One night in Europe… 

31 May 2021 tbs.pm/72936

 

One Saturday evening in May 1991 I was with my first wife sitting in one of our favourite restaurants in Paphos, Cyprus where we noticed that the service was becoming uncharacteristically hurried, taking on a sense of urgency not usually seen in such Cypriot eateries.

As our main course was being served to us our waiter leaned over the table and said in an almost whisper, “I would just like to say how much I like your song and I hope that the United Kingdom does well in the contest tonight”. It really hadn’t occurred to us that this was the evening of the ‘Eurovision’.

 

 

I used to love watching the contest when I was allowed to stay up late back in the seventies but I hadn’t really taken much notice of it since ABBA took the trophy (and Olivia Newton-John sang for the UK) at Brighton in 1974. But as we finished our dinner we noticed the restaurant emptying earlier than usual, people were hurrying home and Paphos was closing down for the night.

We were in a country that enjoyed the contest for what it was, a population that wasn’t going to miss a beat despite the fact that, thanks to the time zone, they’d be staying up until gone 1am to get the final result.

Back at the bar in our holiday apartment block everyone was glued to the TV (Cyprus only had one channel back then), soaking up the celebratory atmosphere with each song. The country was in party mode, I was told that in the capital Nicosia it even extended to small street carnivals. From that evening I was hooked.

 

The UK selects its entry for the 1962 Song Contest. The winner was Ronnie Carroll with Ring-a-ding Girl. It came joint fourth with Yugoslavia.

 

Thirty years on and the Dutch broadcasters NOS/NOP achieved the tough task of bringing the show back to life in style in Rotterdam after last year’s enforced Covid break; and while (largely) the quality of the competing songs sadly left a little more than usual to be desired, the presentation of the show was second to none, with an interval act using the city’s Erasmus Bridge as a centrepiece for a spectacular song and dance routine, in fact the best interval act since Michael Flatley used the 1994 contest in Dublin to introduce Riverdance to the world.

But of course, here in the UK most of this goes unnoticed and, as happens every year, there are the usual grumbles about the UK’s placing in the contest (usually bottom of the pile but this time with not a single point to our credit – only the second time this has happened) along with why the BBC is spending fortunes of “our” licence money on this “dross”, questions being asked (possibly even in The House) as to why we don’t pull out of this sordid affair.

 

Dana on stage

Dana winning the 1970 Eurovision Song Contest for Ireland in The Netherlands

 

Of course, these are questions and grumbles usually put by those who didn’t actually watch the contest, would never watch it anyway out of “principle” (which is fine, there are at least 250 other channels of dross to feast your eyes on anyway) but then find their veins hardening when they learn the result the following day.

I think the answer to one of these questions, the one about why we don’t pull out, is actually down to viewing figures. 7.4 million of us tuned in for the 2021 final, the largest audience since 2014, with a peak of 8.4 million and a share of 48.5%, the largest viewing share since 1999. Do you really think that the BBC are going to turn their back on that? It would be a bit like ITV cancelling Coronation Street because of complaints from people who don’t actually watch it moaning that “it’s full of miserable northerners”. I think we can put that one to bed now.

 

Map of Europe showing interlinks

The Eurovision Television Network as it stood in 1970

 

So how about the criminal amount of “our” licence money being “wasted” on this show which pulled 7.4 million viewers? This one’s actually quite simple. ‘Eurovision’ is actually a TV network, the trading name of the European Broadcasting Union (EBU), which imports, exports and exchanges newsfeed and sports events between all subscribing TV broadcasters across Europe and beyond. Originally, pictures from news or sporting events were bounced around a complicated network of terrestrial transmitters and microwave links across the continent, but of course these days it’s largely via satellites.

Through the BBC, ITV and Channel Four, the United Kingdom is among the top five major subscribers and contributors to the Eurovision network along with the broadcasters of France, Spain, Germany and Italy.

 

A man sits in front of a bank of monitors and switches

The EBU’s nerve-centre in Brussels, pictured sometime before 1970

 

The annual song contest is actually a by-product of our subscription to this network and therefore relatively cheap to broadcast, being merely a relay of an outside broadcast. It’s the staging of the contest itself that eats into the money and, of course, that only happens when we actually win it.

For although every participating EBU member country makes a contribution, the onus is on the host broadcaster as to how they present the show and therefore how much money they spend on it. So, see how the whingers moan about the cost when we do eventually win it again… one day.

Ah yes, the winners and the losers (always us in the latter…), the next category of complaints, it’s all “politically motivated”, “rigged” and “dominated by the Eastern Europeans”. Pish and tosh, I’m afraid.

Okay, it is true that friends and buddies will cast a vote for one another to a point, although the love-in between Cyprus and Greece is wearing very thin; and this was indeed becoming a problem at the turn of the century as more Eastern Bloc countries came on board, and the situation did start getting out of hand.

This was overcome in 2009 when each country was allocated a jury of people in the music and broadcasting industry.

The effects were quite revealing, the Western European countries – including the UK and the four other majors – found themselves back on the correct side of the leaderboard, the songs were at last being judged for what they were, just like the old days.

 

 

Unfortunately it was when the viewers tele-voting scores were added that the score board turned around, usually pushing the UK back to the wrong side. Political? Maybe. Being pally with your chums? Possibly. But there’s another major factor being constantly overlooked here, that being diaspora.

Since the contest started back in the fifties the European population has become more mobile and nomadic and, of course, this is likely to show up when it comes to voting time, especially when you consider how other European nations show their enthusiasm for the contest, for while they can’t vote for the country in which they are living they can vote for their home nation in the hope that their buddies back home will have the honour bestowed on them of hosting it next year.

I can’t see Brits abroad approaching the thought of such voting with the same enthusiasm, if they could bring themselves to vote at all. But unfortunately there is the feeling that it is the God given right of the United Kingdom not to come last in any contest. Sadly in the 2021 final, out of the twenty-six songs participating in the contest, there were twenty-five songs that were better.

No politics, no tactical voting, our entry was simply not up to it. Simples peeps. But for three minutes that night, James Newman’s song had an instant global audience, courtesy of Eurovision and the other world broadcasters that took the show, priceless exposure and coverage that any artist or songwriter would kill for.

 

 

Not even the internet could match that, but thanks to the internet and other media streaming, you can guarantee that James was not short of attention the following morning, more so than the entries from Germany, Spain, The Netherlands and Norway who joined the UK in the bottom five with three, six, eleven and fifteen points respectively. Victims of political voting? I think not.

Let us not forget that this is just a light entertainment show, one night each year, slated by many who quite happily indulge in The X-Factor, I’m A Celebrity… and so much similar stuff and haven’t quite worked out that if the BBC ever did decide to pull out of a show commanding such a huge audience, being fellow members of the EBU you can rest assured that ITV or Channel Four will step in and take it. Commentary from Phil and Holly, or Ant and Dec? No thank you.

And of course if it’s our disastrous results that prompt us to withdraw from the contest then may I suggest that we pull out of the World Cup as well? After all, we’re not very good at it, not only do we lose but we’re always being knocked out of it, all down to those nasty ‘forriners’ popping the ball into our nets.

Since the 1966 World Cup the UK has won the ‘Eurovision’ five times. See you next year in Milan.

 

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Liverpool, Wednesday 22 September 2021