Nul points for Terry Wogan’s outburst

The complaints about Saturday night’s Eurovision Song Contest stink of sour grapes with a dash of anti-Eastern prejudice.

Rob Lyons
Columnist

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Britain is faced with a national crisis. One of our dearest cultural traditions is under threat. Terry Wogan, TV and radio presenter, is thinking of quitting his role as the BBC’s wry commentator on the Eurovision Song Contest. Why? Because the UK has so little chance of winning these days.

Yet while ‘Our Tel’ has received sympathetic coverage in the press for threatening to quit, his criticisms are way off target – and some of the support he’s received has been borderline xenophobic.

The Eurovision Song Contest has been going since 1956. Originally, it was intended as a way of bringing postwar Europe together to watch a single TV programme – no mean feat in those days – and it featured just seven countries. Over the years it expanded, giving us a lot of laughs as well as some high-profile stars, most notably Abba and Celine Dion.

This year, 43 countries with a combined population of 750million people took part. Eurovision is now one of the most-watched annual events in the world, drawing around 150million viewers (compared to the 100million people who watched the US Super Bowl this year).

The days when Britain could win Eurovision have long since passed, and Saturday was another depressing night for those waving their Union Jacks. Andy Abraham, once runner-up in ITV’s singing competition The X-Factor, gave a lively rendition of his song ‘Even If’ – and came last out of 25 competing countries. Still, he avoided the ultimate humiliation of nul points, received by one British act, Jemini, in 2003.

This year’s Eurovision, which took place in Serbia on Saturday night, was another night of predictable voting, with near-neighbours in Scandinavia, the former Soviet Union and the Balkans all backing each other’s songs. Only one country in Western Europe (Norway) made it into the top 12, coming fifth behind Russia, Ukraine, Greece and Armenia.

Wogan has been commentating on the contest since 1973 and is such an institution in the world of Eurovision that he was namechecked both by the Serbian presenters on Saturday night and in Ireland’s failed entry (performed by a puppet called Dustin the Turkey). Yet this year, Tel seemed thoroughly disenchanted. After mentioning the impending retirement of the BBC’s Eurovision producer, Kevin Bishop, he sighed, live on air: ‘He and I have to decide whether we want to do this again. Indeed, Western European participants have to decide whether they want to take part from here on in because their prospects are poor.’

It is unlikely that there is any great conspiracy in Eurovision voting against the big western European nations. Rather, it’s a case of people with similar backgrounds tending to vote for each other’s songs. However, there is something faintly ridiculous in the Eurovision tradition of treating every state equally. San Marino, an Italian principality that competed for the first time this year, has a population of 30,000 – yet it carries the same weight in the Eurovision vote as Russia (population: 140million).

The main target of the Eurovision complainers are the two ‘blocs’ that were, until relatively recently, just two countries. The Former Yugoslavia now enters six different countries into Eurovision, and the former Soviet Union had nine competitors this year. It was no surprise that Montenegro gave maximum points to Serbia – a country it was part of less than two years ago. And yet, small countries in the West also had an overblown influence in the past: Luxembourg won five times before dropping out in 1994; Ireland has won seven times in all, including four times in five years in the 1990s.

Maybe it is time to take another look at the Eurovision voting system so that it better reflects the populations of the countries involved. But even that won’t necessarily help the UK – Abraham’s votes on Saturday came from tiny San Marino and not-much-bigger Ireland (there wasn’t a peep out of Wogan about Ireland voting for its neighbour Britain, of course). And if the voting system was changed to reflect Britain and other countries’ high population figures, then it would become even more weighted in favour of huge countries like Russia and Turkey. How would Tel like that?

The view of Eurovision as a stitch-up is one-sided. Firstly, politics has always played a part in Eurovision. Cyprus always gave Greece douze points, and Scandinavia was always a smorgasbord of self-serving, tactical voting. Britain and Ireland have often supported each other, too. Complaining just because Eastern Europe has got in on the act of ‘voting for friends’ is sour grapes, as if Britain deserved votes just for the sake of tradition or because we pay a bit more than others towards staging Eurovision.

Secondly, things aren’t actually as clear-cut as Tel and his supporters make out. The Baltic states seem as likely to identify with the Scandinavians as the former Soviet Union. And where does one classify odd men out like Turkey and Israel? What about relatively recent members of the European Union, including Hungary, the Czech Republic and Poland? Aren’t their affinities increasingly westward?

Thirdly, recent winners don’t really fit into a strong pattern. Britain last won in 1997, and in the past 10 years there have been a wide selection of winners from Denmark in the west to Turkey in the east, and from Finland in the north to Greece in the south.

Fourthly, the general standard of the entries is way higher than it used to be. With so many new countries desperate to raise their international profile, Eurovision is treated far more seriously in some parts of Europe than it is in Britain, France or Germany. One can only imagine how much winning Eurovision last year and then hosting it this year meant to Serbia, a country that is still treated as a pariah by many commentators and politicos in Europe. And with the new semi-final system now weeding out the weaker performers (such as Ireland’s turkey), the 25 songs that made the final this year were consistently good, often performed by well-known national acts.

Western European countries, on the other hand, are generally sniffy about competing in Eurovision. The four wealthiest participants in the West – Germany, France, Britain and Spain – receive guaranteed places in the final, regardless of merit, because they bankroll the show. And the standard of the entries from these countries is hit-and-miss, to say the least. Britain has a habit of entering reality TV losers. This year Spain entered an ironic, tongue-in-cheek song.

Could Western Europe and especially Britain’s disdainful attitude towards Eurovision have anything to do with the oh-so-ironic TV commentary of a certain Sir Terry Wogan…? While his ridicule of acts in years gone by was certainly great fun, the days when you could rely on a group of Lappland reindeer herders to give a terrible performance of a naff song are long gone. Yet Wogan’s sardonic tone remains the same.

Beneath the desire for British acts to do better is a feeling that power in Europe is shifting too much to the East. Yet the merging of Western and Eastern Europe – in culture, politics, migration and so on – should surely be regarded as a good thing. It could potentially integrate economies and allow greater freedom of movement across the continent. It also means, however, that a second-rate power like Britain is in danger of losing its influence in European affairs. And that might go some way to explaining the discomfort people feel even with something as throwaway as the Eurovision: Britain’s inability to win here is a microcosm of its declining influence in today’s bigger and more mixed Europe.

Many commentators seem to believe that Eastern Europeans are inferior to we civilised, stable and wealthy Westerners. At a time when Eurovision could be a symbol of international harmony – bleached white teeth, dodgy lyrics, cheesy dance routines et al – the support Wogan has received from some quarters comes with a nasty undertone of xenophobia, or at least suspicion of the East.

Yet if you want to talk about being overwhelmed by ‘someone else’s culture’, check this: this year’s competition was hosted in Belgrade yet the whole show was presented in English, with the odd bit of token French translation. Of the 25 entrants, 17 were partly or wholly sung in English – including the French entry. Russia’s winning song was produced by Timbaland, the most high-profile music producer in the US. And the slickest performances from the likes of Ukraine were heavily influenced by big Western music acts (and were also a match for them). The singer of the Greek entry was a Britney clone from New York.

Long gone are the ‘glory’ days when Eurovision was won by such mighty tunes as ‘Boom Bang-a-Bang’ and ‘Din Dang Dong’… thank god. Maybe the way the results are decided should be changed – but not if the aim is merely to soothe the vanity of a few rich Western nations. The Eurovision Song Contest is moving on; maybe it’s time for Wogan to move on, too.

Rob Lyons is deputy editor of spiked.

Previously on spiked

Rob Lyons wondered why people take Eurovision politics so seriously and complained about Eurovision being ruined by acts that actually want a music career. Patrick West claimed Eurovision was all about nationalist rivalries. Matthias Heitmann discussed the Eurovision ‘cold war’. Or read more at spiked issue Europe.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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