May 22, 2018

Eurovision: the epitome of audience engagement

The UK’s 2018 entrant, SuRie, in the calm before the storm

Despite a predilection for sequins, pyromania and key changes by the pound, I would never put my hand up to being a self-confessed Eurovision fan. Yet, over the past four or so years, I’ve habitually aligned a “Saturday night off” with a night in front of the TV with an unvisited European city, nursing a glass (ok, bottle) of Malbec in one hand, and habitually refreshing my Twitter feed with the other in search of others’ pithy reactions.

Ultimately, Eurovision appeals to one of the core ideals of human happiness – escapism. It’s bigger than music, it’s bigger than television – and as we know from Australia’s at first gradual and now seismic participation, it’s certainly much bigger than Europe. Eurovision is a four-hour long celebration of the death of taste and subtlety. From pseudo-pornographic Polish milkmaids to Buranovskiye Babushki (who could forget), there’s very little the human eye hasn’t seen from its stages. In that sense, it’s not hugely dissimilar to an Edexcel GCSE Drama practical exam, but there has to be something about its enduring kitschness that keeps us as both the viewer and the taxpayer coming back.

Three of my most fabulous friends joined me this year to form our living room jury. We unilaterally decided that Cyprus’ entrant was a poor man’s Beyonce (“so…Javine?”), that Estonia had watched Frozen one too many times, that France had managed to weaponise the black turtleneck, and that Norway needed to work on their chaîné turns (because we’re all trained dancers and therefore reserve the right to make that judgement). We were agape when SuRie was the victim of a stage invasion, and celebrated when she was dignified enough not to ask for a cheap repeat performance. We remonstrated that Ireland is perhaps undermining the UK’s presence with its poor scoring enough to justify building that wall (to which my Irish friend kicked me, and rightly so). We explicated historic winner Alexander Rybak’s violin trumph and wondered how it could ever be beaten – until we remembered Conchita Wurst.

It would be pointless and churlish to point out that ol’ Blighty haven’t done that well in recent years. As a nation we are self-effacing from birth but the numerous knockbacks and nul points don’t do a lot for the national psyche. But did you know that while the United Kingdom may now be seen as the homunculus of the contest, we are actually the third most successful country since the competition began in 1956? Equal with France (I know, it pains me to say it too) and Luxembourg, and only just behind are those canny Swedes, and Ireland.

But can we blame politics entirely…? In the twentieth century, Europe LOVED le Royaume-Uni. From the skirt ripping antics of Bucks Fizz, to Lulu’s onomatopoeic entry of 1969, we are the home of tremendous pop and used to be aptly rewarded. When Europhile Tony Blair became PM in 1997 it stood to reason that we’d be the runaway winners (and were, with Katrina and her proverbial Waves).

Conchita Wurst, Austria’s golden girl of 2014. Shirley Bassey should feel threatened

What started out as a uniting competition between a handful of nations has now rocketed into a 43-country strong battle, and with those odds, part of me thinks we’ll never win again. But so what – Malta and Moldova are unlikely to set the world alight with their performances at the Olympics, but God knows they can slay a ballad or a banger given the chance. The UK auto-qualify, so shouldn’t we listen to our mums on this one and focus less on the winning and more on the “taking part”? Greece will always give douze points to Cyprus, Scandinavia will generally self-congratulate, and contrary to popular belief, Brexit hasn’t affected our rankings all that much. While there’s an argument that the money we pile into Eurovision each year might be better spent on other social and cultural needs, the annual escapism is a real bonafide spirit-lifter. In any case, let us not discount the secret weapon in our arsenal, that the rest of Europe could only hope to utilise…

Graham Norton. His commentary is saturated with potshots and acerbic Brit wit that I doubt other counties could even begin to emulate. Each year titles from the Telegraph to BuzzFeed itemise his shrewdest and sassiest comments during a production where no one is safe, from the set, costumes, talent, songwriting and even the anchors. Some of his finest work lies in asides about the presenters of jury votes and are worthy of their very own Nobel Prize.


Importantly, Eurovision is a liberal project – demonstrating inclusivity, diversity, and spearheading LGBTQ+ visibility. 1998’s Israeli winner Dana International caused sparks of fury and religious outcry but she ultimately brought the trans community into the global mainstream. Also: her track was an undeniable club classic from the get-go, even if you don’t speak Hebrew. Twenty years later and Eurovision continues to challenge and progress societies, terminating its contract with Chinese broadcaster Mango TV after it refused to broadcast the Irish entry, which showed a gay relationship in the choreography and thus contravened Chinese censorship rules. The EBU stuck to its guns of universality and inclusivity, arguing that censoring content “is not in line with…our proud tradition of celebrating diversity through music” and for that, they should be applauded.

In this era of continued gender inequality, climate change, poverty, the Trump administration and a severe deprivation of David Bowie – increasing human happiness is vital. We love Eurovision in spite of and because of its universal schmaltz, and if our secret love for this particular camp creation wasn’t elevating, then it wouldn’t be our most-watched live non-sporting event each year. A strangely old-fashioned show aimed at holding a Cold War Europe together has been reinvented for a new social media generation – and we take to Twitter in our droves to commentate. Because what makes us happier than sharing our unasked-for opinions? In the words of Graham Norton, in response to this year’s Moldovian monstrosity – “answers on a postcard.”

See you in Tel Aviv.