Britain is a stickler for tradition and each May we now observe a relatively new one: we bomb in the Eurovision Song Contest. The protocol now is well-established. Our entry is chosen by a BBC bureaucrat who appears to see the whole thing as a bad joke. We send out Bonnie Tyler/Engelbert Humperdinck etc to face an army of talent from countries who have studied the art of winning and take it very seriously indeed.
Electro Velvet (more on them here) can at least reassure themselves that they will not be Britain’s worst-ever entry. That honour goes to Jemini, a Liverpudlian duo who in 2003 made history by being given nul points by tout le monde. Since then, Britain has come to specialise in abject Eurovision failure, having finished last three times in the past decade. We’re guaranteed a place in the final, because of the sheer amount of money that the BBC pays to secure its Eurovision membership. Its actual presentation of Eurovision is pretty good; Graham Norton and Paddy O'Connell are great presenters. The problem lies in its selecting our entry without any competition. It’s no coincidence that our entries range from the quotidian to the appalling. We don’t do badly because Britain is politically friendless, but because the music we enter is awful.
This would be understandable if Britain, as a country, struggled to export music. But we do so better than anyone. The BBC News summed up the irony rather well in a report straight after our 2015 humiliation:-
“Over the past five years, Britain has produced some of the biggest chart-topping acts on the planet from Adele to One Direction, Ed Sheeran, Sam Smith. But in nearly two decades, it has failed to produce a single winner of Eurovision.”
It would have been more accurate to say that the BBC has failed to produce a winner. This is nothing to do with a lack of national talent; Britain is an exporter of talent contests as well as talent. We are the country of The X Factor and of Simon Fuller, the man behind the Arab version of Eurovision. And yet we entrust Eurovision, the world’s biggest talent show, to the BBC, which projects it as a risible festival of high camp, a musical version of a bad-taste party.
In May 2013, a discussion was held at the Swedish Embassy in London about where Britain went so wrong. I had the honour of moderating the talks. The panel included Kevin Bishop, a BBC man who produced the Terry Wogan’s Eurovision evenings and Svante Stockselius, who rescued Sweden’s equivalent from similar ridicule ten years ago. The keynote speaker was Katrina Leskanich, the singer who with her backing group the Waves won for Britain in 1997 by the highest margin in Eurovision history. She put her success down to Jonathan King, the pop impresario who was perhaps the last person the BBC hired who knew how to win competitions. The corporation now seems -utterly lost.
Rather than defend the BBC, Mr Bishop confirmed our suspicions. The corporation is useless at entertainment, he said, and no longer has anyone in its hierarchy who understands it. This is a self-reinforcing problem, warned Mr Stockselius, because the BBC decides how Eurovision is presented in Britain. If it sends dreadful acts to compete, and then holds the entire contest up to ridicule, then our successful singers will not be seen dead on a Eurovision stage. Katrina wanted to know the name of whoever chooses the BBC’s Eurovision entries, ‘so we can slap him’.
The BBC is not the first to try to ask an anonymous bureaucrat to choose a song that is expected to be popular with the masses. This happened every year with Intervision, the Soviet equivalent of Eurovision, which ended in abysmal failure. The difference between the formats epitomised why the West won: ours was colourful, humorous, raucous, and even in the 1950s produced some of the most memorable popular tunes. While Soviet entrants were told to show ‘socialist dignity’, Eurovision was producing songs designed to be sung on the way back home from the pub (Exhibit A: ‘Volare’, Italy’s 1958 entry). Tito’s Yugoslavia banned radio stations from playing music that was ‘capitalist’ or ‘kitsch’.
The BBC evinces the same bureaucratic snobbery and lack of comprehension. When it did run a contest, the whole thing was a farce. But it need not be; there a thousand better ways to do it. As Katrina suggests, winning starts with the song rather than the singer — so the contest should begin with the writers. This happens in Sweden, which solicited 3,500 entries to find their winner this year. The aim is to write a song that works across 39 nations speaking 35 languages. It’s a fine art: if it wasn't, the best songwriters would not be so rich.
While Terry Wogan resigned in protest at the block voting, he missed an important point: it’s true that the voting drips with politics, but the best Eurovision entries can game the system. The 1970 entry from Ireland was one by Dana, a Londonderry girl who sang about snowdrops and daffodils while her native Bogside was up in flames. The juxtaposition captured the imagination of a continent — as did her flight home. As she later put it,
‘This was the first time since the Troubles that a plane had flown from Dublin to British airspace in the North. It was a very important cross-border, cross-cultural event.’
If Eurovision was a night of inconsequential trash, then Iran would not have recalled its ambassador from Azerbaijan in protest at the tolerance the host Baku showed to gay fans. Vladimir Putin would not have hailed Dima Bilan’s win in 2008 as ‘a triumph for all of Russia’. And the Baku police would not have tracked down and questioned people who used their mobile phones to vote for Armenia, which is supposed to be Azerbaijan’s mortal enemy. Eurovision has become a place where hatchets are buried, or raspberries blown. The voting results are trawled over by academics. But no one can solve the mystery of Britain’s refusal to compete.
Britain does have talent — enough of it to win Eurovision every year if it chose. The contest may be derided by the BBC hierarchy, but is taken very seriously by the many countries who not so long ago had to vote in a Soviet system by switching the lights off and on in their houses and waiting for the authorities to judge an energy surge. They like and admire Britain, yet cannot work out why we don’t send our young talent to what has become the world’s most-watched non-sporting event. The answer is that it’s run by a bureaucracy as puzzled by popular culture as the old Intervision once was. Neither Sky not ITV suffer such problems. It is time for the BBC to let someone else find a song for Europe.
This is an updated version of a May 2013 article.