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Book Review: Nul Points by Tim Moore

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To its aficionados, the annual Eurovision Song Contest is a marvellous melange that blends pop and politics, fashion faux pas and flag-waving. To everyone else, it's a showcase for shite.

Polarising it may be, but Eurovision has no shortage of performers beating a path to its tinsel-decked door. And although only ABBA and Celine Dion have achieved post-Eurovision mega-stardom, nearly every entrant sees the contest as a springboard to the stratosphere.

For most, barely have their feet left that springboard than they find themselves plummeting, belly-first towards the sea of oblivion. As Europe delivers its verdict, dreams of greatness are quietly snuffed out. But for an unlucky few, each set of results painfully and publicly signals that they’ll be ending the contest as they began: with no points. Rejected and dejected, they can only limp home to rebuild the wreckage of their career and hope that the worst night of their lives will soon be forgotten.

Fat chance. Not with Tim Moore shining his gazillion watt spotlight on their misfortunes. In Nul Points, Moore sets out to uncover the underachievers who went to Eurovision with the highest of hopes and returned with the lowest of scores.

Since 1975, the Eurovision voting system has made it harder to score zero. But it didn’t take long for Jahn Teigen to make it look easy. Representing Norway in 1978, Teigen assaulted an unsuspecting song and strangled it with his vocal cords before dealing the fatal blow from a shocking, splay-legged leap. Europe’s response was sadly predictable.

But, as Moore finds when he visits Teigen in Oslo, the reaction in his homeland was rather different. Norway put out the red carpet for its zero hero, and he went on to enjoy if not public adulation then certainly the affection of a loyal fan base. After a rough patch in the eighties, Teigen is still performing and still submitting entries for Eurovision.

But while Jahn Teigen merrily wears his zero as a halo, others see their nil as a noose. After Finn Kalvik failed to score for Norway in 1981, his countrymen, perhaps thinking the joke had been stretched to its outer limits, sent his career into meltdown. But worse was to come.

Targeted by Norwegian satirists, Kalvik was subjected to ridicule every week on national television. His response — part Heather Mills, part Howard Hughes — only exasperated the situation, driving him to the brink of suicide. Moore’s encounter with Kalvik on a sun-kissed beach in Thailand suggests the Norwegian is still running to escape his past.

At this point what Moore might have intended as a jolly jaunt through la-la-la land becomes something more of an exploration of the human psyche. Realising that he’s confronting human beings with their own failings, he abandons the idea of inviting them to reprise their losing songs. There’s only so much knife-turning a wound can take.

Initially, his subjects adopt an air of carefree insousiance. In Helsinki he meets an upbeat Kojo, who scored zero for Finland at the 1982 contest. These days Kojo manages a successful sports development company. But when the subject turns to that fateful night in Harrogate, storm clouds gather across Kojo’s face. “You know a sports match that finishes with no goals? You know what they call such a match here? A 'Kojo-Kojo'. This is what people say, even today, twenty-some years after."

No doubt, Gunvor Guggisberg harbours similar bitterness. In a classic tale of poppy-cropping, Moore charts Guggisberg's path from golden girl to national pariah.  Even as it celebrated her selection as Switzerland’s 1998 Eurovision entrant, an unwholesome Swiss tabloid was preparing to dish the dirt on the singer’s past as a sex worker. A dismal result at Eurovision released a reservoir of revulsion, and subsequent attempts to rescue her sinking career have come to nothing.

Unsurprisingly, Guggisberg turns down Moore’s invitation to revisit her painful past. But even the no-shows can’t escape his Google-powered searchlight, and some thorough detective work reveals much about the post-zero lives of performers from Austria and Spain. There’s also the troubling suggestion that a Turkish singer’s failure to come to terms with failure may have led to his sudden death.

And so it continues: from Lisbon to Lithuania, Moore finds that scoring zero in Eurovision is rarely taken lightly. Even in the UK, which reserves special derision for Eurovision, Jemini’s point-less performance in 2003 provoked agonised hand-wringing. Meeting the likeable Liverpudlians, Moore learns that false economy, coupled with an anti-British backlash against the bombing of Iraq, sowed the seeds of a barren crop.

It’s not all gloom. Some artists, such as Iceland’s Daníel Ágúst and Tor Endresen from Norway (yes, again), have managed to airbrush Eurovision out of their biographies or to transcend defeat.

But for the most part, Nul Points is a catalogue of shattered dreams, failed relationships, boozing, bankruptcy and brothels. Amidst such a grim landscape, it’s a relief to find Moore’s customary sense of humour shining through, harnessed to his astounding way with words.

Towards the end, however, he does falter, inversing the running order of the UK and Icelandic entries in 1997 and incorrectly asserting that Switzerland have failed to qualify for every Eurovision final since 1998. But such lapses are not to be too harshly treated. After all, the oxygen-depleting experience of immersion in 50 years of Eurovision is enough to drain the most agile of brains.

Full marks for Nul Points.

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