Appropriately, in the run up to Eurovision, I've just read a cracking book called Nul Points by Tim Moore, in which he tracks down the people who've scored zero in the contest over the last 40 years.
I say 40 years, the book's actually 10 years old (from 2006) but still timely, and will definitely change the way I see Eurovision from now on.
He starts off, like me, having grown up in the British tradition of laughing at Eurovision, loving Terry Wogan's taking down of every ludicrous-looking and hopeless-sounding novelty act and desperate wannabe from the world of Light Entertainment, that we and our European neighbours wheeled into the line of fire. And, like me, Tim's watched no end of retrospective shows where the losers, and particularly the Nul-Pointers, are the subject of mockery, ridicule and a fair bit of schadenfreude.
Then he uses his journalistic skills to trace them and, where possible to interview them. The insights this gives us is fascinating, both into the countries from which the losing songs have come - Norway figuring heavily, journeys taking him from Turkey to Lithuania and even to Thailand, and the UK taking the most recent place in the list with 2003's Jemini - and of course into the people.
The degree to which Eurovision matters to competing countries is something we Brits fail to comprehend. Because we had the Beatles and led the way with pop music through the 60s and 70s, we always held the music of Eurovision as second rate. And because we're this old imperial nation with a confidence of our place in the world, and a feeling that everyone can speak our language so we needn't bother, we've never seen Eurovision as a showcase where we can show off the best of ourselves to our neighbours in a display of mutual respect. Other countries do.
The Scandinavians, who pride themselves in their musical tradition and how they've punched above their weight in exporting music to the world, can point to Abba as the shining example of what it's all about. Serious songwriters and musicians take this contest seriously. Winning it makes a significant difference to your career in those markets. On the other hand up-and-coming, or overlooked, countries like Turkey, Lithuania or even Portugal, pin a lot of importance on being taken seriously because of the effort they're making. So when they lose it hurts, and some countries' media have really taken it out on their nil-pointers.
But it's knowing how getting nul points in Eurovision affected the lives of the participants that alters your view of the show. Who ever stopped to think that these were real people? That they didn't go out there to get laughed at by Tel, and that when they come home to countries that had put so much faith in them, it really can turn tragic for them.
Poor Finn Kalvik. If I remember three names from this book it'll be Jahn Teigen, Finn Kalvik, and Gunvor. Gunvor, at first because her name so obviously and confusingly looks like guvnor that you have to mentally readjust it every time you read it, but mostly because hers is the most genuinely tragic story. What that poor kid was going through as she mounted that stage, and what was waiting for her after she left, are a movie in the making.
Jahn Teigen, in contrast, is the first entry in the book, having scored the first nil-point score (under the modern scoring system we still use) in 1978, and is very much a hero of Eurovision. The elder statesman of the nil-pointers, he'd had a career before he was in the contest - he was even, he says, asked to replace Peter Gabriel in Genesis but declined - and has had a career since. He's the one whose clip gets shown most often, wearing shades and red braces, and doing a high kick as he sings Mil Etter Mil and loses to Israel. He's even re-entered Eurovision a number of times, which takes some doing.
But Finn Kalvik. I don't want to spoil this book for you, because it's a highly entertaining read, all the moreso for not knowing what twists and turns lie ahead. Will Tim Moore get his interview? Will the interview end up as promisingly as it started? Or will it go All Finn Kalvik?
Finn Kalvik, you see, suffered one of the worst ignominies you can. He became a National Joke. Courtesy of a comedy show on Norwegian TV, with a regular sketch called the Finn Kalvik News (the joke being that no-one had heard of Finn Kalvik for years) he became remembered for not being remembered, and when you remembered him it was for getting nul points. Suffice it to say he is one bitter old man now and his spectre haunts every subsequent interview Tim manages to arrange.
It's significant that the only act who really come across as if their nil points result was water off a duck's back is Jemini, the Liverpudlian pair from 2003 who'd grown up knowing Eurovision was a joke, and took its inevitable outcome - in the year Tony Blair took us into Iraq, and suffering a cataclysmic technical cock-up which ended up with one of them singing hopelessly out of tune - as just a bit of fun. Ten years later they get to appear on reality shows and Pointless on the strength of it, so it's a lose-win situation.
So allow me to recommend this enjoyable travel-book cum light-entertainment history, which works also as an interesting slice of sociology. I picked it up at the £2 book shop on Park St in Bristol, I'm sure it's just as cheap on Amazon. And let's look forward to the forthcoming Eurovision finals a little wiser and more sympathetic than before. (Though it will remain hard not to laugh, won't it?)
May 5 - Artrix Bromsgrove
May 6 - Stafford Gatehouse
May 12 - Croydon Spread Eagle
May 13 (4.30pm) & May 14 (5.30pm) Komedia Brighton
May 19 - Carriageworks Leeds
May 26 - Aberdeen May Fest
June 2 - Eden Ct Inverness
June 15 - Crescent Arts, Belfast
June 20 - Grassington Festival, Yorks
June 23 - Hertford Comedy Festival
June 24 - Ludlow Fringe
August 15 - 17 Camden Fringe
Comic Art Masterclasses coming up in 2017: