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El Generalísimo

Did Franco steal the 1968 Eurovision from Cliff Richard and Phil Coulter?

Spain’s Terry Wogan says he might have… Cliff’s still waiting for an apology… Coulter says he was so shocked to lose the contest — he even smoked a cigarette.

“WHAT WILL COME second to ‘Congratulations?’” the press were pondering in the run-up to the final of the 1968 Eurovision Song Contest, staged at the Royal Albert Hall in London.

The incessantly catchy song — which has sold over 250 million — was the runaway favourite to win. Phil Coulter — one of Ireland’s best-known songwriters to this day — had penned the song for Cliff Richard, alongside Bill Martin. The pair had song contest pedigree too; they also composed Sandie Shaw’s winning entry, Puppet On A String, a year earlier.

The song’s defeat was one of the biggest upsets in Eurovision history (yes, there are certain people who take the event that seriously — and it was a much bigger deal back then than it is now). The winner on the night? Hands up who wants to give us a few bars of ‘La, la la‘.

(Youtube: Eurovision)

The rumour that Spanish dictator Franco had essentially rigged the vote, in order to win the rights to stage the event in Spain the following year, has surfaced before — it first came to widespread public attention when Jose Maria Inigo (essentially, the country’s Terry Wogan — he’ll be doing the commentary for next week’s Eurovision finals in Copenhagen) made the claims in a 2008 TV documentary.

The broadcaster had said that Franco sent corrupt TV officials around Europe in advance of the contest, offering figures from other state broadcasters cash or future favours in return for rigging individual nations’ voting panels.

Nothing concrete’s ever been proven about the claims — but one Irish documentary-maker recently spent three months investigating their veracity, interviewing as many of the main players as possible.

(Youtube: TheSuhanee4)

“You have to remember, Eurovision had huge caché at the time — much more than these days, with hundreds of millions of people tuning in,” says producer Richard Fitzpatrick.

You had top singers from different countries, like Cliff Richard, taking part. Artists like Dean Martin covered its winning songs. At the time, Spain was a pariah in the international community — so this would have been seen as great PR.

There was already controversy in Spain in the weeks leading up to the contest. Well-known singer Joan Manuel Serrat had initially been entered to take part — but his demand to sing in Catalan was deemed an affront to Francoist Spain. He was replaced at short notice with the young female singer, Massiel.

AP / Press Association Images AP / Press Association Images / Press Association Images

Singer-songwriter Joan Manuel Serrat, pictured in 2012.

As part of his research, Fitzpatrick managed to track down the former owners of Serrat’s record company: Claudi Marti and Josep Maria Massip both told the documentary the same story about a pre-Eurovision publicity tour by the singer.

Says Fitzpatrick, “They essentially said that while Serrat did a promotional tour, executives from Televisión Española travelled with him and arranged to buy up all the votes”.

There were 17 countries involved in the Song Contest at the time. How many bribes were offered – or to whom – nobody’s been able to firmly establish.

The big problem is that all the main characters are dead — so it’s difficult to get first hand evidence. My own feeling, based on everything I’ve heard, is that it seems valid.

On the night, Spain won by just a single point — pipping the UK by 29 points to 28.

“Going in as favourites didn’t make me very comfortable,” Coulter told the documentary.

I suppose being from Derry — I’m more naturally an underdog, but it was a home game. We’d won the previous year. Cliff Richard was a hero so we were buoyant and optimistic.

PA Archive / Press Association Images ... Phil Coulter PA Archive / Press Association Images ... Phil Coulter / Press Association Images ... Phil Coulter

The songwriter’s assessment of the Spanish entry?

“I didn’t even think it was a contender.

I thought it was very average. I thought the lyric, ‘la, la, la, la, la…’ isn’t going to win any Grammy Awards.

In fact, the UK’s lead had looked so unbeatable that an usher from the BBC asked Coulter and his songwriting partner to come backstage to accept the award.

“It made me feel great,” says Coulter.

Bill Martin didn’t want to leave his seat. He’s very superstitious: ‘No! No! Not going up there.’ He didn’t want to leave because he thought it was tempting fate, and he was proven to be right.

Coulter recalls being physically shocked as the final result emerged.

“We’re standing in the wings, and as we’re standing in the wings … wallop, bing — Spain goes wallop.

“We were actually standing ready to walk on stage so it was kind of devastating…

I remember it was one of the first times in my life that I smoked a cigarette… It just seemed like something I should do.

And how did Cliff deal with the upset? The perennial Bachelor Boy’s done pretty well in the intervening years — as you may or may not be aware. But the loss still irks him…

“I’ve lived with this number two thing for so many years,” the singer told The Guardian back in 2008, when the claims initially emerged.

It would be wonderful if someone official from the contest turned around and said: ‘Cliff, you won that darn thing after all’.

Want to know more? You can hear Richard Fitzpatrick’s documentary ‘The Year Franco Stole the Eurovision’ on the RTÉ website >

Related: Did you know that the voice of the Luas also presented the Eurovision Song Contest?

Read: Singing Irish priest performs on the Late Late, gets confused with Father Ted

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