This is Portugal’s first ever go at hosting the Eurovision Song Contest, having spent the last 50 years finishing no higher than 6th place.
To say our hosts are revelling in the experience is an understatement. The cafes and bars are packed to capacity, the picturesque Praça do Comércio has been converted into a fan village, and every single tourist is eating pastel de nada for breakfast, brunch, lunch and tea. I’m now more custard than man.
Taking a break from the tarts, I sat backstage with UK Eurovision hopeful SuRie as she tucked into a much healthier dinner of greens, beans and fish. Knowing the answer, I asked her to share the one interview question she’s tired of hearing…
“Well, everyone’s gonna go there with Brexit, of course they’re gonna go there with Brexit, but it’s completely irrelevant to the contest…”
And she’s dead right. The average Hungarian housewife, Polish milkmaid or Buranovskiye babushki has even less comprehension of Brexit actually means than even our own confused government. Nobody watching from across Europe cares about Brexit but somehow it’s become part of the negative Eurovision narrative.
Eurovision 2018 performances
Demonstrated on Thursday by Michael Fabricant MP (who’s interjections are as welcome as a wasp at a picnic), saying that he was dismayed Brexit didn’t mean instant withdrawal from everyone’s favourite annual singing competition. Well he can naff off the next time he inevitably wheezes on about Remoaners not backing Britain. Be a FabriCAN not a FabriCAN’T.
Unfortunately he’s not alone in his criticism. There’s a strange mix of British self-loathing, sniffiness and sarcasm that we manage to keep tucked away during the World Cup and Olympics, and reserve especially for the Eurovision Song Contest.
“We never do well ‘cause all the other countries HATE us don’t they?”
No other statement induces a compulsion to jab at my own forehead with a tiny Union Jack flag quite like it.
In an effort to redress the balance a little, I wanted to share five genuine, valid reasons as to why the UK has struggled at Eurovision in recent years… and here they are:
1) A Million Voices… Eurovision is now HUGE.
What started out as a friendly competition between 14 nations has ballooned to the point where we’re now competing against 42 other countries – many of which use this as their time to shine. Malta and Cyprus are never gonna set the world alight with the football teams or Olympians, but they do have a knack for knocking out ballads and bangers (as Eleni Foureira will prove on Saturday night).
When you’re 1 of 43 you don’t necessarily have to win to be successful. For San Marino and Slovenia, managing to navigate their way out the semis is akin to victory. For us, as auto-qualifiers, there should be a sliding measure of success: how we fare against the other Big 5 and aiming to place on the left-hand side of the score board. A top 10 placing would be great. Top 5 incredible.
With Monaco, Morroco, Turkey and Liechtenstein eyeing returns, and Kosovo and Kazakhstan knocking at the door, it’s likely that Eurovision will only get bigger and trickier to triumph at.
2. Party For Everybody… in whatever language they choose.
Since 1999, when the EBU scrapped the rule that songs must be performed in one of the official languages of the country participating, the UK has performed less well. Now that all the contestants can sing in English should they so wish (and many don’t) there’ve only been three non-English language winners since the turn of the century. Portugal was one of them last year.
For the UK and Ireland, singing in English was our trump card during the nineties.
3. Et s’il fallait le faire… the semi finals.
If you’ve not watched a Eurovision Grand Final for a few years, the first thing you’ll notice is the insane increase in quality – which, obviously, makes the competition much harder to win.
Once upon a time you could get away with sending whatever nonsense you’d like and it’d still be shown on the Saturday night – eh, Portugal? Before the first semi-final was introduced in 2006 there was simple a qualification system of taking turns dependant on how well you’d done in previous years, or how much money you were willing to pump into the competition.
This is no longer the case.
What many casual viewers might not realise is there’s a massive behind-the-scenes rehearsal process that semi-finalists have to take part in that ultimately benefits those countries by generating buzz and press.
Swedish winner, Måns Zelmerlöw, made the point that he felt he’d been competing for weeks before the Grand Final (having won the Swedish selection competition, Melodifestivalen, that had started three months prior) and that every performance between February and his win was an opportunity to both showcase and polish Heroes. We’re missing out on that as the UK automatically qualifies.
4. Don’t Play That Song Again… all killer, no filler.
Back in 2000 there was a sticker on the CD for Nicki French’s UK entry that said: “Back Britain – Buy French”. Heh.
For the casual viewer wondering why other countries haven’t voted for the UK ask yourself this: would you download our track? The answer’s probably no, right? So why would anybody else.
Loreen’s 2012 euro-thumper Euphoria charted at #3 in the UK… our song that year was Engelbert Humperdinck’s Love Will Set You Free limping in at #60.
Though we have had some recent successes. Jade Ewen finished 5th in 2009, and it’s also worth noting that sometimes we do well in the jury vote over the phone vote (and vice versa) before scores are combined. Blue’s 2011 entry I Can would have placed 5th had scores been dished out on phone votes alone.
5. Samo Shampioni… you need a champion.
Eurovision winners have something special about them. They’re not simply given a cassette from Pete Waterman’s clutter drawer and pushed into the spotlight… Josh Dubovie aside. The great champs love their song, have a killer performance in mind and instinctively know how to sell the garment.
I asked Eurovision 2014 champion Conchita Wurst what she thought made a Eurovision winner…
“In Austria we had not won for over 60 years, so we’re really not those to give any advice. But I guess it’s really, so many different things you need, but you need to have a song that the artist is 100% feeling. You really have to deliver it and you really have to live it. You must find an artist who really knows what she or he wants.”
And that’s the crux of it. We’ve sent some amazingly professional artists of late but when was the last time we sent a genuine auteur like Isreal’s Netta? Or Ukraine’s Jamala? We need someone that gets a kick out of performing and knows how to put on a show. We’re serving oodles of professional polish but lacking in passion and creativity.
Conchita goes on: “If you’re an artist and you have a team, I would hope for you that you have a team that is supporting what you think is right and not what they think is right. Be supportive and show them the right direction but essential things have to come from the artist, the song, even if they don’t write it themselves, the Eurovision is yours, not by anyone else. And those are your three minutes and you need to have a concept in your head and you ned to know what you’re going to do. And then you need people who need to help you make it exactly like that or even better.”
There are a multitude of reasons as to why the United Kingdom’s results haven’t always lived up to the expectations of the British public. We could spend hours breaking down statistics, voting patterns and performances, but perhaps there’s a more straight-forward explanation?
If there’s one person who knows what the fans want to hear it’s Alasdair Rendall, President of United Kingdom’s OGAE (General Organisation of Eurovision Fans) who thinks it boils down to one thing…
“At the end of the day it is a song contest. The UK hasn’t sent the best song in recent years and so we haven’t troubled the upper reaches of the scoreboard.”
“In the recent past there has been a slightly arrogant assumption that the UK “deserves” to do well without having to work for it. Take the example of sending blasts from the past like Engelbert Humperdinck and Bonnie Tyler, announced with little fanfare and with minimal effort to promote their entries.
“The team at the BBC currently organising our Eurovision efforts have taken a different approach, with active involvement of songwriters, record labels and fans. There has been a professionally staged national final, and our participants have engaged heavily on the promotional circuit. There are already signs that this is paying dividends, with Lucie Jones getting Top 10 with the juries last year. Lets hope this new approach continues its upwards trajectory.”
So there you have it. Basically, if we want to win Eurovision again… we need to send a winning song.
Regardless of results we should take pride in our commitment to the show – we’ve taken part in every show since 1959 and have one of the most successful track records. Our fans genuinely are some of the best – as Brits more often than not make up the majority of travelling fans. We tweet about the show the most. We throw the most Eurovision parties. The BBC are hugely involved in helping out behind the scenes. And there’s a genuine love of the competition from most of the UK public, regardless of how well we do.
Bonne chance to SuRie! But remember – it’s the taking part that counts. Keep up with the latest action on our liveblog!