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Close to heaven
Benidorm Song Contest

In the popular quiosco Tio Quico, two journalists and a small-town alcalde sat down in 1958 to discuss over a glass of tinto de verano (red wine and lemonade) an idea that would help transform this quiet little seaside town into the major tourist destination in the whole of Europe.

Teodoro Delgado, Juan Carlos Villacorta and the mayor of Benidorm, Pedro Zaragoza Orts, came up with the idea of the Festival de la Canción de Benidorm. Whilst the idea of a song contest wasn't new (there'd been one running for ten years in the Italian town of San Remo, and the Eurovision version had started two years earlier), the impact of the Benidorm Song Contest went far beyond the expectations of the trio enjoying an after-dinner drink.

The Primer Festival de la Canción de Benidorm launched onto the airwaves of half the world 'Un Telegrama', written by the García Segura brothers of Madrid, and 'brilliantly interpreted' by Monna Bell and Juanito Segarra. Separately, not as a duo, because for many years each song was sung twice, one female voice and one male, each giving a different interpretation. In this, the first year, Monna Bell stole the show with a rendition that stole the heart of at least the alcalde. "There was a beautiful message in the voice of Monna Bell." a misty-eyed Pedro Zaragoza said. "Destino: tu corazón. Domicillo: cerca del cielo. Texto: Te quiero, te quiero." (Destination: your heart. Home: close to heaven. Words: I love you, I love you.) He obviously wasn't the only one who felt this way because almost seventy versions of the song were recorded world-wide, even one in Japanese. It remained number one in the Spanish hit parade for four weeks.

Even if the Festival never saw a second year, it had achieved the desired result, as it was commented on at the time that "the newest and youngest tourist town in Europe has caught the interest of the tour operator. The tourist promotion that Benidorm has, in the song contest, a grand gesture." In a typically grandiloquent statement, the Municipal Bulletin proclaimed that "Our country has responded to this happy initiative that has raised the name of Spain across all the seas, traversed all the frontiers and created a sympathetic ambience."

The following year the three-day event was televised throughout Spain, and also in France, Italy and Portugal. At the end of the show a performance was given by Los 5 Latinos, the beginning of a tradition in which major international stars would perform as part of the Festival. Telly Savalas (who, despite being better known as the liquorice-paper cigarette smoking TV cop Kojak, also had a large stage show); Aretha Franklin 'la reina de Soul'; Joe Cocker, who had them dancing in the isles for the Silver Anniversary in 1985, and there was even an attempt, when the show was at the height of its fame in 1968, to get Cliff Richard, at that time the idol of multitudes. He didn't go, and the organisers didn't realise that that year's winner would go on to be even more famous than the youthful British rock'n'roller. A signal failure of the end of one festival show was the vampish American singer Grace Jones. Having exhibited her roguish lack of manners by walloping the British chat-show host Russell Harty, she endeared herself equally to the Benidorm audience by coming on stage late. The organisers claimed a technical hitch, but it was reported in the press later that she had refused to appear until she had been paid her $15,000 fee. Someone grumbled that her show was worth neither the wait nor the money.

But it wasn't just the foreign 'stars' who threw tantrums. In 1961 Carmen Sevilla, then one of Spain's most famous singers and actresses who often worked in Hollywood, was furious when her equally famous songwriter husband, Augusto Algueró, didn't win. It could be seen as just another star feeling slighted, but the prize of 100,000 pesetas for the writer of the winning song, at a time when a well paid member of the middle classes would be lucky to get two thousand a month, was something to get het up about.

It was in 1962 that the first major career was launched at the Benidorm Song Contest. Rafael Martos (who had first performed at the Festival as one of Los 5 Latinos) won the first prize of 50,000 pesetas with the song 'Llevan'. Dumping the 'Martos' he became known simply as 'Rafael' from this point on and became one of Spain's most popular performers.

Two years later, only five years since Monna Bell took the world by storm-ish, the Festival de la Canción de Benidorm was presented on radio or television in thirty-two different countries including Portugal, France, England, the United States, Mexico, Canada, Columbia, Uruguay, Puerto Rico and, for some strange reason, Angola. However, having reached the dizzy heights of international transmission, the home grown press were less than satisfied, and there was considerable criticism of the uneven quality of the songs.

Success built upon success (it was said that General Franco's wife, Doña Carmen Polo de Franco, looked forward to receiving a recording of each year's Festival), but the highlight of the first decade, and some say the highlight of the entire history of the Festival, was on the 17 July, 1968 when a 'joven y tímido cantante' (a young and nervous singer) won first prize with the song 'La vida sigue igual', which he had both written and performed. Julio Iglesias had arrived. This ex-goalkeeper for Real Madrid, who had only taken up song writing while recovering from a severe leg injury, was making his first public appearance so it's hardly surprising that, in front of an audience of 10,000, he was a little 'timido'. Cliff Richard wasn't needed after all.

The tenth annual Festival was finally the point when the singers and songs became known internationally, with Julio Iglasias himself and two of the bands competing, Los Gritos and Los Payos, reaching the hit parades of both Spain and America. Never again would the Festival give birth to such an acclaimed international star, but it still fulfilled the roll it was designed for - pulling in the tourists.

Very little in the entertainment world lasts forever, and by the mid-70's Benidorm Song Contest's star had begun to wane. In 1975 it moved from the Bull Ring to the Pelota Stadium and became an evening dress affair, bringing complaints that this kept away the ordinary people of Benidorm, because they didn't wear jackets or ties in the summer; in 1976 the jury chose 'Si yo fuera él', an unpopular choice and they were booed by the audience; 1977 brought a move to Benidorm Palace which had a splendid stage but only one quarter of the Bull Ring's seating capacity, so the following year the organisers erected a vast screen on nearby Levante beach - only to have it blown over twice. It was also in 1978 that it was discovered that a song that reached the semi-finals had previously been recorded in France, when the rules categorically stated that all songs must be written for the Festival.

By 1983 it was obvious that the Benidorm Song Contest was on its last legs it was described in the local press as a 'cold potato'), and Manual Catalán Chana, the alcalde at the time, said, "I think that the Festival was a great idea and it broke many moulds, but the Spanish society of 1983 is not that of the 60's or 70's. The Festival of this year was a show, not a competition, and after having missed only one year in it's twenty-three year history, El Festivál de la Canción de Benidorm was laid to rest, apart from a twenty-fifth anniversary special in 1985.

A rest was all it had, because in 1992 it was given a new breath of life by the then alcalde, Eduardo Zaplana, who later went on to become President of the Generalitat Valenciana. Now coming towards the end of the first decade of its new life, the Song Contest goes from strength to strength. Broadcast nationally, with independent juries from all the provinces of Spain, it is once again one of Benidorm's major tourist attractions. In 1998 Julio Iglesias once more took the stage but this time not as a 'joven y timido cantante', but as one of the major singing stars in the world. He presented the prizes at the thirtieth Festival and celebrated twenty years of success, born on the stage of an idea formed in a little quiosco in a quite seaside village.


Derek Workman


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