For almost two decades, Britain has failed dismally at Eurovision – and deservedly. Our entries have been so bad as to represent a passive-aggressive insult to an entire continent. You can blame the BBC: it picks the song, and just doesn’t understand Eurovision. It seems to think it’s the equivalent of a musical bad taste party, where the aim is to send in cheesy songs. You Europeans have awful taste, the BBC seems to say, so here’s a song so crap that you’ll love it! They tend not to.
Today, the BBC has announced that the public will choose the song. Its musical politburo won’t. This is a step forward, but it raises a very important question: can the BBC actually draw up a decent shortlist? If it struggled to find one decent Eurovision song, is it likely to find six – and in time for the May final?
This morning, Paddy O’Connell – the BBC’s unofficial Eurovision correspondent – said that the British public often gets it wrong. When the BBC did hold votes, it infamously sent a Liverpudlian duo, Jemini, who won null points from anyone. Here's the discussion:
I think it was a bit unfair to blame the public for choosing a bad song. You could have asked a panel of the world’s greatest musical geniuses to choose from that dire shortlist, and they would have done no better. Paddy was (I hope) joking, but there's a serious point: to provide a decent winner, you need to draw up a good shortlist.
The corporation just isn't very good at this kind of popular entertainment. Not anymore. They have a few great people, but not enough. In 1997, the BBC got it right: Katrina's Love Shine A Light won by the greatest margin ever seen in the contest. But then, the BBC started their search by asking songwriters for a melody - rather than seeing what local pop act it could rustle up in a short timeframe, on a small budget.
If they'd said: "We're hiring Simon Fuller, and giving him a proper budget and full control" then I'd relax. (Fuller's a genius, who set up the Arab version of Eurovision.) But as things stand, I very much doubt that the BBC will appreciate the degree of musical talent that they need to hire to get this right.
Getting Eurovision right lies in an ability to understand trends in European pop music – and the evolution of Eurovision, now the world’s most-watched non-sporting event. So the success of new system will depend on the talent that the BBC has managed to scout. And if it’s all dire (and fails to make the UK charts, let alone the Eurovision top ten) then the BBC should not blame the public for the result.