Kelly’s Eye – “The Eurovision Times” is pleased to introduce a new category: Kelly’s Eye. Our fellow blogger James Kelly from “Scot Goes Pop” will enrich our blog with his views on our favorite television show from time to time. His blog about politics and Eurovision has been named one of the best 100 political blogs in the UK. Today he asks the question how his home country could claim the Eurovision crown again.
With Engelbert Humperdinck’s failure in Baku, the UK now know they will go into next year’s contest having equalled their longest ever period without a victory at Eurovision – 16 years. The difference is that the last time the country went 16 years without a win, there were plenty of grounds for (correctly) believing that it was only a matter of time before the breakthrough arrived. The period between 1981 and 1997 was punctuated by near misses for the UK – they finished second no fewer than four times, and achieved respectable results on most other occasions. The period since Katrina and the Waves’ triumph in 1997 could hardly have been more different. Yes, there have been a few bright spots – Imaani finished second in 1998 and Jessica Garlick was joint third in 2002. But by the time Jade Ewen finished fifth in 2009 with a song penned by Andrew Lloyd-Webber, it seemed nothing short of miraculous, because a humiliating result for the UK had become something of an annual ritual. And the fears that 2009 would prove nothing more than a blip were well-founded.
It goes without saying that the contest has changed beyond all recognition since the UK were last truly “in the game”. The standard of music is much higher, the number of entries has increased dramatically as the contest has expanded eastwards (bringing with it the problem of political and neighbourly voting), other countries are now able to sing in English, and the staging of the event is on an entirely different scale. It’s incredible to think that when Eurovision was last staged in the UK, the National Indoor Arena in Birmingham seemed like a large venue – it’s a tiddler compared to the arenas and stadiums that have staged the contest since. It’s hard to escape the conclusion that the UK simply haven’t coped with these changes as well as many other countries have.
Part of it is out of their hands, of course. For instance, how can they possibly counteract the impact of neighbourly voting in eastern Europe? A half-flippant, half-serious answer is that the UK itself could break up. If Scotland votes in favour of independence in the 2014 referendum, we might well see the emergence of a small ‘British Isles voting bloc’, with Scotland, Ireland and what remains of the UK all favouring each other in the way that the Balkan nations currently do.
In the meantime, how can the national selection process change to boost the UK’s chances? There’s a potential lesson from history here, because in the early-to-mid 90s the BBC did start to become concerned about the long gap since the last victory, and tinkered with the format of the national final. Between 1992 and 1994 they chose a performer internally, but from 1995 onwards went in entirely the opposite direction and brought in a range of performers to represent more musical types than ever before. Ironically, both of these diametrically-opposed approaches were justified by precisely the same mantra – “Eurovision is supposed to be a song-writing competition, and that’s what we need to get back to”. And essentially both approaches had the same degree of success in the contest – although none of the internally-selected singers actually won, two second-place finishes in the space of three years can hardly be deemed a failure.
So what that tells us is that there are different ways of succeeding (and as recent years have proved, there are also many different ways of failing). But in fact there was a very different outcome to the two 1990s approaches which had nothing whatever to do with the UK’s position on the leaderboard. When a radically different type of entry was tried in 1995, the UK may have only finished tenth, but the country’s interest in Eurovision shot up, with a dramatic increase in viewing figures. That shot in the arm continued the following year when Gina G’s Ooh Aah…Just a Little Bit (which only finished eighth in the contest itself) became the first UK entry in many, many years to reach the top of the singles chart.
My own view is that there is nothing the BBC can do to guarantee that the UK will win – if there was a ‘silver bullet’ available then another country would already have discovered it and would be winning year after year after year. But what the BBC most certainly can control is the regard in which the contest is held at home, by ensuring that they always send a credible entry, regardless of the eventual result. The period between 1995 and 1999 (especially the first two of those years) was when they were getting it right, and the national final was transformed into a high-profile shop window for the best that the UK music industry had to offer.
So that’s the model I hope the BBC will revert to next year – an open national selection, but with aggressive attempts made to ensure that the very best songwriters and performers throw their hats into the ring.
Follow our author James Kelly on his blog Scot Goes Pop on Eurovision and politics!