Did Franco rob Derry of Eurovision glory?

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As Eurovision's annual festival of frivolity concludes for another year, a burning controversy from the distant past remains unresolved: did the Spanish dictator General Franco steal the UK's Song Contest glory in 1968?

Nowhere does the whiff of skulduggery rankle more than Derry-Londonderry, which recently emerged from the dark days of Northern Ireland's Troubles to become the inaugural UK City of Culture for 2013.

Derry

For it was one of Derry's most famous sons, singer songwriter Phil Coulter, who was denied historic back-to-back Eurovision victories on that night, 45 years ago.

It was the first time Eurovision was broadcast in colour, but the facts of that evening in May 1968 are hardly black and white.

That fateful night

The controversy occurred at London's Royal Albert Hall. Cliff Richard had flawlessly performed Congratulations, the UK entry, composed by Phil Coulter and co-writer Bill Martin.

As Coulter and Martin were brought to the winner's enclosure with their song in a seemingly unassailable position, Coulter felt victory was assured.

"Bill was superstitious and didn't want to leave his seat until the result was confirmed," says Coulter.

"I had no such fears. Everyone was convinced we were home and then I believe at the end Germany voted for the Spanish entry, La La La, meaning Spain snatched victory by just one vote."

Archive: Derry songwriter Phil Coulter discusses the 1968 Eurovision Song Contest

Historic moment denied

Coulter and Martin, who had written the 1967 Eurovision winner Puppet on a String were denied the chance to make history. No song writer before or since has won the title in consecutive years.

"In one fell swoop we were yesterday's men. We were quickly escorted from the winner's enclosure to the loser's enclosure and the suite I had booked for a celebration instead hosted a wake," says Coulter.

"There was certainly a sense that something odd had gone on, but maybe it was just the disappointment of coming so close to creating history."

Did Franco fix it?

Start Quote

Phil Coulter

It is a little bizarre to imagine that Franco sent his emissaries with a car full of Rioja”

End Quote Phil Coulter Writer of Congratulations

Four decades later and memories of the disappointment had almost subsided when a Spanish documentary posed a series of fresh questions, reopening old wounds.

The film alleged that Francisco Franco, the dictator who ruled Spain for nearly 40 years, rigged Eurovision in his country's favour. But for this, Congratulations would have been awarded the title.

According to director Montse Fernández Villa, Franco was determined to claim Eurovision glory for Spain. The investigation detailed how 'El Generalísimo', as he was known, was so keen to improve his country's international image and boost its emerging tourist industry that he sent TV executives across Europe to buy goodwill in the run-up to the contest.

Massiel, who performed 'La La La' for Spain, was a last minute substitute, brought in to replace the original singer Joan Manuel Serrat, who had been dropped on the insistence of the Franco regime for planning to sing in Catalan rather than Spanish. When Massiel beat the hotly tipped Cliff Richard, she was feted as a national hero.

The documentary provoked controversy in Spain, Journalist José María Iñigo, who testified on film that the rigging was common knowledge, apologised and said that he had merely repeated a widespread rumour.

Truth in the rumours?

So does Phil Coulter believe there is any truth in these sensational claims?

"It would have been possible to have influenced the vote, as back then there was no public vote. There would have been a panel of Ordinary Joes who were all picked by the TV stations," he says.

"It is conceivable, though a little bizarre, to imagine that Franco sent out his Spanish emissaries from Madrid with a car full of fine Rioja and the offer of free holidays in Mallorca to bribe the series. I think it was more likely that Spanish TV asked TV stations from other countries to do them a favour. It's the Eurovision not the United Nations!"

Derry's reaction

Indignation at this alleged musical miscarriage of justice runs deep among Derry natives, as visitors quickly learn when they take a tour of the city with famed guide Martin McCrossan.

McCrossan, who knows every fact, fable and urban myth about the walled city, says the story always creates quite a stir.

"Our visitors are shocked when you tell them the rumour that Derry and Phil Coulter were robbed of the famous Eurovision Song Contest. But, as we always point out, there is no doubt that Congratulations was the real winner."

Derry's most celebrated band, The Undertones, were prompted to take a drastic course of action, as bass player Mickey Bradley explains.

"The Undertones had certainly heard the rumours that Coulter was robbed by Franco. As a result, we imposed a cultural boycott of Spain. Between 1978 and 1983, in our first incarnation, we played all over Europe but never in Spain."

An admirable display of artistic solidarity, no doubt, although Bradley adds a caveat.

"Of course, we never received any actual offers to play there… but still."

Congratulations, Sir Cliff?

As for the song's performer, now Sir Cliff Richard, he has previously said he would be delighted if he was ever declared the victor.

"I've lived with this number two thing for so many years, it would be wonderful if someone official said: 'Cliff, you won that darn thing after all'. If they believe there is evidence that I was the winner, there won't be a happier person on the planet."

The end of the affair?

Is it realistic to think that the result could ever be overturned? Coulter is sceptical.

"I find it hard to imagine that the European Broadcasting Union is burning the midnight oil investigating claims of Eurovision skulduggery from Franco. I would think the Spanish Government are currently more concerned about keeping their country afloat than investigating these claims."

Rather than allowing the grievance to fester, Coulter has stoically turned the other cheek and instead takes satisfaction from the spectacular success Congratulations continues to enjoy post-Eurovision.

"Congratulations is now played at all significant Royal events, which is a nice little earner for me. So I'm a big of fan of the Royal Family now. I call it my pension song, as it has fed, clothed and educated a couple of my kids."

City of Culture

While Derry enjoys a year-long celebration as the inaugural UK City of Culture, losing out in 1968, clearly hasn't held the city back. As well as the many festivities and events of 2013, Derry was recently rated the 'the fourth best city in the world to visit'.

Whether Franco fiddled it, or Europe's music lovers really did think La La La was a better song, being denied Eurovision glory has done nothing to stifle the city's burgeoning global reputation as an artistic and cultural hotspot.

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