When it comes to Eurovision winning records the UK is right up there, trailing behind only Ireland (7) and Sweden (6) with five song contest victories.
But it’s been 19 years since the nation last had reason to celebrate nabbing douze points from across Europe, when Katrina and The Waves let Love Shine A Light in Dublin in 1997.
So what’s gone wrong? Why does the UK never win Eurovision any more? We decided to ask a former winner, some Eurovision experts and the fans of the contest to get an answer to that question.
Is Bloc Voting REALLY to blame?
Ever since the Song Contest expanded to include nations from right across Eastern Europe and as far afield as Azerbaijan, we’ve been arguing that it’s impossible for nations in Western Europe to claim the Eurovision crown.
“Everyone just votes for their neighbours”, we roar, year after year, but is that REALLY the case?
“People always say well we can’t win because of the political voting but people said that to us in 1997” says Katrina Leskanich, who was the last to take glory for the UK in Dublin in 1997.
“Everybody was saying well, it’s a really strong song and it should win but it won’t because of the political voting but you give people a strong song, an irresistibly strong song, a song that you’ve heard once and you want to hear it immediately again and they will vote for it, and the UK could win and there’s no reason why a country that produces the best music in the world could not do better.”
The Swedish Ambassador to the UK, Nicola Chase, agrees. Writing for Radio Times magazine ahead of the 2016 final she, explains that while the bloc vote holds sway, it’s not strong enough to rule the contest.
“Voting for your neighbours has always been part of the contest” she writes. “On its own, it will never be enough to swing the contest: the only way to win is to get points from all over the continent. As Abba’s Benny and Björn said, “everything always begins and ends with a good song.”
Are we not trying hard enough to find a good song then?
Year after year we watch consistently amazing songs take the Eurovision crown. The minute we hear tracks like Lena’s Satellite, Loreen’s Euphoria or Mans Zelmerlow’s Heroes, we collectively agree that we “don’t stand a chance”.
“So much of the selection for the UK has been just terrible” says Katrina. “It got to the point where when my phone starts to ring around the time of Eurovision, I just had to say I’m not going to do any interviews because the song’s terrible and I don’t have anything good to say about it.”
“I’ve spent all of the years since our win trying to figure out who is the person that’s choosing, who’s choosing our material. The last time the UK did well was with the Andrew Lloyd Webber song, and Jade singing it.” She spoke ahead of this year’s UK selection process, which she was very excited about, and has since openly supported the UK’s Joe & Jake.
The former winner says the UK needs to continue to take the competition more seriously in order to achieve victory: “You should see the Swedish selection process.”
If there’s one group of people that take the Eurovision selection process incredibly seriously it’s the Swedes. They start picking their song for Eurovision the November before the competition, running numerous national finals in cities across the country in a Melodifestivalen.
“It baffles me that the UK no longer tries hard to win the contest”, writes ambassador Chase. “Especially as the UK has one of the best music industries in the world. Even if the PR opportunities of hosting the contest might not have enough appeal to send a big star, there are strong commercial reasons to take an interest. The Swedish singer Loreen has had her song, Euphoria, streamed more than 200 million times since winning Eurovision in 2012.”
“But then we Swedes seem to love Eurovision more than anyone else. And we take it very seriously. This year, there were 28 candidate songs to choose from, and 33,000 people attended the Swedish selection final, Melodifestivalen. Twelve million votes were cast that night – Sweden has a population of ten million!”
Some believe that love of the show and the ability to come together as a nation to support a smash hit song is something we’re lacking in the UK.
“Pop music doesn’t unite the nation in the way it once did” says Dr. Steven McCabe of Birmingham University, who has written about the economic impact of the competition on numerous occasions. “The idea that a nation can unite around one half-decent pop single, it just doesn’t happen, because if you go out and ask somebody on the street what’s number one, I certainly couldn’t tell you.”
He argues that we quite simply don’t have a wide enough pool of talent who want to enter the competition any more. It’s been a long time since an ABBA (who Dr McCabe counts among his favourite acts from the competition) emerged from the Eurovision Song Contest.
“The problem is, it’s not seen as a way of ensuring success [in the music industry]. There isn’t the interest from younger people, I suggest, and it isn’t a way of guaranteeing commercial success, where previously it might have been.”
And what about the argument that our frivolous approach to the contest is all Terry Wogan’s fault?
“He raised a generation of viewers believing this was a fun kitsch show that had no relevance whatsoever. It totally spoiled Eurovision. Because of what Terry Wogan did, the UK don’t put in their best efforts” Bjorkman argued.
“But it’s the BBC who wanted him and let him, they did not stop him. He did his best and he did what he did very well, make fun of something, but if I would have been in charge I would never have chosen him.”
But Sir Terry was taking the mickey (to use the Irish colloquialism) out of Eurovision long before the UK stopped winning, wasn’t he? And the country’s fortunes in his latter years behind the microphone (let’s not mention the Scooch war) don’t necessarily reflect his playful attitude towards the contest.
“He was the heart and soul of Eurovision” says Leskanich of Wogan. “If you look back at the video of our win, I’m saluting and giving thumbs up to somebody way up high and that is him. He kept saying, with kind of cautious confidence that Love Shine A Light would win. I think he was kind of happy about that.”
“I felt very privileged to be the one to win on his watch. He had the Irish wit and heart that made him wonderful company in every way because he was such a laugh but then he had a huge heart so there was never anything offensive about him. And he taught me how to drink Black Velvets, which is Guinness and champagne mixed and he turned me onto one of his big smelly cigars.”
So why does the UK never win Eurovision? We can’t answer that without asking the fans – they’re the ones who cast the votes, after all.
Thomas Pultz, a Danish long time lover of the contest, has his own theory.
“I think the UK especially suffers from 2 primary setbacks: Fatigue and size. By that I mean that we hear British pop music every single day on the radio, on the hit stations. We know that Britain makes good pop music, and therefore the bar is raised super high. Eurovision is the only time of the year we hear what’s going on in most of Europe, and that is far more exciting to watch than what is clearly Britain’s D-Squad usually comprised of what seems like artists that would place 7th on a season of X-Factor.”
He doesn’t think we’ve necessarily been dealt a fair hand in the last few years, though.
“I actually think Europe has been a bit unfair to Britain these last few years, last years electro-swing thing was pretty good and Children of the Universe was also a nice song, but it’s not your best foot forward because the bar is set so high.”
“You’ll be hard pressed on the street to find anyone who can name a Romanian act they can pull out from thin air, that’s why at every sporting event, when they play country specific music for goal horns or during timeouts, Eurovision is the go-to place.
Samuel Hamilton, who moved to Ireland from New Zealand 14 years ago, immediately fell in love with the competition when he came to Europe. He’s in Stockholm with tickets for the final, but doesn’t see a UK victory coming.
“I have no expectation of Ireland or the UK doing well. Not because of the political voting guff that is constantly thrown up. But because the songs are sub-par” explains Hamilton. “Johnny Logan, Linda Martin – their winning tracks are still epic now. Just like recent winners Loreen and Lena’s songs are. Any chance we’ll remember Nicky Byrne’s song or the two UK guys’ attempt in a year’s time? Unlikely. And that really says it all.”
Sarah Doherty, an Irish fan of the contest, echoes his sentiments.
“I think it has a lot to do with the mindset of both the viewers and those in charge of selecting the acts that go through. I also think that the bloc voting, which became a chronic problem throughout the noughties, may have left a lot of Eurovision fans and participants quite disillusioned with the whole event.”
“The UK’s problem, and Ireland’s too, is that we have not moved on from this mindset. The introduction of the jury system has contributed to a fairer judging regime, and admit it, some decent songs have come out of Eurovision in recent years (Loreen’s Euphoria for example) so its credibility is not as low as it once was.”
“In the British Isles, the usual response to someone relatively well known representing us or the UK at Eurovision is “Oh God, what happened to their career?” (Bonnie Tyler). The UK, again like Ireland, have year on year sent songs that are either almost insultingly bad (Scooch; Dustin the Turkey), sent decent songs that have no place in the Eurovision (Andrew Lloyd Webber’s contribution), or sent incredibly forgettable and bland songs that no one will remember come voting time (Englebert Humperdinck; and probably Nicky Byrne unfortunately).”
“I think the UK, if they seriously want to do better in the competition, need to study up other successful countries, pick a real contender of a song and act like the Eurovision is something to be proud of, not ashamed of.”
The Eurovision Song Contest Grand Final will air on BBC1 and BBC Radio 2 on Saturday 14th May from 8pm