Seeing Eurovision 2023 from inside the Arena

Last night, ten thousand of us turned up at the M&S Bank Arena on the banks of the river Mersey to watch the Eurovision Song Contest Grand Final Preview show. This was essentially a dry run for tonight’s Grand Final Show at which all twenty-six countries delivered their performances live to a packed audience of Eurovision fans.

Why were we there? Well, even though I was on the Ticketmaster site from the moment tickets went on sale, I was told that there were no tickets for the Grand Final, so this was the best I could do.

But last night’s show wasn’t a second-rate version of the real thing. Apart from the voting, everything else ran the way it will tonight.

It was an energising experience that gave me a chance to look at ‘the man behind the curtains’ in Eurovision’s OZ and it helped me share the passion and the joy of thousands of other people who get what Eurovision is about.

When we walked into the Arena, I was amazed at how close we were to everything and how vast the Arena was. Even before any of the acts started, there was a dazzling array of coloured lights, most of them in motion, that excited the eye.

Then there was the audience. Actually, audience isn’t really the right word. This wasn’t a bunch of people turning up at a theatre expecting to be entertained and hoping to get their money’s worth. This was closer to fans turning up at Anfield, ready to cheer for their team and dressed to show their allegiance.

What were they showing their allegiance to? It seemed to me that it was to the right to be themselves in a safe environment that celebrates the joy of exuberant musical performances from artists from all over Europe who want the fans to love them and their songs. These days, by the time we get to the Grand Final, all the fans have heard all the songs many times. They’ve seen the semi-finals. They’ve watched the performers being interviewed and they’ve compared them to performers from previous Eurovisions. The people in the Arena last night, me included, went in knowing who they really wanted to cheer for and those answers were mostly personal rather than patriotic. Some people cheered for the artists brave enough to do something different or bold enough to give everything they have to selling their performance. Some people love the artists with a message. Some supported the ones from their own region of Europe or their own community. Most, it seemed to me, cheered the person with the song and the performance that took hold of their imaginations and their emotions.

The atmosphere was relaxed rather than tense. I hate crowds but in this crowd of thousands I felt relaxed because the Arena was well designed and the people were happy and friendly. Most people sparkled. Some even lit themselves up with LED lights. There were costumes and flags and wigs and matching outfits. It was like being at a carnival. People were dressed for a special occaision. They were there to dance and sing and cheer and take part in something bigger than themselves and to affirm their own identities while they did it.

I’ve watched Eurovision on the TV for decades but I’d never been to a live show before. Now I understand why some people follow Eurovision from country to country, attending as many shows as they can. The impact of the music being performed live is enormous. Yes, the lighting is astonishing and the sound system is perfect but while all of that helps, the real difference comes from the physical connection you feel between the fans and the performers, especially when a performer is on top of their game. The first time I felt this last night was when Gustaph performed ‘Because Of You’.

I’d heard the song before of course. I’d quite liked it but didn’t see it as a winner because Christophe’s performances had seemed a little tentative to me.

Last night, he was different. He was right there in the moment, believing in his song and himself and he dragged the audience into that moment and held them there. It was impossible to just sit and listen. The performance demanded a response. The music invited us all to clap and sway and dance. I felt the moment when everyone in the Arena, including Christophe, realised that the song had taken us all over and the fact that we ALL felt it intensified what we felt until the song became not just Christophe’s but ours. It was wonderful and it happened more than once.

As well as the shared joy of the music, I lost myself in admiration for the technical excellence of the live show. Each act has its own set, its own light show, its own special effects and its own choreography, as well as placing different demands on the sound system to cope with different instruments, different numbers of performers and vastly different singing styles. It was astonishing to watch. The old sets were cleared and the new sets put in place within sixty seconds, while the video package for the next act played. The stage was transformed by the lights and images projected upon it so that it appeared to change shape. Robot cameras zoomed in from odd angles, giving carefully planned close-ups and aerial views. It worked like magic and it made the typical Vegas show seem under-prepared.

We spent five hours in the Arena. We saw the acts from all twenty-six countries plus a handful of performances for other performers, including Sam Ryder and Sonia and with a special performance of ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ that everyone joined in with. By the end of it, I felt I finally understood what makes Eurovision magic – it’s all those shared moments that we dream together.

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