Just before the results started to be announced during Saturday’s Eurovision Song Contest, I made a couple of predictions:
I wonder if Greece might be a good compromise candidate. I’ll say Greece. Possibly Germany. Null points could well go the UK- sadly the performance was weak- I know Josh could do it better, but we still wouldn’t deserve it. I think France are possibles. Russia would be too if it wasn’t for all the bloc voting.
Although I got Greece wrong (they came 8th), I was almost right in going for Germany and was on the money with the United Kingdom coming last, which was depressing. Below is my view of what went wrong (all Facts are from the various excellent Wikipedia entries):
Song. The song was a weak example of a Rick Astley song from over 20 years ago. Although Eurovision has traditionally been behind the times, it has rarely been twenty years behind. What depressed me most about the song was the backing soundtrack which really was stock Stock Aitken and Waterman. Perhaps that’s all we should have expected, but I thought Mr Waterman might at least have been able to come up with a tune and updated the backing. The song basically had nothing to make it stand out, either in terms of stupid gimmicks or the way the song was put together. The 2009 and 2010 winners could both be characterised as quirky and interesting but by no means loony, fairly traditional but still contemporary: this year’s German winner was even number 1 across Europe. Maybe if Kylie Minogue had been singing one of Pete Waterman’s songs it would have made sense, but then even she has moved on since the days of Charlene and Scott: Can’t Get You Out Of My Head might have won, although even that is getting on a bit now; I Should Be So Lucky wouldn’t have been so lucky. Back to the trains, Pete!
Performance. Sadly Josh’s performance was not the best, which was a real shame. This has happened before with United Kingdom entries and I’m not sure if it’s just bad luck, nerves (the same as England’s penalty shoot-out syndrome), or the fact that one feels more acutely the weaknesses of something you are supporting. Perhaps someone with a good deal of stage experience is needed, especially as the stages are generally competitively huge recently.
Staging. There is also something about the way the United Kingdom stages its acts which is somehow lacking. So many of the good acts seem to have a real presence and fill the screen. The last three winners make the point. They seem to fall into one of two categories: the small intimate acts and the larger more ostentatious or flamboyant ones. Russia in 2008 with the mad skater on an impossibly small rink made a so-so song quite compelling; Norway in 2009 had a larger set with movement and interest; Germany in 2010 was in theory suicidal: a small singer with dark hair on a large dark stage wearing largely black with not much in the way of backing singers or dancers. But it worked because the camera focussed on her and she filled the screen and was suitably bubbly and attractive enough to make that a good thing, even though her performance was not actually as good as it could have been (I think she looked uncomfortable in high heels and, judging from her embarrassing half-way point interviews, quite nervous). One of the other lamer entries for 2010 (I forget which) also featured a male singer, but the staging was simple and the camera was mainly filled with him so you knew what was what. However, the United Kingdom entry was too flashy (with all the big squares and ladies with cloaks) for Josh to be the focus of it, yet not nearly interesting enough (compare with Turkey which had The Stig’s wife and the Ankara branch of Kwik Fit all flouting fire and health & safety regulations) to stand out from the rest. The cubes and cloaks seemed to be merely a sop to the idea that “we need to do this kind of thing” without thinking it through or really going for it. Ideally, we need something like Lordi where the song, artist, and an eye-catching show are bound together from the start and where all three elements suit and complement each other rather than being bolted together as an after-thought.
Geopolitics. In 2004-2008, Eastern European countries achieved 3 out of 5 first places and 4 out of 5 second places; 3 of the 7 top two places went to Ukraine, and 2 to Russia, the two most powerful and best-placed countries to benefit from bloc voting. Norway’s win in the 2009 Contest demonstrated that geopolitics and bloc voting could be overcome. It also showed that ill will towards the United Kingdom because of the Iraq War, language-dominance, or whatever, was no longer an excuse, as Jade Ewen came in 5th. However, the United Kingdom does have no natural allies to at least scrape them off the bottom: I can’t see Ukraine, Greece, or Cyprus ever getting less than 12 points. Portugal and Spain always throw each other something. Although this level of support is not necessarily going to guarantee victory- Cyprus has never won- it is certainly a good bedrock on which to build: in 2010 Russia still came 11th with 90 points despite a woeful song, with the help of 12’s from neighbours Moldova, Estonia, and Belarus, a 10 from neighbour Latvia, and an 8 from neighbour Poland. We haven’t got any decent marks from Malta in recent years and we seem to doggedly hang onto the idea that Ireland are our natural friends. Interestingly, Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s attempt, at least as televised, seemed to involve a great deal of pre-contest publicity, including a surreal interview with Vladimir Putin; this, and the pre-contest splash made by Germany’s entry this year, would suggest that some kind of international effort before the contest even starts is probably a good idea, replacing static alliances with dynamic diplomacy and publicity.
What next? I think the problems basically revolve around selection. I agree with Nick: we need electoral reform. On the one hand we need wisdom from someone who understands the necessary balance between song, performer, showmanship, publicity, and politics; on the other we need something that has a broad mandate as we can’t really give up the public selection now we’ve started. The problem is that, like the British electoral system, the current public selection show is way out of date. It was radical to be given a choice in the late 1980s but since then little has changed in the format, which is still normally one show or a couple of shows over a few weeks with many decisions, such as song or composer, completely taken out of the viewers’ hands. Compare this with what is really possible through the X-Factor and its various clones. These make real stars and sell real records. They create the buzz and publicity I referred to above. They also test the mettle of the stars we send, their genuine popularity, and their appeal on a big stage on a small screen; they also give the performer some practice doing exactly what they’ll doing in the Eurovision final. Something like that would be a better outlet for the BBC’s talent show department than advertising Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s latest restaging of some ancient classic musical. It would promote talent that appeals to the contemporary taste. It is also precisely what Germany did for the 2010 competition, and they won.