Those Eurovision previews in full – LIVE from backstage at the final dress rehearsal.

THIS is how much I love you, my Euro-chicklets. Instead of trouping into the hall to watch the final dress rehearsal, I have decided that it would be a lot more fun and fulfilling to blog it live from the press centre, where it’s being relayed on giant screens around the room. Let’s just hope they turn the sound up.

I was at last night’s dress rehearsal, in the best seats I am ever likely to get at any Eurovision ever, and I loved every minute of it.

So hold very tight please, and off we go.

Firstly… you MUST be in your seats for the opening few minutes, which contain some truly stunning coups de theatre. Much as we may have bitched about some of the poor organisation backstage, THIS is what Greece does best. It’s theatrical, it’s OTT, and it had even the most jaded of hacks ooh-ing and aah-ing in wonder last night. They’ve been keeping this a secret all week. Turns out that we don’t know everything in advance after all.

Another plus point: they’ve seriously pruned all that endless preamble, before the songs start in earnest. It’s now 10 past, and we’re on to the first video postcard.

Your hosts are a nice American lady, who is calm, confident and has a useful knack of ad-libbing her way out of difficulties – and a local superstar stud called Sakis Rouvas, who came third a few years ago. What Sakis lacks in presentational polish, he makes up for in Man Cleavage. Darlings, I was transfixed. However, I have a nasty feeling that Sakis might come seriously unstuck during the voting. Could we be looking at another Toto Cutugno situation? (Legendarily inept Italian co-host from the early 1990s – so inept that Italy pulled out of the whole shindig a couple of years later, never to return.)

Now, I’m afraid that the first part of the draw has its longueurs. Bear with us – things hot up dramatically from Song 8, and Songs 13 to 17 are solid gold.

Switzerland is pretty dire: the usual Ralph Siegel hackwork, partially enlivened by a former member of Alcazar. Drop dead fit, but my God, doesn’t he know it.

Moldova is fronted by Arsenium (or “Arsey” to his mates – I shit you not), who used to be in O-Zone, of “Dragostea Din Tei” fame. You might know it better as the “Numa Numa” song, with the home-made webcam video that was all the rage on the web a couple of years ago. Arsey looks curiously uninvolved in his own performance, and the ending is a right old wash-out. No climax, no points. This will sink like a stone, despite the BRILLIANT GROUNDBREAKING NOVELTY of staging a REVERSE STRIPTEASE.

Israel is the third dud in a row, but things do start getting more interesting after this. Note the white suit – white suits are THE fashion story of Eurovision 2006. Why not add white suits to your drinking games at home?

Oh, Latvia. What were you thinking? This is the accapella group with the most ill-advised gimmick ever: a dinky little low-tech robot. Everybody say aah! The song’s a complete dog. Last night, I challenged my friends to sing even one line of it from memory. We’ve been hearing it all week, but no-one could come even close. Even the group’s vocal warm-up exercises were catchier than this! Still, it’s fun to have a number that is performed entirely without backing tapes – yes, those human beat-box effects are all being produced live. They’re clearly very talented, but what a waste of that talent.

Norway is rapidly emerging as the new dark horse. Folksy-ethnicy Enya-esque numbers often perform well here, and this is the only example of such in tonight’s contest, so it should clean up with the folksy-ethnicy lobby. This was particularly warmly received in the hall last night. I don’t care for it at all, but I respect its craft.

Ooh, proper pop stars! It’s Las Ketchup from Spain, continuing to mine that tomato-based theme with “Un Bloody Mary Por Favor”. The “duty free, duty free, duty free…” refrain is particularly fetching, but the song itself is disappointingly under-par – it should have been faster and feistier than this. Still, at least they’re not wearing white, which makes a nice change.

I’ve got ahead of myself, so let me quickly tell you about last night’s entertainment: a “Mister Gay Mediterranean” beauty pageant, held in an alternative arts theatre in front of a mostly straight audience, with a PA from former 1970s Euro-disco icon Amanda Lear (looking like something out of Eurotrash, knobbly kneed, collagened to buggery, and tottering about in a baby-doll dress which partially revealed her bare arse) – and, get this, a performance of Christopher Marlowe’s “Edward II” thrown in, just for fun. (We arrived late, and missed that bit.) Bizarre in the extreme, and thank God that we blagged it on the guest list (as representatives of the international gay press, which was actually sort of true), or else we’d have been rueing the 35 Euro admission price.

Malta have been more desperate to win Eurovision than any other country – and last year, 98 per cent of the viewing population tuned in to watch the show, so one has to admire their commitment. Fabrizio Faniello has been working the media hard all week, and has been popping up for impromptu PA’s all over the place. As a result, I’m sick to death of his happy little ditty – but if you haven’t heard it before, it’s kinda cute.

First of the big guns! Germany‘s Texas Lightning are much loved among the hack pack, and have been wowing the Greeks with their alternative version of “No No Never”, with an expanded middle section that goes all Zorba The Greek. The lead singer is Australian, and lovely. The URLs for the band’s website on the mike stands are a step too far though, and should have been banned: the thin end of a potentially troublesome wedge. Anyway, I love this song to death, and so should you.

Denmark‘s original staging was rocking a very similar country and western vibe to Germany, so they’ve wisely re-thought their act before coming out to Athens. This is a daft little hen-party of a track, which features another of this year’s Big Stories: break dancing. Another one to add to your drinking game? There’s an absolutely filthy alternative version of the chorus doing the rounds, which I don’t propose to repeat here – but think of words which rhyme with “twist”. Ahum.

It’s the man of Chig‘s dreams next: Russia‘s Dima Bilan, who has consistently grown in confidence since his nervous beginnings a week ago. Much like me, in fact – from nervously clutching my satchel like the new kid at school, to the international media presence that I am today. In fact, it’s fair to say that Dima and I have been on something of a shared journey together this week. We’ve never met, and yet I feel we connect in some way. Oh yeah: keep an eye on that grand piano – this is one of the standout gimmicks of the show.

Sheesh, what’s FYROM doing here? I don’t mean to be snide, but this can only have qualified from Thursday on account of FYROM’s uncommonly large number of “special friends”. This might be good moment to put the kettle on. If you’re struggling to concentrate, then see if you can spot the name-checks for Beyonce and Shakira.

And here’s another former also-ran which is coming up on the inside lane: Romania, with a slice of Ye Olde Ibiza Euro-Trance. In the hall, this is fantastically uplifting, with a concluding upwards key-change par excellence, and as such it gathered roars of approval. But how will it translate on telly? Watch for the rotating chicken-on-a-spit break dancer towards the end, and admire the responsible way that he has donned protective headgear before commencing his stunt.

There’s a brief commercial break (during which BBC viewers can feast themselves upon the Sakis Man Cleavage once again)… and then it’s the Big Five. Get back in your seats, everyone – this is the best sequence of the show, with most of the hot favourites drawn next to each other.

I’ve only spoken to one person all week who dislikes Bosnia‘s classy, beautifully arranged and exquisitely sung ballad. When 18 of us gathered together on Thursday evening to pool our predictions as to which 10 songs would qualify from the semis, this song and Finland’s were the only ones to receive a unanimous thumbs-up. My only worry is that Hata Mata Hari (known back home as “the nightingale of Sarajevo”) will get distracted by the ripples of applause which punctuate his performance, and allow self-congratulation to creep in. Sometimes he does this; sometimes he stays focussed on his performance. It could make a slight but subtle difference to the voting – but surely this is a dead cert for Top Three.

You may detect booing from the humourless Greeks for Lithuania‘s middle managers on a corporate awayday – but pay them no heed. Yes, this is a joke which quickly wears thin – but if you’re fresh to it, then it works a treat. Watch the baldy on the far left spring into life halfway through – and, hey boys, check out the lead singer, who gets my vote as 2006’s Top Eurovision Totty. Middle-aged men in suits! Does it for me!

Now, this is an unfortunate draw, as the United Kingdom is saddled with following one novelty song/performance with another. Will Europe’s chuckle bones hold out? Great staging, though – the video backdrops are well-conceived, and the girls nail their characters to perfection. My favourite bit: the “oooh-shi-ine” section, where everyone comes together at stage front. Keep an eye on the bits of paper which the girls fling from their desks – during rehearsals, including this one, they’re Union Jacks, but Daz has promised a surprise for the actual final.. Just bluster, or are we going to see something else? Earlier in the week I was predicting Top 5 – now I’m not so sure. It’s loved by the Brit hack pack, but hasn’t really crossed over beyond that.

Oh crikey, it’s Anna Vissi for Greece, setting the Diva controls up to max. Not since the days of Alla Pugacheva (Russia 1997, oh come on, of course you remember), has anyone gone quite so OTT as this. However, the adulation which Anna receives does have a negative impact on her performance, as what should be a song of pain and anguish turns instead into a triumphalist lap of honour. Come on Anna! Concentrate! Didn’t your lot coin the term “hubris”?

I’m not going to tell you anything more about Finland, as you need to stop reading this RIGHT NOW, and glue your eyes to the screen for the best staging of the entire night. The little girls behind me on Wednesday night were alternately squealing with fear, and giggling with delight. Another Top Three dead cert?

I don’t care what you lot think of Ukraine‘s Tina Karol, because I LOVE HER LOVE HER LOVE HER. Such a game little trouper! How could you not want all the good things in life to come her way? This is the one with the Cossacks and the skipping rope. If Tina wins this, I shall probably burst into tears. And it won’t be the first time this week, either.

(Aside: when Monaco’s 1971 winner Severine took to the stage as a surprise turn at one of the after-parties, to give us a rendition of her classic “Un Banc, Un Arbre, Un Rue”, I promptly bawled my little eyes out. At the end, I turned to Chig, only to find that he had been doing the same. What sentimental old sausages we are.)

Ooh, ooh, rubber-necking at a car-crash time! France‘s Virginie Pouchain is a TV talent contest winner who lacks experience at this level, and she has apparently been suffering from crippling nerves this week. Word yesterday was that the head of the French delegation had to physically push her onto the stage yesterday afternoon, for positively the worst vocal performance I have ever seen from a professional singer. Last night, she rallied a bit, and managed to hit the occasional right note. I sincerely wish her all the best for tonight – I don’t take pleasure in this kind of humiliation. However, it will take a miracle to stop this heading for “nul points”.

Croatia is Chig’s favourite – the cloth-eared fool! – but you can’t deny that this is top, top entertainment. Severina has modelled herself as closely on Angelina Jolie as teams of top cosmetic experts will allow – and there are some decidedly colourful skeletons in her closet, as well. (Happy Googling, pervs! Chig has seen the evidence, and it ain’t pretty. She says it was an amateur video which got leaked. Well, don’t they all?) There’s also a top Bucks Fizz, whoops-there-goes-my-skirt moment. Put it away love! Does your mother know you’re out dressed like that?

And here’s your man Brian Kennedy for Ireland – a country which is finally taking the contest seriously again after many years in the wilderness. This is my slow grower of the week. It’s cheesy to the max, but there’s an emotional quality to it which Kennedy pulls off, against all the odds. In the hands of a lesser singer, this would have been a disaster – but he’s an old pro, and it shows.

Three to go! Here’s god-bothering Carola for Sweden, complete with her specially imported wind machine – which she has graciously shared with any other act who wants it. I think that’s quite nice of her, don’t you? Opinion divides more sharply over Carola than any other performer this year – but I’m a fence-sitter. Part of me thinks she’s a ghastly, deluded fake, and part of me sees a strangely fragile quality, which she has plastered over with all this born-again nonsense. She’s sort of false and sincere at the same time, and I can never quite get to the bottom of her. As it were. Anyway, this is another hot favourite which should sail into the Top 10.

SHOCK UPDATE! Has Carola LOST HER VOICE? After sounding fabulous on Thursday night and Friday afternoon, an astonishingly all-over-the-place performance last night had us wondering what on earth was was going on. Could this be the reason? She sounded distinctly under-par just now, and at her last press conference a spokesman had to do all her talking for her. All pray for Carola, if you please!

Two to go! It’s Turkey, with the alternative UK entry – as the backing dancers (and Chig’s new best mates) are all British by extract or residency. Singer Sibel wept openly at the qualifier’s press conference on Thursday, and started thanking everyone under the sun. Easy, love! You haven’t won yet!

Last one! Plucky newcomer Armenia surprised everyone by qualifying on Thursday, and no-one really knows quite why. There’s a sort of bondage-meets-maypole-dancing thing going on here, but after 24 songs one gets a little jaded with this sort of caper.

And that’s your lot. The interval act is fun – more camped-up Greek classicism – but first of all, there’s a surprise appearance from a TOTAL GREEK MUSICAL LEGEND. Can you guess who it is?

Much to the relief of all but the most hardcore of stats geeks, the voting will be speeded up considerably this year. The lowest 7 points from each country won’t be read out, but will be displayed on screen instead. Then just the 8 points, 10 points and 12 points will be read out in full. Towards the end of the voting, this will revert to the usual method of reading out all 10 scores in full, just to draw out the tension. Ack, I’ve not explained this very well, but you’ll see soon enough. I think I’ve worn myself out – I’ve been typing literally non-stop for the last hour and fifty minutes, and exhaustion is beginning to kick in. But IT HAS ALL BEEN WORTH IT.

Before I sign off: prediction time.

1. Finland
2. Bosnia & Herzegovina
3. Germany
4. Russia
5. Sweden (if the voice recovers, or else bottom 5)
6. Greece
7. Norway
8. Croatia
9. Lithuania
10. United Kingdom
12. Romania
13. Ireland
14. Turkey
15. Ukraine
16. Malta
17. Armenia
18. Denmark
19. Spain
20. Moldova
22. Latvia
22. Switzerland
23. Israel
24. France

Enjoy tonight’s show. It’s a good ‘un. Over and out!

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