So, it's Eurovision week again. For those of you who don't live in Europe and don't know anything about this, I think I ought to explain. The Eurovision Song Contest is an annual event that has been going since the mid 1950s. It is supposed to be pretty much what the name suggests but, in recent years, seems to have become a performance contest rather than specifically a showcase for songs. Most countries in Europe enter, though there are some notable exceptions like Italy, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Austria - though they have all participated in the past. Despite that, with the break up of the Soviet Union and the Balkan states the contest has grown considerably in recent years.
In the UK we do it all wrong. There are five countries that are always in the final every year; the winning country from the previous year (which also hosts it), along with Spain, France, Germany and the United Kingdom - the last four simply because they carry the burden of most of the cost of the event. The UK has won several times in the past, though not since 1997 and, in 2003 finished last with no points at all - admittedly that was the placing they deserved because the song wasn't very good and was sung horrendously out of tune. In the past we took established acts, they got together a group of songs and the public voted on which song they wanted to represent the country in the contest. Now, it seems, a song is chosen and the nation is asked to choose who they would like to sing it from a selection of unknown performers. This illustrates two things for me. First, that the song appears to have less importance than the performance, and second, that we are never again going to do well unless we have an established artist.
The singer of the UK's song this year, Josh Dubovie, has no experience, no stage-craft beyond (I'm assured) raw talent and no similar occasions to draw on. I think I can predict here and now that the UK will not win, in fact I would go further and say that the UK will not finish in the top half of the 24 countries competing in the final on Saturday.
The contest as a whole is regarded with humour and a distinct lack of credibility in the UK. It is ridiculed and derided here, yet in other countries it is adored, taken very seriously and made a great deal of. That may be part of our problem.
I really like Eurovision. The songs may not be the best, in fact..., but that's not the point. It is fun, it is spectacular however it is perceived and, most of all, it is a chance for the whole of Europe to come together and celebrate the broadness of European appeal and the diversity of the wonderful stuff we all have to offer. Having said that, I'm slightly puzzled as to why countries that sit wholly outside Europe like Israel, Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan can be considered to be part of Europe for the purposes of Eurovision. (And apparently, so my research tells me, Morocco competed in 1980!)
Probably the most entertaining part of the whole long evening is the awarding of the points by each participating country. Countries are not allowed to vote for their own song, but can award points - the maximum being twelve, then ten, then eight, seven, all the way down to one - to whichever countries and songs they like based on a public vote. There is much criticism (particularly in the UK - which, you will remember, hasn't done well for a very long time and might just have its collective judgement tinged with a hint of sour grapes) that the voting has become political. And to a certain extent in has. The Balkan states always seem to divide up their highest points between each other, former Soviet states tend to vote for Russia and their neighbours before anyone else. But that has always been true of the Scandinavian countries, and Greece has always awarded Cyprus 'douze points' and the other way round too. Germany and Turkey also seem to have a similar arrangement - to the extent that one year the German entry was actually sung in Turkish! The UK has given more points to Ireland over the years than to any other country. I don't mind that in the least and it illustrates perfectly the shift within Europe from a cozy western club to a much more realistic balance of power (admittedly around an entertainment event.) And anyway, last year it was won by Norway, the year before by Russia, the year before that by Serbia, before that by Finland (oh Lordi), before that by Greece and before that by Ukraine, so I don't see too much of a political bias with the same countries winning all the time.
On Tuesday I watched the first semi-final, which saw ten countries go through to the final on Saturday. I have to say, I was astonished that the Polish song didn't make it because I thought it was really good, and by the same token, although I wanted to like it very much, I thought the Russian entry was really not very good, miserable and not appropriate, but it got through anyway. It will probably go on to do well. The second semi is this evening and then I will be watching on Saturday to see Albania pull off a major coup, though I really like the Portuguese entry, and they have never won before in 46 years, so it would be about time. Actually, I think the best I have heard is this year's entry from Germany. I hope that does well too.
Those of you who live on other continents don't know what you're missing.
I wrote this before I had properly heard the Armenian entry - which I thought was really very good, and did quite well I'm pleased to say. Predictably, the UK finished in the second half of the results, in fact it finished last! And, I'm getting good at this, the German entry was the overall winner. I can certainly see how the song would begin to grate and annoy after several listenings, but for me hearing it fresh it seemed like an obvious winner. It was different, will certainly spawn lots of imitators next year, and is already well-known throughout Europe - a lesson to learn for my own people I think!