It’s all about the zany outfits, accented English, stilted French and the dreaded nul points: the Eurovision Song Contest is an annual celebration of kinship and kitsch.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of its most iconic iteration, when, on 6 April 1974, Brighton Dome was the stage for ABBA’s unforgettable win with Waterloo, a victory that would catapult a virtual unknown Swedish band to international superstardom.

To commemorate this extraordinary moment in pop history, Brighton Museum & Art Gallery is staging ABBA: One Week in Brighton, an exhibition of photographs, film and ephemera telling the story of a time when Eurovision fever gripped East Sussex, and Brighton’s streets were strung with flags from all the participating countries.

‘We want people to walk, dance and sing their way through ABBA’s visit to Brighton,’ explains the exhibition’s curator, Jody East, who describes the new exhibition as ‘fun’ and ‘nostalgic’. Visitors to the exhibition will be literally walking in the footsteps of ABBA as the entrance to the museum was the Dome entrance back in the seventies.

The exhibition includes ‘the behind-the-scenes stories that you might not normally hear’, bringing in testimonies from ‘the people that created it, that brought it to Brighton, that worked on it and made it happen’, Jody explains. Exhibits include ABBA’s drum kit − not sourced from Lyon and Hall music shop on Brighton’s Western Road, which provided many of the contest’s instruments, but rented instead for £20 from local drummer Larry Wilson, who worked in the furniture store opposite.

The Winner Takes It All

Research for the exhibition began with a drop-in day at Brighton’s Jubilee Library, where locals were invited to share their memories of the 1974 contest. Among them was electricity worker, Chris English, who had the job of ensuring a constant power supply to the Dome. He received tickets for the night and still has the BBC schedule for the week. He also managed to get a photo with British entrant Olivia Newton-John, who had already enjoyed a string of chart successes and would be singing the strident Long Live Love. But Chris didn’t rate her chances. ‘During rehearsals, it was quite clear that ABBA would win as they were far better than all the others!’ he says.

‘As she came out of the stage door, poor Olivia Newton-John was crying her eyes out,’ remembers Eurovision fan Renia Simmonds, whose father took her to the Dome after the show to collect autographs on her Eurovision score sheet. ‘I still have the centre spread of The Argus where I'd collected all the scores and results while watching the show on TV with my friend, Sue,’ she told researchers.

The event should not have even been in Brighton, but Luxembourg, which had won both the 1972 and 1973 editions, was unwilling to host it two years in a row and passed the baton to the UK, who had made the top three both years. The event created a real buzz in Brighton. Radio Brighton ran interviews with contestants and many were spotted by locals in town or on the beach doing photo shoots. A huge police presence around the Dome, due to an increased terrorism threat, further contributed to this sense of a major ‘happening’.

The city made a big impression on ABBA’s Benny Andersson, who noted: 'The relaxation I felt strolling around Brighton, breathing all that beautiful, fresh, spring air was something fantastic. The town had a fascinating look and is like I always dreamed a British coastal town should look. I've promised myself that one day I'll spend some time there and get to know the place really well.’

The BBC had secured a rate for competitors capped at £15.95 a night for bed and breakfast at The Grand and The Bedford hotels. ABBA – made up of Benny, Agnetha Faltskog, Bjorn Ulvaeus and Anni-Frid (Frida) Lyngstad – were allocated The Grand, and celebrated Waterloo’s success in the appropriately named Napoleon Suite. That win, however, almost eluded them when ABBA’s backing tape failed to play properly through the speakers, sounding faint and thready. The band were at the mercy of the engineers. On the day of the competition, just seconds before the dress rehearsal, the problem was finally fixed.

But the technical team were not out of the woods: the Dome’s sloping stage was also a challenge. Sound engineer Alan Taylor remembers dashing out to a hardware shop in The Lanes to buy washers to stop the microphone stands leaning over. The shop assistant, writes Taylor in his online account, refused to accept any money. ‘He was thrilled that all those celebrities were in town and was delighted to help out,’ Taylor recalls. ‘A couple of days later I was able to take him a signed photograph of Olivia Newton-John … To say he was delighted was something of an understatement.’

The show was a great opportunity to showcase Brighton and opened with scenes of the city, past and present. Brighton was in the spotlight again for the interval, which featured a film of The Wombles exploring the city: collecting rubbish in the Pavilion Garden, for example, and enjoying the amusements on the pier.

The evening was hosted by the actress Katie Boyle, resplendent in a feathered flamingo-pink gown. Terry Wogan was assigned the radio commentary at this time, leaving the television talk-through to David Vine, who introduced Sweden, rather cringingly, as a country ‘full of blond Vikings’. But he was clearly taken by ABBA, exclaiming: ‘How about that for an onstage performance! Sweden, they’ve never won it but they’ve surely got to be up amongst the reckoning with that one. It’s certainly gone down well here inside the Dome in Brighton.’

ABBA’s performance was pure fun from the start, with conductor Sven-Olof Walldoff unable to suppress his smile as he took his position in the orchestra dressed as Napoleon. Benny, Björn, Agnetha and Frida were also a sight to behold in their shiny epaulettes and silver platform boots. Anna’s royal-blue jacket with matching hat and knickerbockers would become the most recognisable costume in Eurovision history.

If the reference to the British-led victory over the French was intended to pander to the local audience, the UK judges were unmoved, awarding the Swedish entry ‘nul points’. Speaking to the BBC in 2021, band member Björn Ulvaeus still found it suspicious that the UK scored Sweden, their main competition, so stingily. ‘It sounds like they were trying to do something cunning,’ he said.

If it was an attempt at sabotage, it failed. Waterloo scored 24 points, 6 points clear of the Italian entry Si, which came second, pushing the Dutch, the bookies’ favourite, into third place. Waterloo went on to make the top ten in 20 countries and ABBA’s career went stratospheric. In the UK alone, they have notched up nine No.1 singles and ten No.1 albums.

With Sweden hosting this year’s Eurovision, it feels like we’ve gone full circle. ABBA, now in their seventies, might have declined to perform, but they have fond memories of their week in Sussex. In a recorded message in 2017, Benny thanks Brighton for the blue plaque affixed to the wall of the Dome awarded to the band by BBC Sussex. ‘These were days that I will never forget, and the Dome was a perfect venue for it,’ he says.

ABBA: One Week in Brighton is at Brighton Museum & Art Gallery from 28 March to 4 August. Free with entry to Brighton Museum, £9 adult, £4 child, under 5s free. 

Gaga over ABBA

Fancy taking a nostalgic journey through ABBA’s greatest hits? Here are six celebrations of their music taking place in Sussex this spring.

1 If listening to ABBA is not enough and you want to sing along too, The Super Trouper Singalong led by whacky comedian and singer-songwriter Lorraine Bowen is an all-day session full of tips for improving your vocals, breathing and performance skills. 24 March, Brighton Dome

2 Billed as the closest thing to seeing the real ABBA on stage, ARRIVAL from Sweden is a musical extravaganza featuring several of ABBA’s original musicians and accompanied by the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra. 5 April, Brighton Centre.

3 Gold promises Eurovision favourites alongside ABBA classics sung by the Brighton Gay Men’s Chorus and hosted by Eurovision winners and participants, including Katrina Leskanich of Katrina and the Waves (UK, 1997 winner) and Måns Zelmerlöw (Sweden, 2015 winner). 6 April, Brighton Dome.

4 Escape to the country to dance along to the ABBA tribute band ABBA Chique who are heading up an evening of ABBA in picturesque Hellingly, near Hailsham. 6 April, Blackstock Country Estate.

5 Known for its busy programme of tribute acts, The Factory Live, in Worthing, will host veteran ABBA imitators ABBA REVIVAL, who have been donning the platform boots and spangly stage wear since 2007. 19 April, The Factory Live, Worthing.

6 With their own 30th anniversary coinciding with the demi-centenary of ABBA’s Eurovision win, tribute band ABBA Magic are in a celebratory mood. Their ABBA Tribute Show in Eastbourne will run for three dates. 10 May, 16 August and 5 October, Eastbourne Bandstand.