Eurovision, Brexit, the UK’s ridiculous euro-insecurity and the role of Sir Terry Wogan


I’m not ashamed to say that tonight is one of my favourite nights of the year: the 61st Eurovision Song Contest will take place in Stockholm this evening, with Russia hotly tipped to win the competition with Sergey Lazarev’s ballad, “You are the only one.” Apparently, President Putin himself is keen on securing Russia’s second ever victory in the contest’s history.

Whilst the odds certainly do look good for Russia, its participation is not without controversy. Russia’s alleged involvement in East Ukraine, its annexation of Crimea and its stance on gay rights have not made it popular with Eurovision fans, and its 2014 and 2015 entrants were booed by the audience. Regardless, it achieved a very respectable 7th place in 2014 and did even better last year, coming second. One might think such issues as invading a neighbouring country and oppressing the rights of homosexual people might have an impact on voting, but apparently not.

In the UK, however, we’re convinced that Europe votes against us. Why? Because we’re divided as a nation on the issue of the European Union and because we haven’t adopted the Euro as our currency. These are terrible things that matter a great deal to the average European as they go about their lives.

You may laugh, but this is a really big deal in the UK. It’s become part of our culture to despair of Europe hating us every May. We joke each year about Britain coming last again, even though this has happened only three times in the entire sixty years of the contest, or about getting ‘nil points’ again, even though this has happened only once.  We’ve actually won the competition five times in its history – a feat bettered only by Ireland and Sweden – and in the last 20 years or so that this resentment has been growing, we’ve won the competition once and finished in the top 5 four times, most recently in 2009 when we came fifth. Hardly the performance of a country the rest of the continent are ganging up against.

For those of you who don’t know the contest, here is all you need to know: you listen to about twenty-five quirky, odd, outrageous, bizarre, colourful and occasionally good songs and then every country participating votes on its favourites. You vote for the song you want to win.

For a country to be tactically prevented from winning, therefore, two things would have to happen: 1) people would have to think its song was really, really good, and 2) they would then vote for a less preferred song anyway.

There’s one more thing that you need to know if you’re not familiar with Eurovision, because if you fit that demographic you might be forgiven for thinking something along the lines of, “Well, Britain should have no difficulty in a contest like that, right? Britain’s quite good at music and songs and stuff.” Well we might be, but not when it comes to Eurovision, we’re not.

May I present below the UK’s 2003 nil points scoring entry, ‘Cry Baby’ by Jemini. It was never a particularly strong song in the first place, but what sealed this song’s fate was the fact that it was sung out of tune. I apologise in advance for what you’re about to listen to. It isn’t pleasant. You need to listen to it, all the same – and yes, UK readers, this especially includes you. Listen to it.

Let me ask you something: would you vote for this song to win? It’s not a trick question, I promise. Would you vote for it? No? Are you sure about that? Why wouldn’t you vote for it? Because it sounded terrible? Because it was an assault on your ears? Because that’s three minutes and fifteen seconds of your life you will never get back? Are you absolutely certain it’s that and not some sort of prejudice against us Brits?

Because that’s what was concluded when this song got zero points from all 25 voting countries. “You do not have to be a bug-eyed Europhobe,” wrote the Daily Mail at the time, “to see that the reason we did so comprehensively badly was that we had no natural allies prepared even to toss us a mid-rating handful of votes.”

Let me just remind you: in order for a song to get even a single point from a voting country, that means a sizeable number of people must have voted for it as their favourite out of all 25 songs.

Why did the Europeans hate us that year? According to UK Eurovision commentator Terry Wogan, it was likely our involvement in the Iraq war. Personally, I’d have no issue with Europeans voting against us for that reason, but even Israel gave as nil points that year (yes, Israel takes part in Eurovision). And, as I pointed out earlier, participants invading other countries doesn’t seem to be an issue for other voters, even when it’s another participants’ country that gets invaded.

But look. Come on. The UK entry didn’t get nil points that year year because of the Iraq war. The UK entry got nil points that year because it was appalling.

I adored Sir Terry Wogan, an adopted national treasure from Ireland who passed away much too early in January of this year. He reminded me of my father in many ways: his face, his intonation, his chuckle; his laid-back, what-will-be-will-be approach to the things that others got stressed-over. Like my father, he seemed happy with the notion of Europe, but ever-so-slightly out-of-place there. His Eurovision commentary, for us in the UK, was a quality benchmark for Brit sarcasm and our love of the weird and wonderful. It made what many considered unwatchable TV gloriously watchable.

But I don’t think he did us any favours over our bizarre persecution fantasy about Europe. In fact, I rather think he contributed quite a bit to it. As the years passed, Sir Terry became increasingly frustrated with voting patterns that left the UK in the bottom half of the scoreboard as the Eastern European countries joined the event. At the end of 2008’s broadcast, he announced that the contest was no longer a music competition and quit, ending a run of 37 years as the UK’s face of Eurovision. It would be true to say that this period did see a lot of countries voting for those they were friends with, but it’s not like this resulted in any bad songs winning the competition. Most of the winners over the last couple of decades, it’s usually retrospectively admitted, were actually pretty good.  Most of the UK entries were not.

Well none of this would be anything more than an amusing cultural quirk if it weren’t for the fact that we in the UK will be going to the polls next month to decide whether we want to remain a part of the European Union. In listening to the daytime phone-in debates on the radio whilst driving from one appointment to the next, there’s one point that seems to get made quite a bit by “Leave” supporters: we should get out, they say, because Europe hates us.

Well I’ve been to Europe – East and West – many times over the last 20 years, and if they do hate us then I’ve yet to see any evidence of that. I would suggest that in fact European countries are completely indifferent to us. There are some things about the UK that they like and there are some things that they don’t. They feel about us, in fact, pretty much the same as we probably feel about most of them.

And now the start of the 2016 contest is less than 30 minutes away and I’m getting excited. I think the UK entry this year is actually not that bad. A top half position would be my guess, maybe even top ten. If we do badly, however, you can be certain that tomorrow’s papers will once more be full of anti-European rhetoric. For the last couple of years, UK Independence Party leader Nigel Farage has weighed in on what the UK’s scoring in the contest shows us about our relationship with the continent: perhaps tomorrow morning we’ll hear similar sound bites from the leaders of the ‘Leave’ campaign, hoping to lever as much political capital out of the event as possible.

I bet they’re praying right now for a terrible UK performance, their pencils poised, sitting on the edge of their seats as UK entrants Joe and Jake get announced.  “Pleasebeshitpleasebeshitpleasebeshitohpleasepleasepleasepleasepleeeeeeeeeease”.

And I bet you anything you like that any comments made about the so-called European prejudice against the UK won’t mention Russia’s success.

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