Hartlepool singer Michael Rice is in Tel Aviv for this year's Eurovision Song Contest, where he will represent the UK with his song Bigger Than Us.
Ahead of the competition's live final on Saturday, Martin Phillips is reporting live from Israel bringing the latest updates on all of the build-up to the competition. Stay tuned for more articles from Martin on Michael's journey as the week continues.
Michael Rice had not one, but two once-in-a-lifetime experiences on Monday.
Firstly, in the morning, he realised his dream of going up in a hot-air balloon over Tel Aviv, and last night he was guest of honour at the British Ambassador’s beautiful home.
He was warmly welcomed by Ambassador David Quarrey and his husband Henriquez, along with a couple of hundred guests, all enjoying the ambassador’s wonderfully illuminated back garden in an upscale neighbourhood of Tel Aviv.
The ambassador laid on high-end fish and chips, along with an array of desserts and drinks – Pimms to the front!
Michael mingled with the crowd for a couple of hours, many jostling for photographs.
After a warm-up act by three local drag queens, he took the stage for two songs – Tina Turner’s Proud Mary, the song he made his own on All Together Now, and a version of his Eurovision song, Bigger Than Us with just a piano and his backing singers.
It was previously announced that Michael would also sing Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah, but wisely, he opted to save his voice, since being in top form for Saturday’s final is critical.
Michael appeared quite humbled by the event and rather bashful on stage – everyone there genuinely loved it, and anyone who doubted Michael’s natural singing talent left the garden party a believer.
At the event, Michael also sent a thank you message to back home in the North East and said that everyone's support had meant "the absolute world".
He continued: "It's absolutely surreal to think I'm here living my dream and I just want to thank everyone back home from my hometown Hartlepool, the rest of the UK and the rest of Europe, so thank you."
Since his singing prowess is unquestionable, it’s really all up to the song and presentation to garner the votes on Saturday. And Michael will be likely be up against some stiff competition.
In a full rehearsal for Tuesday's first semi-final, there were some real standout songs and stage performances.
The first semi is certainly the weakest of the two, and it’s fairly easy to guess which songs will make it through to the final.
What to expect in the first semi-final for the 2019 Eurovision Song Contest
A few countries will give the UK a run for its money – Australia seems to have adopted a stage set up that if it’s not original, must have been developed by Cirque du Soleil.
Kate Miller-Heidke and her two backing dancers are brought on to the stage attached to the top of bendy poles which must be at least 20ft high at least – the effect is amazing and may give the rather fractured operatic song Zero Gravity a huge advantage.
Also in the first semi-final, the Icelandic band Hatari has caused a bit of a stir in Tel Aviv with some of their pronouncements on capitalism and societal dischord, but they have walked a fine line here, being hugely respectful of their hosts and rather tight-lipped to be sure that they don’t offend anyone.
At Sunday’s orange carpet event, they said nothing to the press. Their delegation head Felix Bergsson and their head of PR Runar Freyr Gislasson have together created perhaps the perfect storm with Hatari, to conjure up massive pre-Eurovision interest, which may help deliver Iceland their highest placing in 10 years.
Hatari’s unique and pounding industrial techno style song Hatrid Mun Sigra (Hate Will Prevail) with a powerful stage performance may offend some, but it’s sure to secure a place in the final and as it is so different to anything seen at Eurovision before, it could shock a lot of passive viewers into voting – just to cause trouble.
Many are hoping for a first-ever Icelandic win and this visually stunning performance could just do it.
Opening the first semi-final is Tamta from Cyprus, who appears to have been somewhat influenced by Iceland.
She incorporates PVC, thigh-high boots and chains into her outfit.
With a sure “douze points” from Greece, also in the same semi, Cyprus will sail through to the final.
Talking of Greece, Katarine Duska’s Better Love is also beautifully presented – her unique, deep voice accompanied by nymphs in chiffon and two female fencers artfully handling two epees each.
Estonia’s Victor Crone, on stage alone with a guitar gives a simple but impressive vocal performance and is also sure to be in the final, but in the weaker semi, political voting, rather than strength of song and performance could result in a golden ticket to Saturday’s final or a quick return to Tel Aviv airport for a flight home.
Last night, Spain and France (two of the big five guaranteed a spot in the final) and hosts Israel performed at the end of the semi-final rehearsal.
Spain’s Miki gives a high energy performance of La Venda. This really got the audience animated, but it’s a little frenetic and typically Spanish in feel, so may not have universal appeal.
French Bilal Hassani has been controversial for his gender-fluid appearance, his wedding dress outfit on the orange carpet, and his accompaniment on-stage by a rather overweight female ballet dancer.
A song about breaking through barriers and being true to oneself, it had many in the audience in tears.
Sung in French and English, it’s either going to be a worthy successor to Austria’s Conchita Wurst, or it will flop. Most in the audience would have been moved to vote for it.
Israel’s Kobi Marimi’s song Home appears to be designed to take Israel from last year’s top to this year’s bottom, a feat accomplished recently by Austria and Portugal.
Technical hitches in semi-final one caused delays and many to leave the arena before it Kobi performed.
The semi-final selections are designed to reduce the impact of political voting which can’t be totally avoided, and the approach has usually been successful, but this year, it means that weaker songs from the first semi-final will move forward, while performers on Thursday’s second semi-final will fail to make it.
It’s a shame and many on Thursday will be disappointed to see their favourites sent home, but that’s the luck of the draw.
*Stay tuned for more on rehearsals for Thursday’s second semi-final. Video by Darron Copeland.