It’s the Eurovision Song Contest... and Suffolk superfan James is super-excited!
PUBLISHED: 13:01 07 May 2017 | UPDATED: 12:46 08 May 2017
Does the UK never win the Eurovision Song Contest anymore because Europe hates us? See what our man in Kiev thinks.
If you see a very excited fan waving the St Edmund of Suffolk Flag at next weekend’s Eurovision Song Contest final, that’ll be James – our man in Kiev. Steven Russell finds out how he became hooked
It’s 10am and he’s in a pub, but James Sheen is drunk on nothing more potent than coffee and a head-popping love of all things Eurovision. He’s had his hair bleached a little for his pilgrimage to Ukraine and this afternoon aims to top up his tan. He’s like a boy on the steps of Willy Wonka’s magical factory, about to go in. On Christmas Eve. At risk of wetting his pants. James is that excited.
And no wonder. For in March he found out he’d secured a ticket for the “Golden Circle” bang at the front: a spot limited to just 430 of the most Duracell-driven, hardcore Eurovisionists found on this continent – “the closest the audience can possibly get”.
Even better, a subsequent email from eurovision.tv revealed he’d got “fan accreditation”, which will get him backstage and to other places in the magic kingdom. “I looked into it and found out I’m one of only 10 people in the UK to get this. So it’s like ‘WOW!’”
He jokes he might take a Ventolin inhaler in case he suffers an attack of the vapours when the music starts, or a paper bag in which to breathe, should he hyperventilate with excitement.
It’s perfectly possible, seeing that we’re talking several days before he flies out and yet he’s singing me bars from Eurosongs past and present, including a bit of yodelling (good voice by the way, as he sings Romania’s irresistibly-feelgood entry Yodel It!), playing other contenders on his phone, and going into raptures about the Eurostars he’s met.
By the time you read this, he’ll have been out in Kiev (sorry, Kyiv) almost a week, and recognises he and his fellow revellers are going to have to tone it down in an Eastern European country where everyday life’s a bit serious just now.
“We’re not allowed to be too loud. That’s going to be a problem, isn’t it?” he laughs. “I’m going to have to get some duct tape” – to seal his mouth – “and play it down a bit.”
At this point I didn’t know how long he would be there. Four or five days? I venture...
“What are you talking about?! I’m going for two weeks!” As he did last year in Stockholm, driving 2,000 miles there and back. The main rehearsals are in the first week and there’s a red carpet parade on Sunday. There’s always something going on, with the EuroClub and Euro Fan Café to hand. And OGAE (the Organisation Générale des Amateurs de l’Eurovision fan club) organises lots of fun, such as appearances by performers from the past. Kyiv stages semi-finals on Tuesday and Thursday, and the final is on Saturday, May 13.
Keep your eyes peeled. James is the man behind the collective memories/friendship website We Love Bury St Edmunds!, which also seeks to promote the town. As such, he’s got something special planned – and not just his embroidered trousers and waistcoat. “The big thing this year, because of We Love Bury St Edmunds!, is I shall be there with the flag of Suffolk – the St Edmund of Suffolk Flag. I shall be holding that up big. So if you don’t see that, you don’t see me. But I’m in the front, so there’s a good chance.” Ukraine might never be the same again...
The first Eurovision Song Contest he remembers is 1972, when he was eight and The New Seekers came second with Beg, Steal Or Borrow. He also remembers Greek singer Vicky Leandros – “my all-time favourite; she has an amazing voice” – who won for Luxembourg with Après Toi. The 1980s was a bit hit and miss, and his interest waned. Then he got his own house in about 1993, in Colchester. “I had a small Eurovision party, with portable television, pens, and I think I did some scoresheets as well. Like saddos!” The spark was back.
Things developed. More people round, widescreen telly. “And then it got very silly. We’d started doing barbecues in the garden and the whole thing started at about two in the afternoon. We’d dress up and do themes. We did drama queens and vampires; we did red, white and blue; we did one that was just called ‘vivid’; ‘come as a country’. It just became mad.”
The last party was 2010, for James and his pals had decided they’d just got to go, rather than watch from afar.
He’s driven to Dusseldorf in 2011, Vienna in 2015 and Stockholm last year. “It just gets better and better every time. We meet so many good, fun people – not just the singers but the fans. It’s like a big party. You don’t get any sleep, but you don’t notice it. You’re running on adrenaline.”
Much effort is of course devoted to “the look”. In Germany, eight of them wore uniform black trousers, trainers, waistcoats and ties, but different coloured shirts created a rainbow effect.
There was a lot of pushing and shoving in Vienna, but it was still good fun. It marked the first appearance of Australia. (I know. I don’t get it either. But Australian public service media groups are associate members of The European Broadcasting Union, so they can enter. Mind you, there’s an American associate, too. Imagine.)
James shouted out “Hello, possum!” when it was the land from down-under’s moment, and is thrilled that was captured on the live broadcast. “I got a filthy look from one of the presenters, and thought ‘Whatever!’”
He’s ecstatic to have met Lys Assia, who made Switzerland the winner of the first ever Eurovision Song Contest in 1956.
“The mad thing is, last year, in Stockholm, we were leaving the Globe Arena after one of the fantastic semi-finals and she’s sitting there in the audience. Oh. My. God. So we met her and had a little chat. She’s 93 but she’s amazing. She’s always interested. She always gives her top 20… and we call that The Kiss of Death. They never win!”
Bet there’s a big comedown when it’s all over. “It’s really awful. You’ve just had it zapped out of you. You’ve celebrated for two solid weeks with all these friends you’ve made; and then: right…” Mind you, last year he went on to another bash in France. He’d met Anne-Marie David – won for Luxembourg in 1973 – in Vienna. And, now, here she was at the VolcaVision festival. “She looked at me, took my hands and said ‘Hello, James.’ WHAT?! You remember me?” His favourite Eurovision moment.
James moved back to Bury in 2015 and works for brewer Adnams’ store. Does anyone ever suggest he might be a little nuts? “People think I’m nuts about everything. Whatever!” He explains: “It brings people together, and that’s what it’s about. Friends become your new family. And meeting the singers as well: it’s not them and us, it’s us and us.”
* Flying The Flag (for You)? The title of Scooch’s UK entry in 2007.
n Don’t miss Heaven magazine’s Eurovision Song Contest special in the EADT next Saturday!
The $64,000 question: Who will win?
“My goodness, there’s some good songs this year,” reckons James. “There’s some stinkers too.
I really do like Croatia. Big fat guy. (Jacques Houdek.) Half-opera, half-regular singing. It gives me goosebumps.
“Also, I’m loving Estonia (Koit Toome & Laura’s Verona). Hungary have quite an epic-sounding song. I love that. France is really good. The top tip is Italy…” But you don’t rate it? “No.”
And us, with Lucie Jones? “She’s a lovely girl…” Deliberate pause. “She’s got a great voice. She’s got a weak song...”
And here’s the only time James gets a bit cross. Those who put forward the UK contenders took little notice of the hardcore fanatics, he argues.
“We listen to Eurovision every day. We know it back to front. We know what’s going to hit it well. The five or six songs shown on the You Decide show” – at the end of January, and for which the public voted – “they’re the weakest songs I’ve ever heard.”
There go my chances in the office sweepstake, then.
Do we always lose because Europe hates us?
No, is the short answer.
The longer one: “If people start saying ‘Oh, we didn’t get enough points because they don’t like us because of Brexit…’ SHUT UP! They don’t like it because it’s not a very good song. They don’t like it because there are songs that stand out much better.”
He doesn’t buy the political-voting conspiracy theories, either. It’s the song and performance that prove telling.
“Look at Greece and Cyprus: neighbours, so they listen to similar music. We might give a lot of votes to Poland or Georgia, as there are lots here from those countries. People’s ears are tuned to what they know. And they generally are pro bringing people together in Europe.
“The UK audience, they look at it as a bit of a joke. It wasn’t helped by (former UK commentator Terry) Wogan, and I don’t particularly rate Graham Norton.
“Yes, you can take the mickey out of it, but you take the mickey out of it in a certain way. Go too far and you make the audience think it’s a joke.”