It wasn’t exactly the same as the sinister sabotage that prevented Cliff and ‘Congratulations’ from claiming the crown in 1968, though it did seem a tad unfair that a recent tweaking of the Eurovision voting system resulted in the UK’s first win for 25 years being downgraded at the eleventh hour. Having soared ahead on the jury vote – and the jury vote always used to be binding – ‘Space Man’ by the hirsute Sam Ryder topped the board once all the individual nations had had their say. Up until the last five or six years, that would’ve been enough and the embarrassing nul points and relegation zone finishes for virtually the whole of this century were poised to be swept aside by a surreal scenario few viewers in this country thought they’d ever see again. The 2003 invasion of Iraq and (even more so) Brexit hardly made us the most popular nation on the Continent, and our European neighbours seemed to relish inflicting an annual humiliation on us. We’d grown so accustomed to it that once Saturday’s votes began to be announced in the broken English of each country’s equivalent of a ‘One Show’ presenter, we expected the same old punishment.
However, despite the standard Swedish Euro ballad and the nutcracker-tastic posteriors of those three Spanish ladies making a big impact in the Turin arena, it was evident more or less from the off that the British entry had impressed almost all of the individual juries. As the voting progressed, we were even receiving maximum points from countries ordinarily regarded as traditional enemies, i.e. France and Germany. The gate-crashing Aussies couldn’t bring themselves to award us anything, though it turned out the Poms didn’t need ‘em; our new bezzie mates Ukraine gave us twelve points instead (as did seven other nations), and Sam Ryder was odds-on to do what only Sandie Shaw, Lulu, Brotherhood of Man, Bucks Fizz and Katrina and the Waves had done before him. And then it went to that relatively new innovation, the televote – one that wasn’t a fixture last time we were in pole position…a long, long time ago.
On the eve of the Contest, it was more or less a foregone conclusion that Ukraine would walk away with the title without even having to sing a note. The beleaguered nation’s entry could have strolled on stage and simply mooned the audience and they would’ve still won it – if one believed the pre-Contest hype. Yet, the juries weren’t entirely swayed by sentiment on the night and at the end of the jury vote Ukraine were placed fourth on the board with 192 points, behind Spain (231), Sweden (258) and the UK (283). The televote was a different animal, though; widespread sympathy for Ukraine from viewers was manifested as a surge of points – 439, to be precise – and the UK could only manage 183. Any other year and we’d have won it, but this is no ordinary year where Europe is concerned. When combined with their jury votes, Ukraine were undisputed victors.
So unfamiliar was the territory the UK found itself in on Saturday night, chances are Sam Ryder would’ve been knighted by the end of the year had he won it. As it is, he finished with the silver medal, adding to the runner-up spots Brits have now achieved on a record sixteen occasions; but it still made a pleasant change from the usual predictable formula from a British perspective. Even though we’re one of the ‘Big Five’ nations who automatically appear every year due to the financial contributions we make to the European Broadcasting Union, the underwhelming songs and poor receptions of the last couple of decades has made watching a bit like tuning in to the World Cup when England don’t qualify; deprived of patriotic possibilities, UK viewers tend to pick a favourite from one of the other participants; this year, we didn’t have to do that and it made the Contest a much more engaging experience as a consequence.
Despite the disappointment of the UK missing out, few would begrudge Ukraine their symbolic win, even if the song itself will probably be forgotten in less time than it took to perform it. The second of their now-three triumphs this century was six years ago, and that victory was also charged with a political frisson that infuriated the country currently acting as an uninvited guest in Ukraine. ‘1944’ by Jamala dealt with the wartime deportation of Crimean Tatars from the Soviet Union by Stalin – yes, I know, it’s a long way from ‘Jack in the Box’ by Clodagh Rodgers. Anyway, the song was judged by the EBU as not having a relevant political context due to its subject being a historical event – as was the case with the title of a certain winner by Abba in 1974, I guess. But, of course, Crimea was a hot topic at the time due to the annexation of the country by Russia just two years before, and the Russians took umbrage with the number. In the end, they couldn’t prevent the song from being included and could only voice their protest by withdrawing from the Contest the following year, when it was held in Kyiv.
Of course, political elements are nothing new to the Eurovision narrative. From General Franco’s (alleged) intervention to ensure a Spanish victory in 1968 to Greece’s 1976 entry being a song about the Turkish invasion of Cyprus two years earlier – not to mention the always-controversial presence of Israel – politics have routinely bled into the Eurovision as much as they have into sport. The event commands such a massive television audience across the Continent – and beyond it – that many nations with a point to prove naturally see it as an ideal platform to get that point across to a uniquely huge viewing public. Since the map of Eastern Europe was redrawn 30 years ago and former Iron Curtain countries have been allowed to participate, political bias has become a regular feature of the show, especially in the voting – a factor which Terry Wogan wearily criticised as it increased and eventually prompted him to hang up his commentator’s microphone. This year’s programme, for instance, opened with a mass chorus of ‘Give Peace a Chance’, which didn’t really require much in the way of explanation.
The perception of Russia as an international pariah state on a par with North Korea or Iran has been fairly unanimous in the wake of the country’s invasion of Ukraine, and with most major global sports having expelled Russian teams and players from their ranks, the Eurovision was bound to follow suit. And the absence of Russia for only the fourth time since the nation’s debut at the Contest back in 1994 was no greater a surprise than the wave of public sympathy that propelled Ukraine to the winner’s rostrum. Considering the horror stories emerging from Ukraine on a daily basis, it’s only right that Russia was kicked-out this year, not to mention it being something of a minor miracle that Ukraine was able to put together an act to compete at all.
The other day, I read a remarkable story of an escape on foot from the besieged Ukrainian city of Mariupol by one man and his dog that sounded like a movie waiting to be made; but to dramatise something that remains very much miserable reality for millions of people would seem beyond tasteless at the moment. The portrait painted of the damage done to Ukraine in such a short space of time was more than grim, and one feels it will be one of those conflicts whose gruesome truths will be released to the wider world in dribs and drabs for decades. With such a gory backdrop to something as frivolously camp as the Eurovision Song Contest, it feels fitting that Ukraine won it, however nice a change it would’ve been had the UK finally staged the most unlikely of triumphant comebacks. Right now, I suspect the people of Ukraine will grab at anything that represents even the slimmest glimmer of optimism for their nation – and love it or loathe it, the Eurovision today at least means something to them.
© The Editor