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Wednesday 29 Oct 2014

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Eurovision just got serious

Eurovision – Your Country Needs You

Saturday 17 January

He's found Maria, Joseph and, most recently, Nancy, but now Andrew Lloyd Webber is about to begin the search for something that will test even his mettle – a credible UK entry for the Eurovision Song Contest in Moscow in May 2009. Not only is he spearheading the search for the act who will represent the UK at the Contest – although the final say is down to BBC One viewers, who will vote for their favourite act – but the man who's written Top 10 hits including Any Dream Will Do, Don't Cry For Me Argentina and You Must Love Me is also writing this year's Eurovision song.

Following disastrous results for the UK over the last few years – including Javine's Touch My Fire in 2005, which finished 22nd, Daz Sampson's Teenage Life in 2006, which came 19th, Scooch's Flying The Flag (For You) in 2007, which came 22nd, and former X-Factor contestant Andy Abraham's Even If in 2008, which finished joint last after securing votes from just two countries (San Marino and Ireland) – Lord Lloyd Webber is stepping up to the mark and hopes to turn our fortunes around.

He tells Jane Dudley why he thinks he's the right man for the job, about the legendary Eurovision parties he attends and about how he managed to secure one of the most influential votes in Europe for the UK entry – that of Prime Minister Putin from host country Russia.

"I want to make sure that we have a good act and a great song – if I can write something decent. I'm not going to write the song until we know who we have, or the acts that are likely to win, and at that point I'll probably write maybe three or four songs.

"I always like to write for artists if I can and I don't get much chance because obviously with the theatre I write a piece rather than for an artist."

A nationwide casting search for the right act was launched in October, and the BBC was inundated with applicants. Andrew and his team of professionals, including top A&R man, Colin Barlow, have whittled the acts down to just six, who will battle it out on the live programmes, beginning on 10 January 2009.

"Colin is somebody I've known for a while and I felt I wanted someone to help me on the more contemporary side, someone who knows what's going on, so he's been very much involved with the selection of the artists."

In the live shows, the contestants will perform a wide range of songs and will have to face some tough challenges: "Some of the songs will be mine – sometimes it's useful to hear them sing one of my own songs because I can see how they work," says Andrew.

He is taking his challenge so seriously that he has paid a very special visit to someone who may be able to help influence the host nation's vote ... although obviously there are no guarantees: "We went to Russia where we met Prime Minister Putin. I interviewed him and we got some very interesting comments on not only the Eurovision Song Contest but also on political matters as well.

"If he's not a big fan [of Eurovision] then he's very well briefed," laughs Andrew. "He knew a lot about music and he seemed to know a lot about my music as well, which was interesting. Jesus Christ Superstar was a big underground record in Russia.

"Anyway, we secured his vote on a handshake ... but he was at pains to point out that Russia was a democratic country and that he can't speak for the people," says Andrew, who, as well as writing the UK's Eurovision entry is also working hard on his 16th musical, a sequel to The Phantom Of The Opera.

"We also met with the Eurovision Fan Club in Russia – they are all 17-20-year-olds with very strong feelings. Graham [Norton, who presents the live Eurovision – Your Country Needs You shows and who has recently been announced as the BBC's Eurovision Song Contest presenter following Sir Terry Wogan's departure] and I met them and they really resent the fact that the UK doesn't take it seriously – they really, really do."

Andrew also confesses that he managed to ask both Putin and the Fan Club members the question on everybody's lips: "I said why do all these bloc countries vote for each other? Prime Minister Putin got out of it by saying well, of course you understand that there are a lot of Russians in these countries, which is true, but that has a very interesting political ramification because he's actually saying that in Estonia, Latvia and the Ukraine particularly, there's a big Russian population that has to be looked after."

Seriously though Andrew says he's taking his role, he does admit to having had some weaker moments while trawling through the auditions, particularly when watching them with Graham: "Some of them are actually hysterical," he confesses.

On their travels, Andrew and Graham also visited the venue for the 2009 Contest in Moscow – the Olimpiisky indoor arena – which, he says, is vast. "It's like Earls Court 1 and 2 put together. It's absolutely huge. Apparently they've got some kind of 3D audiovisual idea for it. It's such a huge space that you know what's going to happen – half these countries are going to come in with great dance acts with roller-skaters and ice and God knows what, and there's a side of me that says when you see a space like this, less is more. If you put a wonderful little girl just in the middle of the stage – if we discover a sort of Leona Lewis, we can put her in the middle of the stadium with just one spotlight on her, and you can sometimes achieve more than you can by having the whole world skating around doing aerobics!"

Andrew has long been a fan of Eurovision, so much so that he regularly attends themed parties. His favourite host is Richard Curtis (writer of Four Weddings And A Funeral, Bridget Jones's Diary, Notting Hill and Love Actually and TV series including Blackadder and The Vicar Of Dibley, and founder of Comic Relief and Make Poverty History). "Everybody has Eurovision parties and Richard Curtis's are legend and I always go. We all turn up with silly hats and flags and cook something from each country. There's a rotation of people each year. You'd be quite surprised who has these parties," he laughs, being careful not to reveal any names.

One of his favourite parties was in 2000, the year Jemini represented the UK, receiving the dreaded "nul points". "They were the greatest act – I remember watching it around Richard's house and it was very interesting. Some music struck up and it was the UK entry and what had happened was they'd come in with the backing track in the wrong place. I thought it was absolutely splendid!"

Andrew will obviously be hoping the same fate does not await his Eurovision act and will go to great pains to ensure that doesn't happen. "We've got time once the act is chosen at the end of January – we've got three months. I can put them in all sorts of situations."

He also hopes to visit some of the countries involved in the Contest: "I've got a couple of things coming up in Russia later in 2009 and one in the Ukraine, but I've got shows in, I would say, 26 European countries, if not more, so around April I think I'll go and visit them! I'll then follow on and definitely take the winning act to some places."

With all this planned, hopefully the UK's Eurovision act will have nothing to fear on the big night. "They've got to remember that they're performing to two different things – it's got to go down well in this huge, great stadium and be a great performance, but also at the same time they've got to perform to television," says Andrew. "And for a new artist it's a very difficult trick. It's great experience for people who haven't done it before."

Andrew will be there every step of the way to help the chosen act and, he says, he hopes they go on to great success. "One of the things that I'm really proud of is that I've kept really close relationships with all of the people who've come through the reality shows so far [How Do You Solve A Problem Like Maria?, Any Dream Will Do and I'd Do Anything] – the top 10s, in all cases. I know what they're doing when they phone me, I see them all the time and I try to keep tabs on their careers, otherwise there's no interest in the whole thing."

He reels off what a few of the acts are currently doing, including Samantha Barks, from I'd Do Anything, who's playing Sally Bowles in the touring version of Cabaret: "She's 17½ and on the road to starring and with great reviews. I suspect she's going to come into London at some point with that and that is fantastic.

"And Ben [James-Ellis from Any Dream Will Do] is a huge star in Hairspray," he continues. "He's wonderful in it, absolutely wonderful. I don't think he would've got that job if he hadn't done the BBC programme.

"So it'll be the same, I hope, with this – I hope we find somebody really leftfield but good – they've got to be good."

Let's hope that, whatever happens in Moscow in 2009, both Andrew and the act chosen to represent the UK do not meet their Waterloo...

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