Ah, for the days of Katie Boyle in a sequinned gown speaking French with an RP accent as a crackling line from the distant Balkans announced the votes of the Yugoslavian jury – yes, along with Wogan’s wry interjections during an especially surreal performance and the oompah rhythm of a Germanic fairground ringing around the theatre; for most of us, that’s what the Eurovision Song Contest represented when we were first exposed to it. It was a musical event unlike any other aired live on TV; it couldn’t be compared to either the Proms or ‘Top of the Pops’; it existed in its own impenetrable and often inexplicable bubble.
Britain’s relationship with the Eurovision Song Contest is almost a microcosm of our relationship with Europe as a whole, rarely treating it with the reverence mainland Europeans themselves do. We’ve often regarded it as a joke and this has been mirrored by many of the most famous UK entries, the majority of which have plumbed the depths of pop banality; in recent years, our attitude towards it has combined the excavation of old-timers like Engelbert Humperdinck and Bonnie Tyler with singers so crap they couldn’t even win the bloody ‘X-Factor’, which speaks volumes. It also doesn’t help that we enter it with the knowledge we won’t win it.
At the beginning of Britain’s earliest European adventure, we had misplaced confidence on a par with the similar absence of realism that characterised England’s inaugural foray into the World Cup in 1950. The curious novelty of a live broadcast that crossed the Channel in the competition’s early days gave a rare platform to the strange music of ‘funny foreigners’ when there was less of a homogenous culture on the continent; we figured we could do better, though the superiority complex the contest bred in Brits wasn’t backed-up until our first triumph courtesy of Sandie Shaw in 1967. Abba’s game-changing win in 1974 was the first year when countries no longer had to sing in their native language, and that altered the feel of the contest thereafter. Those cheeky buggers were now singing in English – and Abba themselves had successfully hijacked the British Glam stomp of Wizzard with ‘Waterloo’, proving Europeans could take us on at our own game.
For the first thirty years of the Eurovision, the UK finished outside the top ten placed songs on just one occasion – 1978, when ‘The Bad Old Days’ by Co-Co (featuring future Bucks Fizz winner Cheryl Baker) slumped to eleventh thanks to a shaky live vocal performance; we won it four times from 1967 to 1981 and finished second ten times from our first appearance in 1957 to 1977. We were runners-up again on five more occasions (the last being in 1998), though we haven’t claimed the Eurovision crown now for twenty years. Since Katrina and the Waves won in 1997, the British entry has only made the top ten at the end of the night on three occasions and has finished rock bottom the same number of times.
Anyone doubting that politics play a part in the way nations vote need only look at the example of 2003, when tuneless duo Jemini not only became the first British entry to finish last but the only one to date to receive the dreaded nul points. Yes, their vocal performance was so flat and off-key that they didn’t deserve much when it came to the voting section of the show, but there was more to it than that. The 2003 Eurovision was staged two months after the UK joined forces with the US to invade Iraq. This transatlantic alliance played badly with our nearest neighbours and it’s entirely feasible to speculate one way that Europe could make its feelings known outside of a summit meeting was to give the Brits a kicking on a programme transmitted across the continent.
What awaits poor Lucie Jones in Kiev tonight, God only knows. This is, of course, the first Eurovision to be staged since Brexit. Theresa May’s chilly reception in Brussels when she made her debut visit to the EU lion’s den as PM said everything about the way the continent views these islands now, so we can hardly expect this year’s entry to be welcomed with open arms. However, the result of last June’s EU Referendum merely gives Europe an official excuse to take revenge on us via Eurovision voting; they’ve been down on us for a long time as it is. We haven’t had an entry placed in the top ten since 2009, and that entry itself – ‘It’s My Time’ by Jade Ewen (No, me neither) – was out first top ten placing in eleven years.
The Eurovision has changed a hell of a lot over the last twenty years as it is; the growing list of entrants – which now bizarrely includes Australia – has swelled to the point whereby semi-finals are held to reduce the length of the actual contest on the night, and Eastern European nations (who didn’t participate during the Cold War) have come to dominate the event ever since they were admitted in the wake of the Berlin Wall’s collapse. The continuing presence of some of the countries that ruled the roost prior to the demise of the Eastern Bloc – France, Germany, Italy, Spain and us – is due to the fact the so-called ‘Big 5’ automatically qualify every year on account of them being the largest financial contributors to the European Broadcasting Union.
Fifty years on from the barefoot dollybird’s win with ‘Puppet on a String’, the UK’s role in one of our most uniquely eccentric annual events is perhaps more in doubt than it ever has been. We can stay put, pushing forward more Cowell rejects in the absence of anyone else and hoping to reach the dizzying heights of 24th place (as Joe and Jake managed last year), or we can finally bow out of a competition that pre-dates the EU as a naive experiment to unite a divided continent. Personally, if we’re going to go, I think we should go out with a bang. I suggest The KLF’s incendiary performance alongside Extreme Noise Terror at the 1992 Brit Awards as a blueprint for our European exit. Any takers?
© The Editor