Nul Points? Not this time, as Eurovision goes west
Britain has Blue. Ireland has Jedward. Are the long years of Eastern bloc domination over?
Boom-bang-a-bang. It's Eurovision time again – the arrival of the annual song contest being traditionally greeted in this country with a mixture of scorn, indifference and cynicism. Oh, and some kitschy glee.
Scorn and indifference because Britain is the country of the Beatles and the Stones, punk, post-punk, New Romanticism and a hundred other innovative youth fads thereafter. Along with America we are the pop and rock creative workshop of the world, with no need for the trite, cheesy, besequinned and seemingly irrelevant Euro-pudding.
Where do Buck's Fizz and Brotherhood of Man, after all, stand within the British pop and rock canon? Footnotes at best.
Cynicism because the centre of Eurovision has shifted resolutely eastwards since the UK last won, in 1997 with Katrina and the Waves – the arrival of former communist states leading to block-voting that even drove the relentlessly good-humoured Terry Wogan into quitting his BBC post as Official Amused Onlooker.
And kitschy glee because, well, it's as camp as a row of tents
But in 2011 are there reasons to be cheerful, to quote a cockney pop poet who had no need for Eurovision to sell his wares? Is this year's songfest going to see a drift back to its West European heartlands? And, more importantly for British viewers, is the UK, with Blue's "I Can", in with a shout after recent debacles – the "Royaume Uni", as we're known in francophone countries, having finished bottom of the continental pile three times in the past eight years (and second bottom once)?
Indeed, Britons might be forgiven for feeling paranoid (does nobody like us?) if those entries hadn't been so truly awful. Josh Dubovie's 'That Sounds Good to Me' didn't sound good to anybody else in 2010, while X Factor bin-man Andy Abraham's "Even If" was trashed in 2008 – even if Abraham garnered 14 more points that Jemini in 2003. Their "Cry Baby" had the scouse stage-school duo shedding tears of humiliation in Latvia after earning "nul points" for the first time in the UK's involvement in the event. Until 1998, it should be recalled, Britain had only finished outside the top 10 on two occasions.
So are resuscitated boy band Blue about to end 14 years of hurt? Could Duncan James, Lee Ryan, Antony Costa and Simon Webbe restore national pride when they belt out their Obama'ish ditty "I Can" in the German city of Dusseldorf tonight?
"We have a good as chance as winning as anybody," says Costa, with admirable realism, although the bookies reckon Blue has more of a chance than most – placing them as second favourites to scoop the top prize. The bookmakers' favourite, however, is France, with a mournful, operatic power ballad called Sognu, delivered by long-haired Gallic dreamboat Amaury Vassili, the world's youngest professional tenor. Interestingly enough Sognu is being sung in the Corsican language – perhaps a belated recognition by France that Eurovision voters have a soft spot for the underdog.
On which subject, Ireland are sixth favourites – surprisingly since they're represented by X Factor novelty leprechauns Jedward (assuming that John and Edward make it through Thursday's semi-final). But then maybe the quaffed twins will seduce the European public and judges in the same way they won over Simon Cowell, and are worth an each-way punt. The Republic have won the song contest more than any other country, after all, virtually owning it in the 1990s when the ruinous cost of repeatedly hosting the event nearly bankrupted the state broadcaster RTE.
There's a famous 1996 episode of Father Ted in which the Craggy Island priests' tuneless song is entered in an attempt to sabotage Ireland's Eurovision hopes and save the country a fortune – and perhaps in economically-stricken 2011, Jedward is the Dublin government's secret plan for a similar cost-saving exercise.
For 2011 however, it's Germany hosting the contest, with a French favourite and a British second favourite – all very Old Europe, and quite a throwback to the 1950s when Eurovision was first dreamt up by a Swiss executive of the European Broadcasting Union, Marcel Bezencon, as a way of uniting the various national broadcasters of the western half of the continent around a live event – quite a feat in those days.
The initial Eurovision Grand Prix, as it was known back then, was held in the Swiss town of Lugano, being won by, well, Switzerland. The next time the Swiss won would be in 1988 with 'Ne partez pas sans moi' – sung by a certain French-Canadian wearing a costume seemingly scrambled together out of a charity shop. Come on down, Celine Dion.
Ever the laggard in Europe, Britain joined the following year, winning its first contest in 1967 with a barefoot Sandie Shaw padding around to Puppet on a String. Lulu followed that win in 1969 with the quintessential Eurovision ballad Boom Bang-a-Bang, but not before Spain had bribed its way to victory in 1968. General Franco was so eager to stage the event that he bought a whole pile of European programming he had no intention of broadcasting, and otherwise purchasing votes to ensure that Spanish ditty La, la, la pipped Cliff Richard's Congratulations! in front of a visibly surprised audience at London's Albert Hall.
Despite this skulduggery, Eurovision's image in its early years was of genteel, middle-of-the-road light entertainment studiously ignoring the youth revolution happening around it. The year of Cliff's Congratulations! was, after all, also the year of the Rolling Stones' Street Fighting Man and the Beatles' White album.
But while it may have been something of a cultural irrelevance in the West, on the other side of the Iron Curtain, Eurovision was having an unsettling effect on the populace. An excellent documentary on More4 last weekend, The Secret History of Eurovision, documented how the communist regimes bordering West European countries first attempted to jam Eurovision broadcasts, and then produced their own version of the contest – the Sopot International Song Contest held each year in Poland.
It's worth remembering the illicit thrill generation in Eastern Bloc countries when you consider their current enthusiasm for the event, as well as savouring the irony of Moscow hosting the most extravagant Eurovision of all time, in 2009, after the long history of the Soviet Union trying to supress the contest. And before anyone accuses the Baltic states of unfairly voting for each other, they should recall how Estonia (in 2001) and Latvia (2002) triumphed at pivotal moments in their disengagement from the collapsed Soviet Union.
The Balkan states also tend to vote for each other – despite a recent history of internecine bloodshed. This prompts apologists to argue that the "block voting" is not political but cultural – the public in Bosnia, for example, appreciating the music of Serbia (the 2007 winners), while not necessarily wanting Serbian tanks parked on their front lawn. But when the 2008 contest was held in Belgrade, and Russia came out the winners (a result he had predicted), it all became too much for Sir Terry Wogan, and he quit hosting the annual broadcast that in many ways he had made his own.
And let's face it. For the majority of viewers in this country, Wogan and Eurovision were almost synonymous, although some reckoned Tel was becoming increasingly xenophobic as he fell out of love with Eurovision – that he was becoming more and more (in so far as it was possible for an Irishman) a Little Englander. Wogan argues he was just having a harmless laugh at Euro-preposterousness, and most people would agree with him, but his successor on the BBC broadcast, Graham Norton, is arguably more in tune with the new Eurovision sensibility – not least because Norton is openly gay.
At least since Dana International dragged the competition out of the closet in 1998 (the transsexual Israeli singer named in camp honour of 1970's squeaky clean and devoutly Catholic Irish winner Dana), Eurovision has had an overtly gay following – nowhere more than in countries such as Poland, Serbia and Russia where enthusiastically oppressed. During the 2008 Moscow contest, as protesting gay activists were being beaten up by police thugs outside, inside the city's Olimpiysky Arena, the contest was being won by Norwegian gay icon Alexander Rybak with his song Fairytale in front of row-upon-row of gay fans.
But what of the artistic worth of this annual bardic babel? What is the cultural value of Blue, for example, a boy band well beyond their teeny-bop prime. 'I Can' is a pleasant enough but unremarkable ballad whose chorus might be of use to beginner students of the English language ("I can, I will, I know..."), and the "boys" (their average age is 30) are attractive enough, although again rather more unremarkable than the narcissism of the accompanying video perhaps warrants. But are they enough to restore national pride? National pride? Do we perhaps care more than we let on about the UK's diminished standing in Eurovision?
We certainly seem to be getting more serious about it. Having seen that leaving it to the Great British Public to vote for their preferred song – in BBC1's annual Song for Europe contest – didn't seem to be working, Andrew Lloyd Webber was drafted in to the national cause, penning the fifth-placed "It's My Time" for future Sugababe Jade Ewan, while last year's entry was written by Pete Waterman of the Stock, Aitken and Waterman hit factory.
Eurovision Song Contest is on BBC1 at 8pm
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