Swede Dreams Were Made Of This
It’s the evening of Saturday 6th April, 1974. Mum and dad have gone out for the evening leaving me alone with the babysitter, a retired post mistress from down the road called Mrs Reeves. She wears Dame Edna-style glasses and is partial to box of a Terry’s All Gold chocolates and, in this case, a sophisticated soirée hosted by Katie Boyle.
I’ve had my bath and changed into pyjamas and a dressing gown and am being allowed to stay up late for the 19th edition of Eurovision Song Contest, the competition launched in 1956 to promote peace and harmony through music and culture among the post war nations of Europe. The Camay soap ambassador the undisputed queen of received pronunciation Katie – née Caterina Irene Elena Maria Boyle she was the scion of Italian nobility – is tonight’s compere in front of a live studio audience at Brighton’s Dome. Row upon row of smart middle-aged VIP’s sit in the stalls waiting for the show to begin. Dressed in their dinner jackets and evening gowns they could be an audience at Glyndebourne, as opposed to just some punters looking for a solid helping of BBC-style light entertainment. Meanwhile, millions like us from the various competing nations sit excitedly at home.
But before we get to see what the acts are like we must first watch a short film about the host town. The south coast resort of Brighton turns out to be a last-minute replacement for little old Luxembourg who turned down the opportunity to host for financial reasons; this was 1974 after all, a year in which the world suffered an almighty recession in the wake of the global oil crisis which drove the price of crude oil up by 300%.
In Britain, the outgoing prime minister Edward Heath had brought in the emergency three day working week to counter the striking unions and to conserve our stock of coal, which in those days almost exclusively fuelled the nation’s electric power stations. Operating restrictions were even imposed on our three television channels which meant that, until just recently, broadcasts had to cease by 10.30pm each night. Remember also that in British homes during this dark and uncertain period for the population, queues were commonplace and naked candle lights replaced the redundant electricity supply. The bright lights even went out at London’s famous Piccadilly Circus.
Judging by the footage very early on in the show, it is abundantly clear that this seaside resort, first made fashionable by George IV when he was Prince Regent, was hardly immune to the economic gloom visible elsewhere. There are shots of the famous Laines and a fancy-looking Regency building or two, but the beach is windswept and un-inviting, and the town’s famous pier looks almost derelict, a draw only for a few small boys and their fishing rods. Outside the event venue there is some very basic conference style signage and a line of drab Austin and Morris saloon cars parked up outside. Whatever glamourous entertainment that is about to start inside this 18th century Mughal style palace, has certainly been well-hidden from view.
The United Kingdom’s entry this year will be sung by the 26-year-old Olivia Newton-John, then a good five years away from being cast as high school sweetheart Sandy in Grease. Hers will be the second performance of the night and of course we’re gunning for her, even though she is in fact an Australian by birth. As a mere 10-year-old, however, I’m looking forward more to the appearance of children’s TV stars The Wombles during the bit when the international judges count up all the votes and the behind-the-scenes sound technicians start getting a little tetchy about those live telephone link ups.
The Wombles, it should be explained, are a five-piece band of environmentally aware mammals who in the book by Elisabeth Beresford reside on Wimbledon Common, south-west London. They played golf and picked up the litter that they found on their travels in a prescient show of recycling in an era before bottle banks caddy bins became the norm. A stop-motion animated version voiced by the late Bernard Cribbins appeared on our television sets shortly after and Mike Batt, the ambitious young composer of its opening theme The Wombling Song, waived his £200 fee for the commercial rights to the programme’s characters. A smart move as it turned out.
Donning a home-made Womble suit himself, Batt and his eco-conscious band mates, who included among their number the rock guitarists Chris Spedding and Robin Le Mesurier (son of Dad’s Army actor John and Hattie Jacques from the Carry On films), quickly amassed 11 Top 40 singles in the UK. Wombling Summer Party, whose melody bore an uncanny resemblance to California Girls by The Beach Boys, even reached number 55 on the US Billboard Hot 100 chart.
It is the eighth Eurovision act, however, which ended up stealing the headlines that night. “We’re looking at Sweden, a country full of mountains, lakes and forests…and of course it’s full of blonde Vikings,” begins the David Vine voiceover in the pre-recorded segment designed to introduce us to the exotic smorgasbord hopeful artists. “These are the ABBA group,” he continues “…Björn, Frida (sic), Anna (sic) just beside her with the long blonde hair and …Benny.”
Then suddenly, as the introductory montage cuts to the live broadcast in Brighton, we see conductor Sven-Olof Walldoff enter the orchestra pit to rousing cheers. “Oh, and it’s Napoleon!” exclaims Vine, otherwise a Ski Sunday and Superstars presenter, remarking on the startling choice of costume.
Now the cameras have panned to the stage, where the as-yet-still-unknown band of Vikings are ready to go. Bearded Benny at the grand piano and Björn on the far side wearing silver boots and hunched Troll-like over a matching custom electric guitar shaped like a star.
The opening riff to song kick into life then the two girls race to front of the stage in a riot of velvet, sequins and glitter to begin their alternative history lesson and possibly change the course of late-20th century popular music: “My, my – boom! – at Waterloo Napoleon did surrender…”
From my position on the burgundy carpet next to Mrs Reeves’s armchair, my immediate impression was that for a pop group they all looked a little on the mature side and indeed not far off the age of my own parents, who were in fact in their early forties then. The two women of course seemed staggeringly beautiful and had amazing hair and great teeth, which we now know was a genuine feat for the 1970’s. With its catchy saxophone-driven rock and roll beat, the music was both assured and original and quickly had this ten-year-old child and his retired postmistress companion rooting for the Swedes.
And from this moment on, the following procession of dreary ballads, neo-folk offerings and attempts to catch the latest prog rock wave from Luxembourg, Monaco, Belgium and The Netherlands seemed utterly inconsequential. Of course, Sweden ran way with La Grand Prix de la Chanson with a whopping 24 points and an excitable but blue-bloodedly cool and collected Katie Boyle calling the Swedes back on stage for a final rendition of the song.
ABBA’s closing performance is an altogether different beast to their more restrained version earlier on in the show. Firstly, Frida nearly garrots herself with a stray microphone lead as she attempts to climb through the tiny hatch that opens to the modest concert stage. There are barely restrained tears of joy on Agnetha’s face as she swings her velvety blue hips to this irresistible pop ditty and we witness the first of a few soon-to-be trademark faceoffs between the girls. And, as the polite English applause rings out again, the newly crowned blonde bombshell Agnetha plants an affectionate kiss on husband Björn’s cheek. Oh, what a night!
The very next day, I had both drawn and coloured in a poster sized fan homage to the group detailing both their stunning platform boots and Benny’s iconic star guitar. Previously I had only dedicated this much detail on a piece of foolscap to panoramic depictions of Custer’s Last Stand or mid-air dogfights between groups of Spitfires and German Messerschmitt fighter planes. ABBA were up and running and nothing was going to stop them.