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So did Franco cheat Cliff?

Cliff Richard from Great Britain sings 'Congratulations' in practise before the finals of Eurovision. 5 April 1968. PA/TopFoto - Credit: �PA Photos / TopFoto

RICHARD LUCK ponders one of the great modern conspiracy theories

It was a remarkable year for British music, 1968. The Beatles released The White Album, the Stones set Beggars Banquet before the hungry masses, The Who began recording Tommy and, under the guise of The New Yardbirds, Led Zeppelin played their first concert. Meanwhile, Cream played their final gig and Dave Gilmour joined Pink Floyd.

A more noteworthy 12 months it’s hard to imagine. As for the rather sickly icing upon this particularly appetising cake, that should have come in the shape of a second successive Eurovision Song Contest triumph. In Vienna in 1967, Sandie Shaw barefoot shuffled her way to victory by a record points margin. Surely Cliff Richard – the biggest British male star of his day – was a shoo-in to repeat this success with Congratulations?

Though his star shone less brightly in the shadow of The Beatles and the Stones, Cliff was a still a very big name in 1968; his poor album sales of 1967 being offset by a trio of top 10 singles. In securing his services for the show of shows, the host nation thought it only right and proper that they should hold the event at the Royal Albert Hall. And with the positively regal Katie Boyle hired to host the big event, Cliff’s Eurovision coronation appeared a foregone conclusion.

So how come he wound up with the runners-up rosette? The short answer is because he lost by a solitary point to the Spanish entry, Massiel’s La, La, La. Then there are those who believe that Cliff was the victim of a conspiracy, one set in train by Spain’s ruler Francisco Franco.

This might sound like the worst kind of tinfoil hat thinking, but there have been more than a few Eurovision controversies over the years. From Greece and Cyprus seemingly always giving one another top marks to the four-way tie of 1969 and the ongoing war-via-voting between Azerbaijan and Armenia, there are plenty of people who take this seemingly frivolous affair very, very seriously indeed.

As for 1968, the conspiracy’s key proponent is the Spanish documentary filmmaker Montse Fernández Villa. Released in 2008 – the 40 anniversary of the ‘incident’ – Fernández Villa’s 1968, Yo Viví El Mayo Español is an account of how the civil unrest that swept France that year impacted upon Franco’s Spain. A poor year for the El Caudillo all round – the UN having insisted Franco grant the Spanish colony of Equatorial Guinea its independence or face the consequences – it’s Fernández Villa’s contention that, were Spain’s students to rise up, the Generalissimo’s game might have been up. But how to appease hordes of baying adolescence? Why, by winning the Eurovision Song Contest, of course.

As for how the regime went about corrupting the continent’s biggest annual television event, Fernández Villa believes that Franco dispatched agents to the four corners of Europe. From Dublin to Dubrovnik, the officials bought up recording artists’ contracts and thrashed out generous television licensing deals, all on the understanding that, those receiving the cash looked favourably upon Spain’s Eurovision entry come the big evening.

Weight was added to this theory by José María Íñigo, a journalist who worked for Spain’s national broadcaster TVE during the late ’60s. Believing vote rigging to be commonplace, Íñigo explained to Fernández Villa that Spanish record label bosses had agreed to license records by Czech and Hungarian performers with certain, very specific conditions attached.

Causing something of a sensation upon its original broadcast, Villa’s 1968, Yo Viví El Mayo Español was music to one person’s ears in particular. ‘I’ve lived with this number two thing for so many years, it would be wonderful if someone official from the contest turned around and said: ‘Cliff, you won that darn thing after all,” a delighted Cliff Richard told the Guardian.

‘If they believe there is evidence that it was I that was the winner, there won’t be a happier person on the planet,’ he added. ‘It’s never good to lose, never good to feel a loser. When I went on that night I said to the band: ‘Look guys, there will be 400 million people watching, it will be a massive plug for our song.’ And it was. I think we sold a million singles. But we really wanted to win!’

But cracks began to appear in Fernández Villa’s argument. First up, the winner on the night, Massiel, pointed out that, had Franco wanted to field a contestant who was loyal to his cause, he could have found someone more devout that herself. Real name María de los Ángeles Felisa Santamaría Espinosa, Massiel also explained that the most eye-catching result of the night had less to do with skulduggery than with hard work on her part. For while the Germany jury’s decision to give her top marks had some whispering about the fallout from two world wars and one World Cup, a whistle-stop tour of the country, including an appearance on the country’s most popular entertainment programme, provided a more convincing explanation for her popularity

You really didn’t need to press the conspiracy theory too hard to find its weaknesses. Take José María Íñigo’s claim that Franco’s people were handing out recording contracts left, right and centre in Bulgaria and Czechoslovakia; since neither country was a member of the European Broadcasting Union in 1968, they weren’t eligible for Eurovision. As for Íñigo’s himself, upon re-watching the documentary, he felt compelled to apologise to Massiel – in repeating what he claimed was a widespread rumour, he could now see the damage that he had inflicted upon both the singer and her reputation. In a further act of contrition, the journalist gave his full backing to Massiel’s claims that the voting conspiracy was a fiction concocted by La Sexta, the broadcaster that commissioned 1968, Yo Viví El Mayo Español.

From ugly fascist plot to a whole lot of fuss about nothing, the 1968 Eurovision scandal must now take its place alongside the very biggest of whoppers. That Spain’s original entrant was withdrawn from the competition because he insisted on singing in Catalan gave the tale a kernel of credibility, but in the greater scheme of things, the Eurovision Song Contest isn’t really that important.

Or rather, it isn’t to most people. For when the votes were being counted in 1968, Cliff Richard was so nervous, he locked himself in the toilet. And rather than walking away after suffering the narrowest of defeats, he’d enter the contest for a second time in 1973, finishing a plucky third with the lamentable Power To All Our Friends. That he also presented the BBC’s Eurovision preview shows and the Song For Europe programmes between 1970 and 1972 hints at something bordering on obsession.

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