Making a Party of It

Ben Morris on the Eurovision Song Contest

First published July 2000

Let me start by saying that I love Eurovision. Unequivocally. And I’m not going to qualify this in the way Terry does in Radio Times each May by saying that it’s appalling rubbish but I still love it, etc. etc. I just love it. Fullstop.

It’s been rather liberating coming out as a Europhile. Gone are the schooldays when I was ashamed to let my friends see my record collection comprising consecutive UK entries, and when I prayed for the floor to open up and swallow me as I paid for Diggi-loo Diggy-ley at Selectadisk. Now the love that dare not speak its name never shuts up.

It’s hard for me to pinpoint when this exorcism of my shame first took place but it probably went hand in hand with my “real” coming out, back in 1995. And around that time, in a packed pub in Edinburgh, my friend Alison took me by the arm and shouted in my ear excitedly, “You’ll never guess what! Ross is a fan of Eurovision too!” indicating a pal of hers who I’d just met. “Now what are the chances of that happening?!” Ross, as it turned out, knew even more about Eurovision than me. Ask him who represented Monaco in 1972 and what the song was and he’d know, as quick as a flash. Now this impressed me greatly (I’m easily impressed) and sealed our friendship. Before I knew it we had booked two seats in the Point Theatre in Dublin and we were cheering on Love City Groove (national pride got the better of us there). By this point we were discovering closeted fans amongst our circle of friends who were waiting to dip their toes in. And we slowly coaxed them out, telling them the water was lovely.

1996 was a wonderful year.

We packed our bags and made for the Oslo Spectrum (our group had swelled to four by now) and this time we were justifiably proud of our song. Gina G had it all. She was young, female and beautiful (essential for the Eurovision vote for some reason), the song was infuriatingly catchy and was, even before the contest, a “smash” (to use Jonathan King’s vernacular). It had reached number one that week and would hover round the charts for the rest of the year. Well, I say she had it all. Unfortunately, she couldn’t sing and, although we had no idea at the time (because we were too busy yelling and clapping all the way through the performance) she hit a few bum notes too many. She came eighth. Although I was a little dispirited at the time, that night will stay with me for the rest of my life. Sitting there in an auditorium of 6000 people of 23 different nationalities who were all charitably cheering on each other’s entries was rather moving. This was my World Cup, my Wimbledon. And it seems that the rest of the UK is gradually coming round to my way of thinking. Scouring the newspapers during Eurovision week, it’s hard to find an article condemning the contest these days. That’s a far cry from its dark days in the ’80s. The universal opinion then was that it was an embarrassing anachronism with no relevance to popular music of the time. From 1985 until the end of the decade none of the UK entries charted and it seemed impossible to turn this around.

At this point I’ll take a brief side-step to describe the contest’s peaks and troughs over the decades. After a slow start (the first contest in 1956 had 4.4 million viewers, the third – the only year when the UK didn’t take part – a disastrous 1.1 million) it hit its stride in the ’60s. The 1967 Eurovision, won by Sandie Shaw, shot to 22.4 million. But the ’70s were arguably its heyday. 1970 (with Mary Hopkin for the UK and Dana winning) achieved the show’s highest ever ratings of 25.5 million, with 1973 and 1975 just behind. The ratings steadily dropped after Bucks Fizz’s win in ’81 (which got 23.2 million viewers), levelling out to a still respectable average of 9 million at the end of the decade. These healthy figures probably kept the BBC persevering in the bleak period for Eurovision. But changes still had to be made.

In 1992, following the appalling display of Samantha Janus singing (sharp) about starving children in a peach mini-dress, the BBC decided to return to a selection procedure last used in 1975, where one artist would perform the eight Songs for Europe. But the biggest revision of the contest as a whole came in 1995 when Jonathan King appointed himself as the UK’s musical advisor. A long-time fan of the show, he felt it had been treated badly and set about making it fashionable again. The UK entries had been appalling for years he cried (rather disingenuous considering he’d enthusiastically endorsed the previous year’s Lonely Symphony, my personal all-time favourite). He gathered round his showbiz mates and latest chart acts and assembled a contemporary blend of kitsch and funky songs from eight different performers.

He partly achieved his goal as the chart popularity of Love City Groove and Gina G showed, but the UK was still not winning Eurovision. One of his solutions was to push for televoting and the other was to let Radio 2 listeners select the Song for Europe finalists, which was a double-edged sword. We did indeed win the song contest (in 1997) but, because the UK finalists are now being filtered through Radio 2, our Eurovision entries are in danger of becoming non-chart material once more. For example, we had the antediluvian drivel of Nicky French’s (aptly titled) Don’t Play That Song Again this year. This bombed spectacularly in the charts (number 69 in its first week, peaking at number 34 the next) and gave us our worst-ever Eurovision placing (16th) and surely contributed to the third lowest viewing figures in the contest’s history (6.5 million). A far greater potential Top 10 chart hit (the St Etienne-esque Wherever You Go by India) failed to get past the semi-final stage.

However, beggars can’t be choosers! I can proudly declare my love for Eurovision now without my friends calling social services. Households across the country hold parties on the big night with guests adorning themselves in the national dress of the various participating countries and holding sweepstakes (I got Turkey last year; not good). And the Beeb has cottoned onto this. Its ESC 2000 trailer revolved around such a celebration, with the tag line “Eurovision; make a party of it”.

Now the final stage in my reclamation of Eurovision is to enter a song myself. Let me see, what do I need? One young female, four gyrating backing singers, repetition, middle eighth, one rising key change and one clearly defined finish with everyone punching the air on the last note. The reprise is already mine…