in the 30 seconds between the songs when one act buzzes off and another scuttles on. The image of a Latvian stage hand spinning a piano jack so quickly his arms became a blur in order to accommodate the difference in height between Jostein Hasselgard and Louisa Baileche's backing pianist is more indelible for me than some of the actual performances, but that's all part of the Eurotastic fun. Also, if anyone knows where I can get hold of the Brainstorm single plugged in the interval, I'd be very grateful as it was rather good.
As the votes rolled in and we came to the decisive Slovenian result, I remember craning my neck to the scoreboard and, even though I really wanted Turkey to win, thinking how much easier it would be to get to Belgium in 2004 (perhaps even taking the ferry), but what had settled rather unpleasantly in the stomachs of the many Brits around was that tonight had been an historical one for the UK's Eurovision records. Blighty had absolutely nothing to show for its efforts on the Rigan stage, although we'd all realised the possibility of that after the performance, and I now had the unenviable task of tracking down the pair who'd made it happen to get their thoughts for the local press. I wasn't relishing it.
However, I'd said I'd do it, I had the ticket to the party, so off I trotted, nearly knocking over a member of Urban Trad as I left the hall (sorry, if *you* ever get this far down the review, you were the bloke at the beginning, playing the bong). On the way back to the press centre I got talking to a freelance photographer for the Irish Press with a very odd chain-mail arrangement in her hair, who showed me her fresh pics of a victorious Sertab, which was nice. What was even nicer was the chance to finally meet some other faces/names, Phil Colclough and Roy Delaney, who were right behind me in the queue to get past security. Hello lads, if you're reading this.
Having realised the press centre was not the correct route into the party, but going in completely the opposite direction was, I walked towards the venue, which looked a bit like my old school gym. Quickly realising there would be a mass throng in there to contend with, which would not exactly aid my Jemini quest, I aimed for a group of people with union flags drooping dejectedly about them. They turned out to be the family of Cry Baby composer Martin Isherwood, who hadn't made it to Latvia due to his morbid fear of flying (or so we're told). They seemed in high spirits, although one woman with a pair of British flags wedged into her top knot, which clashed beautifully with her velvet frock, was taking it upon herself to inform everyone who came near in extremely loud tones: "I'll TELL YOU what the headlines will be tomorrow: Tony Blair- Nil Points, that's what they'll be, I'm TELLING you." An Iraqi backlash sentiment I personally don't hold with. Truth be told, Jemini were atrocious on stage.
Now here's the thing. I would look frankly foolish to try and conduct a semi-serious interview whilst wearing a bowler hat on my head and a union flag round my waist, so I removed both very quickly, thus making it very difficult to have pad-and-pen poised in one hand and said bowler hat and union flag in the other. By sheer trial and error, I found someone, whom I think was in the BBC delegation, who told me Chris and Gemma were coming to the party, but they'd appreciate the press giving them a few minutes to compose themselves first, which was perfectly understandable. Although the pair were by no means winners, few things could be worse than having 150m people very publicly announce they think you're a bit poo at singing whilst you sit on a big cloud-shaped settee and keep a brave face about it all. They did arrive soon afterwards, Chris holding the UK flag aloft and declaring they were still "Proud to be British."
You have to admire his pluck, especially as it detracts from the singing.
The party was a bit too arty-smarty for my liking, all mood music, dull white lighting and waiters dressed like canaries - it conflicted with that whole Euro-ethos of daft unadulterated fun. However, this is where Jemini were swiftly whisked to be interviewed by Liquid News, so off I toddled after them; the sooner I got my three minutes, the sooner I could join my pals in the bar of the official hotel.
Hovering nervously on the outskirts of the huddle before the Liquid News cameras with my bowler, flag, notepad, slogan T-shirt and now skewiff duffle coat, it dawned on me I looked like some sort of stalker in a special Eurovision edition of Bo! Selecta. I thus made a hasty effort to avoid coming into shot, the process of which doubtlessly made me look even more dodgy.
Finally, it was my moment. Dominic of the Delegation (a bit like Roy of the Rovers) beckoned me over to the fire exit, which initially made me suspect I was being ejected from the party. My fears proved unfounded when I stepped through said exit into a cordoned-off compound - probably the smoking area - and more importantly, found Kirsty, a bloke I didn't recognise with dark hair and (fanfare please) Jemini.
They probably didn't remember me from the day before, and I never expected them to. Realising a positive spin was the best way in, I announced in my most chirpy tones and with a grin you could only describe as sh*t-eating: "You know, you play this right, and it could be the best thing that could possibly have happened to you."
Forgive me for showing a little Mersey bias here, but they really did take it well. The interview was based on the reaction from home (they'd already phoned their parents) and their determination to return to the UK with their heads held high. Interestingly, no mention of failed ear monitors, which would fuel so many of their interviews in the coming seven days, and there was a distinct feeling of 'we want to say it's because of the war but we've clearly been told we can't' but history can never change the fact I was the, err... third (I think) journo to interview the first ever UK entrant to score nowt at Eurovision. Kirsty stepped in to tell me my time was up, Chris said he'd buy me a drink later, but I politely declined as I wanted to meet my chums, and waddled off into the Rigan morning, having acheived what I'd set out to do. I even bumped into Alf from Austria as I was bodding off and managed to grab his autograph for my pal. I told him he'd done a great job but he wasn't impressed, shouting "I hate zis kontest!!" He truly is a star. I perched on the edge of a nearby flowerbed to turn my shorthand from the Jemini interview into proper words, then, it really was time to imbibe.
Oh yeah, the bloke in the compound with the dark hair I didn't recognise? Very Scouse, asked me if I came "From Birken 'edd" and was equally chuffed the local press had come out to see them? Turns out he was the one playing Spanish guitar on stage for the intrepid pair. Fancy.
When I got to the Hotel Reval, it was a hubbub of cheery Scandinavians and subdued Brits, among others. Met up with Neil and Hamish again at the bar, took half-an-hour to get served, so decided it was best to ask for two pints at the same time.
Ten years sat firmly in front of the gogglebox on Eurovision made the post-match piss-up in the official bar an exciting experience. Sertab appeared early one and she's dinky - about 2ft 6 - whilst the Spanish gang got a yowge cheer when they breezed in and went straight upstairs (probably to the Sky Bar, 26 floors higher up). At this point, a dour Belgian bloke who hadn't shaved for at least 48 hours and appeared to have been on the pop for the same amount of time, attempted to gain our sympathies for his countrymen's second placing - he clearly wanted a win - before Neil gently reminded him the last people you need to ask for an opinion on unfair second places is a crowd of Brits.
Entrant-spotting was super fun though. Karmen from Slovenia was slowly getting pissed with her mates, I think she had one pal for each of her seven points offering sympathies. Lynn of Malta wasn't too far way from me at the bar - she really does need a truckload of cakes down her throat - looking like she'd lost Claudette Pace and found Fabrizio Faniello, so sensing her pain (?), I leaned over and told her she shouldn't be too sad, at least she got more points than the UK. It was met with a watery smile and a limp shake of the hand, but one hopes one did their bit to prepare her for the crowds beying for her blood once she touched down at Valletta International.
Selma (Iceland '99) was also there - if Eurovision was a fag, would that make her its hag? - as was the Tommy Boyd half of Fame and the drinking carried on in to the wee small hours (never thought I'd have a Sinatra reference in a Eurovision review) which eventually got a lot lighter. Not feeling particularly drunk, I made the not particularly long walk back to Hotel Forums, stopping only to inform an interested local who'd won the thing - possibly the only Latvian who didn't watch the show. So that was my first proper Eurovision night, and I sincerely hope there's more to come. Good night.
Sunday, May 25, 2003. Latvia
After the excitement of the 48th Eurovision Song Contest, I won't bore you with too much more.
The story, which circled the requested 600-word mark, was rattled off in three-quarters-of-an-hour in the press centre whilst Sertab's press conference was going on (she's not going to present in Istanbul next year, she's sticking to singing - hardly an exclusive by the time this hits the web). The Latvian Job finally complete, I walked out into the Riga sunshine to enjoy a bit more of the place before my flight home at 6am Monday morning.
A small Latvian child skateboarded over to me to sell me the CD single of Let's Get Happy for 1 Lat - could hardly refuse when the average weekly wage in this part of the world wouldn't buy you a Sayers corned beef slice - and headed for the park. It was here I bumped into Marcus Keppel-Palmer and entourage who were doing the whole sight-seeing thing, so I joined them and most enjoyable it was too.
That's about it for Sunday, so I'll just zip forward a few weeks.
Mid-June, 2003. Odeon Cinema, London Road, Liverpool.
Not much else reportable followed, although in a bleary state at Riga Airport on Monday morning at 6am I failed to realise the incomprehensibly bright and breezy Irish man being so stereotypically, nay slappably, well... Irish on the same flight as me was in fact the RTE commentator whose name escapes me. Also, my suitcase got lost between Copenhagen and Heathrow, but it did arrive back at my flat about six hours after I did. The story was a two-page spread on pages four and five of the Daily Post on the Bank Holiday Monday, and I was quite chuffed with the result.
So why am I telling you about the cinema? Well, I'm back in work mode at the premiere (of sorts) of a short film called Bright which stars a bloke from Wirral, the sister of which I went to school with, but that's irrelevant.
Ten minutes before the projector cranked up, the place was pretty packed out and who should enter the auditorium but Chris from Jemini. I unfairly thought he was milking the sacred cow of local notoriety for as long as he possibly could, but it transpired one of his pals from the Starlite school was in the film as well.
As he took his seat, a few cheeky calls of "Nil Points!" echoed round the room.
Bold as brass, his female companion turned round to address the detractors, in Scouse as strong as her French is weak and proudly yelled: "Dees pwah, ya mean!"
Istanbul just isn't going to be the same.