Last Saturday 25 European countries (and Australia) came together to compete in the final of the Eurovision Song Contest 2016. This year the UK’s contribution was “Joe and Jake”, two ex-contestants of reality singing competition The Voice who couldn’t even make it to Week 3. Disappointingly, but perhaps not surprisingly, the pair placed 24th, another miserable result sadly representative of our performance in recent years.
This hasn’t always been the case. The United Kingdom is actually one of the most successful countries ever to compete, having won the competition five times and taken silver on a record 15 occasions. Until 1999, the UK had only ever finished outside the top 10 on two occasions (1978 and 1987), and competitors included well-known names such as Olivia Newton-John and Cliff Richard. So what went wrong?
Britain’s lack of success may be due to a number of factors. Countries tend to vote in regional blocs, regularly awarding each other high points. As more Eastern European countries join the competition and are eligible to vote, the UK finds itself unable to compete with larger voting blocs such as the former Yugoslav countries (Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Slovenia, Montenegro, Macedonia, and Croatia) or the former USSR countries (Belarus, Ukraine, Russia, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia and Moldova). It’s disappointing to watch countries like Macedonia and Albania regularly swap top marks while we can’t even get ‘douze points’ from Ireland, and we suffer in the final scores as a result. Further, as a member of ‘the Big Five’, we automatically secure a place in the final, while other countries have to battle it out in two semi-finals to earn it. This means that most acts have significantly more exposure, and more chance to mark themselves as ones to watch. While this might not seem that important on this side of the Channel, for other voting countries where the hype starts at the beginning of ‘Eurovision Week’ and only grows from there, the extra exposure can have a significant impact.
In true British fashion, the UK has reacted to our fading success by making fun of the whole process, in what seems a little like the bad loser’s attempt to show that it’s ‘not like we even care anyway’. This is clearly shown by the appointment of Graham Norton (and his predecessor Terry Wogan) as sarcastic commentators who mock other countries’ contestants and laugh at national stereotypes. Their humour is good-natured and for many is now part of the show’s appeal, but it can’t help but feel a little as though we’re making up for our lack of musical talent with snide comments and an anxious attempt to show just how seriously we’re not taking it.
What we’re left with is a vicious circle we can’t seem to escape. As the quality of our acts decline, the more we have to laugh at the whole thing in order to turn our back on dashed hopes of national victory. As a result, no self-respecting artist would ever dream of entering, and we’re left with the dregs of a second-rate X Factor. This state of affairs is a far cry from that of other participating countries such as Germany, whose selection show Unser Lied für Stockholm was watched by 4.47 million viewers, where competition was fierce and the winner was decided by over 1.1 million votes. In comparison, Eurovision: You Decide drew in a paltry 680,000 viewers and passed without much comment – a clear sign of our indifference.
Perhaps this is unfair – is it possible that our cheerful contempt for Eurovision stems not from our poor performance, but from something bigger? Dissatisfaction with Europe is at an all time high, with recent issues with mass immigration and an impending referendum. A poll by ComRes found that 67% of Britons are not sure that we would be better off if we stayed in the EU, suggesting a lack of identification with Europe within the UK. Beyond current affairs, it could be the case that traditionally as a nation we do just love to hate Europe. Culturally we see ourselves as poles apart from our European neighbours; confused by the wacky humour and musical weirdness. The flashy numbers and bizarre entertainment just don’t feel very British, and it’s hard to take seriously.
All things considered, maybe it is time to just accept Eurovision for what it is: an eclectic mix of the weird and wonderful. Let’s face it, the songs themselves have no real artistic merit, and at this point we’re unlikely to ever coerce anyone with a chance of winning into participating.