One Step Out of Time: Even in its ‘Glory Years’, the UK Never Really Understood Eurovision

The Brits Need To Acknowledge an Awkward Truth if They’re Ever to Truly Compete in the Song Contest Again

This article was originally written on May 24th, 2021

“It’s a farce,” barked my mother, with an unmistakable rasp in her voice. “Me and your father watched the points being given in bed, and then switched it off as soon as they announced Italy as the winner. I can’t even remember the Italian song.” It was clear from her tone that what over the years has become my unofficial but seemingly annual ‘Eurovision debrief’ phone call with my mother was off to a lively start. “It’s just ridiculous,” she continued, uninvited. “How can we possibly have ended up with no points? It’s all just politics.”

As any Eurovision fan knows, the notion that “it’s all just politics” has become the familiar battle cry sounded by those less bowled over with the Song Contest in recent decades. My mother’s view, however, doesn’t stem from any long-standing dislike of Eurovision – she was in fact the very person who sparked my own particular ‘fuego’ for the contest – but rather a lack of tolerance for how the competition has changed. 

In these few short sentences thrashed down the phone line at me the moment the UK’s performance (or, rather, lack of) was mentioned, my mother had inadvertently exemplified much of the nation’s attitude to Eurovision: They can’t get their heads around it, but at the very same time, they can’t help watching it.

The question that comes to mind, then, is why do ratings continue to rise in Britain for a musical competition where the country so readily hits a bum note?

It’s a perverse situation given that, as any Eurovision historian will acknowledge, much of the reason the Song Contest exists in the form it does today is down to the actions of the BBC many decades ago.

The Unexpected Enemy

To understand why the UK finds itself so at odds with Eurovision in 2021, you have to wind the clock back to what my mother would describe as ‘the glory years’. The days when, even if the UK didn’t win, finishing inside the top ten, if not higher, was taken for granted. Even then, however, the British public’s relationship with Eurovision was not that of a people at ease with a competition they seemingly had mastery of, but rather of a wounded nation constantly being wronged any time it didn’t come out victorious.

This attitude arguably came to a head in 1992 and 1993 when, for two years running, the UK was narrowly beaten into second by its near neighbour Ireland.

While initial disappointment would be a natural reaction for any country in this situation, the way such ‘defeats’ were treated by the media was akin to England losing to Germany at penalties in the football: The UK had been bested, humiliated even, and Ireland was the unexpected enemy of the piece.

It’s Coming Home

Such a stance made the UK’s victory in Dublin a few years later even sweeter for the media – to follow the narrative they pushed at the time, Ireland had been beaten in its own backyard, and not before time. “We think that we know nothing,” commented Terry Wogan on the BBC as Katrina & the Waves surged into an insurmountable lead, “but the United Kingdom has won this.” It’s a surprisingly revealing line – more than likely uttered by Wogan without prompt – and one that casts a light on a deep-rooted bemusement with Eurovision, even at the moment of victory.

Love Shine a Light was a song more than worthy of taking home the title and, to this day, remains a Eurovision anthem, but the UK’s reaction to its success at the time had all the hallmarks of a nation having won ‘revenge’ – albeit in a gentlemanly fashion – rather than one celebrating a notable cultural achievement.

Katrina & The Waves were victorious in Dublin in 1997, but did the UK really understand its victory?

As with the football, I’ve always felt the UK saw its victories in the contest as Eurovision ‘coming home’ – that the undeniable track record the country has within pop music somehow means the competition should be its domain. When the UK won, it was always described as a deserved victory – a simple acknowledgement of the musical talent that exists within the nation – and when it lost, well those silly Europeans had just made a mistake or, as has been the case more recently, simply disliked us.

This is the awkward truth: While the BBC and the wider British media outwardly portray Eurovision rightly or wrongly as something of a circus, underneath such superficial stylings lies an overall contempt for the competition: A feeling that, even in victory, the UK is lowering itself by engaging in a contest where its own musical prowess is somehow up for debate.

Regression

When the top ten places slipped out of view as the Nineties came to a close, the UK was surprisingly less willing to ride the waves of change its own acts had actually helped to instigate. The abolishment of live orchestras in 1999 combined with Dana International’s famous win the year previous meant more and more nations embraced largely dance-led backing tracks.

As such, a casual observer might have assumed the British would have felt completely at home in this new era; that the country’s decision to send ‘contemporary’ acts like Gina G and Love City Groove at a time when orchestral ballads had been so dominant had been vindicated. Instead, in the face of such progression, the British public seemed to move in the exact opposite direction, longing to recapture glories of the past by voting for acts in the BBC’s various selection shows it considered represented a cosy, chocolate-box view of a Eurovision that, in reality, had never really existed. 

The likes of Nicki French, Jemini, and Scooch served as a distorted attempt to mirror the spirit of acts like Bucks Fizz and Brotherhood of Man. To the rest of Europe, however, such performances had all the charm (and, indeed, production values) of a poor man’s Steps B-side. When Daz Sampson flew out to Athens in 2006, it must have looked to the rest of the world that the UK had fully given up.

The joke is, most of these acts enjoyed limited commercial success in the UK itself both before and after their respective Eurovision ‘flops’, yet their deserved rejection by European music lovers was pitched by the national media as some sort of spiteful betrayal. Yes, if you push most Brits on what they think of the country’s entries from the last two decades they will readily admit they have little time for them, but many will also vehemently argue the UK still deserves more points at the exact same time. The argument they unintentionally put forward is that the UK entry should always be a contender, regardless of its merits.

This is the line being pushed by the press today, as I type this. Journalists with little regard for Eurovision sell the public the line that the rest of Europe hates us and, quite bizarrely, use the Song Contest as a way to demonstrate their disdain. That those same journalists will typically pour scorn on the entry they claim Europe has wrongly snubbed in the very same article is as brazenly ridiculous as it is depressing.

There is, of course, something else at play here. As long as we – both Eurovision fans within the UK and the wider European community – refuse to acknowledge the UK’s undeniably unhealthy relationship with Europe and, in turn, its position within the contest, the weaker any chance of the UK entering anything remotely competitive becomes. 

The supreme irony is, it’s the politics of the British people and not the political views of those picking up their phones to vote across the English Channel that’s having the biggest impact on the UK’s performance at Eurovision.

Full Circle

“Would you say it was one of your favourite songs this year?” I managed to take advantage of a pause in my mother’s stream of consciousness – presumably to draw breath – to pose a question. 

“No, probably not,” she said, without contemplating the implications of such an admission. “He seems like a nice man but, in truth, he didn’t sing it very well – those verses are just too low for his voice – and they didn’t seem to do much on stage, did they? They just had those bloody giant trumpets.” 

I probed further, asking what songs had caught her ear. Norway deserved better, she said instantly, branding it “a really good pop song”, before also admitting she had a lot of time for Switzerland, Spain, and Cyprus, amongst quite a few others.

I finally took the plunge and summed up my argument. “Each country can only give points to ten songs, Mum,” I suggested gently, “and I think we’ve established Embers wouldn’t have made your top ten. It makes sense that it didn’t make anyone else’s, either.”

The line went quiet for a few seconds before she spoke up, suddenly recapturing the pitch of her opening lines. “Well, why do we send rubbish like this then? Where do these songs come from? It’s a farce!”


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