By MIKE JOHNSON [email protected]
Mike Johnson is a freelance journalist who worked in the Algarve for more than 20 years. He now lives in Plymouth in the UK and comments on world topics which fascinate him.
In a world dominated by continuously changing situations in the Middle East and to the world’s economies, one subject is currently preoccupying the UK media, as it does at this time every year.
Which song and which singer will represent us in the year’s Eurovision Song Contest? Most people will regard this as a frivolity, as indeed it is, but desperate times call for desperate measures.
The UK last won this annual contest in 1998 with a singer who wasn’t even British. Katrina, and The Waves, from the US, was triumphant with the song Love Shine a Light. Since then, despite the best efforts of the recording industry and artists of varying talent, our record has been dismal. 2003 saw the ignominy of the UK receiving the dreaded ‘nul points’ from each of the participating nations.
In 2008, despite having a reasonably good entry, we came joint last, receiving votes only from Ireland and San Morino. You might well ask, “Does this really matter?” Putting national pride to one side, as a musician I believe it does.
Our pop singers are amongst the best in the world, so why can we no longer succeed in Europe? To answer that, we need to look back at the history of the contest.
The first was held in 1956 and was hosted by Switzerland. There was no UK entry that year, but we joined in the following year and finished 7th of 10. We stayed out in 1958. In 1959, however, having realised that a good song was not necessarily a prerequisite for winning, had a moderate success with Sing Little Birdie, Sing, performed by a popular duo of the time, Teddy Johnson and Pearl Carr. They came 2nd and we felt we were on our way.
We had to wait until 1967 for our first win though – the barefoot Sandie Shaw singing Puppet on a String. The rules of the contest decreed that the winning nation would host next year’s contest, so there was great expectation that Cliff Richard would repeat the success in 1968 with Congratulations – a top singer with a very commercial song. In the event, he was beaten into 2nd place by a mediocre Spanish entry, La-la-la.
It was at this time that the first murmurs of skulduggery began to surface. There were mutterings of jury-fixing but it was only in 2008 that a Spanish recording executive claimed that Spain’s President Franco had ordered bribes to be paid to some national juries to ensure a Spanish victory 40 years earlier. In 1997, the organising body, The European Broadcasting Union, abolished national juries and installed a system of tele-viewer voting.
Over the years, 25 different countries have won the contest, Ireland leading the way with seven victories. Portugal holds the dubious record of being the country with the longest history without a win. As the political map of Europe has changed, new emerging countries have joined in. 1993 saw the entrance of the new Baltic States followed by former members of the old Soviet Union.
With viewers now holding the voting power, it soon became noticeable that blocks of neighbouring countries were inclined to vote for each other. In 2006, Finland won, due mainly to crucial voting by its Scandinavian neighbours. The following year, it was Serbia, thanks to the votes of viewers from the Baltic States. Then in 2008, it was the turn of a Russian singer, Dima, who commanded massive support from former Soviet bloc countries.
It was Dima’s victory that was the last straw for a man who has been synonymous with the contest as far as British viewers are concerned. Since his first appearance in 1973, the Irish-born BBC presenter, Terry Wogan, has been its voice and face on 21 occasions.
The much-loved DJ from Radio 2, with his dry, and often caustic wit, was not afraid to voice his opinions about the entries – and the voting. So much so that, after particularly targeting the Danish host presenters one year, he has been banned from entering Denmark.
Days before the 2008 contest, he forecast a Russian victory, predicting decisive support from its neighbours and, afterwards, announced it would be the last year he hosted it.
Faced with a national state of emergency, the BBC replaced Wogan with the camp entertainer, Graham Norton, and recruited Andrew Lloyd Webber to select six candidates to take part in a national tele-viewer contest, the winner of which would perform a song specially written by him for the Eurovision contest.
I am a great supporter of the BBC but feel it has lost its way on this occasion. When Lloyd Webber unveiled his six selections on TV, in a programme entitled, Your Country Needs You, my worst fears seemed justified.
There are two male soloists, two female singers, a duo of blonde twin sisters and a black all-male soul quintet. Commenting on the choice, Lloyd Webber said: “I think on the whole we’ve got a proper set of contestants.”
They may be “proper” but are they a winning set? I certainly wouldn’t trust the British tele-viewing public to make the right choice. As for the song, can Lloyd Webber come up with a winning composition?
His track record isn’t good. In 1967, a song he wrote with Tim Rice failed to make the short list. He is very good at writing light opera, as his stage successes, such as Phantom of the Opera and Evita demonstrate, but they aren’t Eurovision material.
As this year’s contest is being staged in Moscow, he has also paid a much-publicised visit to Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. He asked Putin if he would support the UK entry, to which the reply was, “I am prepared to do so, but I believe you should address this question to the Russian audience.”
I believe that Terry Wogan’s outstanding sense of humour was the only reason any sane person would watch the Eurovision Song Contest year after year.
It was certainly mine, although I’m always prepared to be proved wrong.