More on the rehearsals.

If there are any Brits who are looking to spread their loyalties, then Turkey would be a natural choice, as nearly all of their humpy male backing dancers are either British by nationality or residency. (Yes, Chig’s been chatting them up.) They include a former dancer for Bananarama and Crazy Frog (the honour!), and a former member of some Pete Waterman protegés called Pop!, who had a few hits a couple of years ago. It’s the umpteenth lively number in a row, and so might get buried in the rush, but the disco-influenced dance moves are a source of some delight.

I didn’t stay long for Ukraine, but what I did see involved Cossack dancing, and a giant skipping rope. But hey, I don’t want to spoil all of your surprises.

Ah, Finland. Now, this is a one to watch. Think Slipknot fronted by Roy Wood, singing death metal vocals over a 1980s Bon Jovi-esque backing. Most of the band wear scary monster masks, and there’s a dramatic Costume Moment mid-song (involving wings), and there are fireworks. Big, huge, massive f**k-off fireworks. Which I missed, as they weren’t activated until the final run-through.

The guys over at the splendid OnEurope Livejournal are saying: Winner. Me, I can’t be sure – there was something awkwardly static about the performance, pyros or not. Still, the band gave easily the most entertaining press conference thus far, for which much thanks. (It’s been Platitude City, basically.)

The Netherlands press conference is taking place as I type. Deeply honoured to be representing our country, blah blah blah. I might be the new kid at school, but I’m quickly learning the drill. It’s a slight and over-repetitive song, delivered by a cutesome girl trio, with an acoustic guitar and… eek, wah… DRUMS.

Those of you who survived last years DrumFest in Kiev will still no doubt be scarred by the memories. It is therefore my pleasure to report that NO BIG DRUMS AT ALL have crossed the Eurovision Big Drum Embargo this year. Maybe they were all impounded at customs. Nevertheless, the Dutch girls have managed to smuggle in an extensive array of Little Drums. Scattered all over the stage, they are. Bongotastic. I don’t think this one will qualify for Saturday’s finals.

Back later!

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First day at school.

So here I am, slightly overwhelmed and bewildered, nervously clutching my complementary satchel and stumbling around the Olympic Indoor Arena, here in sunny Athens. Lots of goodies have been thrust into my hand… shrink-wrapped DVDs which I might never play, press releases, party invites, timetables, etc etc.

Chig (who knows EVERYONE) is being very good, and introducing me to people at the rate of about once every five minutes. I barely recall a single name, but everybody is very nice. It’s interesting how, every time you’re introduced to someone, both of your eyes flicker down to the ginormous laminated passes that hang, medallion-like, somewhere around your navel. Checking each other out: so, where’s he from? Is he P1, P2 or FAN? Subtle hierarchies prevail.

As for me, I’ve been granted P2 accreditation. Full access to the open rehearsals and press conferences, but – alarmingly – NO access to the press centre, with its banks of PCs and modem points. That’s strictly for the higher beings with P1.

So, in order to communicate with the outside world, I am obliged to hunker down in the press conference area, which has a good strong wi-fi signal. It’s manageable, so long as the blessed laptop doesn’t start blue-screening. There’s no rhyme or reason to this: it can work like a dream for hours on end, then it can just start crapping out randomly all over the place. But ever since I uninstalled Norton Antivirus, there has been a marked improvement. Fingers crossed.

What of the rehearsals so far? Today, we’ve got the decidedly stronger second half of the qualifiers, which go out on Thursday night on BBC3.

Russia are represented by a pretty boy called Dima Bilan, with a mullet nouveau and amazing fawn-like eyes. Having (frankly) slobbered all over him in his Gay Times preview, Chig has been informed that his comments have been circulated the length and breadth of Russia, and that they are being taken as a great portent for success on Thursday. So, naturally, he was right down the front for the press conference – and right in place to catch one of Dima’s complementary pillows, branded with his image. Sweet dreams tonight for Mister Chig!

The performance involves rose petals, and a white piano from which a woman’s head mysteriously emerges. At least, I think so. There was a bit of a crush down the front, and my eyes were still adjusting to the gloom.

A word about the arena. It’s not overly huge, so even the folks in the cheap seats should get a decent enough view. The stage is modelled around a classic Greek ampitheatre design, with banks of descending steps that also serve as video screens. I’ve seen fussier stage designs in my time, but this is fairly simple and it works well.

Eek, Lithuania are on in the next room. ‘Scuse me, must dash. Talk to you later.

Snippets from the departure area.

1. Some light perusing of Slate (my new favourite website, for obvious reasons… see next post) has unearthed an excellent article: The Perils Of Poptimism (Does Hating Rock Make You A Music Critic?, by Jody Rosen. Having read an awful lot of over-inflated guff over the years about so-called “rockism”, its adherents and its “popist” opponents, it’s refreshing to find such a sensible, straightforward exposition of the seemingly never-ending row between music geeks of certain hues.

2. The caption competition! I never gave you the results of the caption competition! After careful consideration, the prize of Super Duper Posh Spa Resort Incense Sticks (Sandalwood flavour) goes to…

asta, for the caption which made K and I laugh the hardest and longest:

K: I’m sure I mentioned that getting a dog would be part of the contract.

Congratulations, asta. Your prize will be winging its way to Canada in a couple of weeks’ time.

3. Over in Athens, Iceland’s “kooky” Silvia Night is giving it the full Diva treatment: at the start of her press conference, she expressly forbade anyone to look at her while addressing her. This turned out to be no joke, as a hapless journo who breached the rule ended up being thrown out of the room by her personal security staff. Now, that’s the sort of behaviour we want to encourage. The spirit of tATu lives on, etc. etc.

Boarding in half an hour! Still very excited!

I AM VERY VERY EXCITED.

Well, this is a novel sensation.

While still basking in the warm afterglow of a wonderful holiday which ended just five days ago, I’m now feeling the giddy demob-happy anticipation of a second holiday, which starts tomorrow morning…

…when I fly to Athens, to spend eight days in the very epicentre of the mad media circus that is…

EUROVISION 2006!

This will be my fifth Eurovision, but the first one where I’ll be enjoying the benefits of press accreditation. This comes courtesy of www.slate.com, for whom I’ll be penning four daily dispatches, starting next Thursday.

The purpose of these dispatches will be to introduce and explain the Eurovision phenomenon to a mostly American audience, who know nothing of its manifold delights. This is particularly well-timed, since the NBC network have recently secured the rights to produce a US version of the contest, in which all 50 states will compete against each other. Let’s just hope they manage to preserve something of Eurovision’s essential charm and character.

My mentor for the week will be Chig, who has been representing Gay Times at the contest nearly every year since 1998. I couldn’t ask for a better guide – or indeed flatmate, as we’ll be bunking up together in an apartment for the duration. (I might also press him into certain fact-checking duties; he’s a notorious stickler for detail, and quite right too.)

The big worries right now are:

1. Will my level of accreditation grant me access to the press centre, which I could do with in order to file my copy? They don’t tell you until you get there. It could get ugly!

2. Will my dodgy laptop hold out for the duration? It’s perfectly well-behaved until I switch on the wi-fi, after which it has a nasty habit of blue-screening at random. My latest wheeze has been to disable the Norton Anti-Virus. Miraculously, it appears to be working a treat… so far.

If the wi-fi inside the Arena permits, then I intend to fire off some rough-and-ready hit-and-run blog posts from the rehearsals and press conferences – along with breathless reports of the parties, of course. (“OH MY GOD I stood RIGHT NEXT to the second Croatian backing dancer from the left! My life is SO GLAMOROUS!”) Well, one must be allowed an outlet for one’s untreated fanboy gush, as Slate are really rather highbrow (SHUT THAT DOOR, BELGIUM’S KATE RYAN!), and I shall be obliged to deploy at least some measure of objective detachment. (GO ICELAND! WE LOVE YOU, SILVIA!)

Yesterday, at the Retro Bar’s monthly “Douze Points” shindig, we watched the preview videos of this year’s entries, and cast votes in the traditional Eurovision jury-based manner. (Luca has the full results.) The winners on the night were Germany, who have fielded a sweet and mega-catchy country-and-western hoedown – but easily my favourite video came from Greece’s remarkably well-preserved veteran Anna Vissi, who served up a gripping mini-drama that had me clutching my sides. YOU SHOW ‘EM GRANDMA!

Despite the aforementioned post-holiday glow, it’s been a stressful rollercoaster of a week in many ways. I only had two days in Nottingham to unpack, turn round and re-pack, before spending two days back in Canary Wharf in advance of Athens. The morning after I arrive back at Gatwick, I’ll then be back in Canary Wharf for yet another full working week. I’ve therefore had to pack work clothes, play clothes and party clothes for a full sixteen days away. Why, I can barely lift my suitcase.

This was also the week that I learnt that I’ll be required to spend most of June working in London as well. I’m afraid that, in the heat of the moment, I might have used some unprofessional language. Yes, let’s leave it right there.

Today was a classic Canary Wharf day: lurching from Dear-GOD-this-is-the-toughest-gig-ever, WHY-did-they-hire-me, I’ll-NEVER-get-up-to-speed, my-brain-can’t-absorb-ONE-MORE-SCRAP-of-information, to oh-NOW-I-get-it, wow-I’ve-actually-got-something-WORKING, you-know-this-job-can-be-quite-FUN-in-a-twisted-sort-of-way. And thankfully, in that order.

Bloody Slate Dot Bloody Com, if you please! I am VERY excited. DJ DAZ TO BRING IT BACK HOME FOR BLIGHTY!

What a year, ladies and gentlemen. What a year.