John Kennedy O’Connor, the man behind The Eurovision Song Contest – The Official History, has been looking back at how the UK select their “Song for Europe,” and with boy-band Blue now confirmed for 2011, he’s spotted the historical precedents for such a decision, and wonders if this might be the best thing for the BBC…
So farewell then, British democracy. Boy band Blue will be flying the flag at this year’s Eurovision final in Düsseldorf with the song “ I Can”, as the first all male act singing for the UK since Ryder in 1986 and the fourth male group to carry the hopes of the Great British nation forward.
Except, unlike any of their predecessors, Blue will be going to Eurovision courtesy of an entirely internal decision made within the bowels of the BBC.
In fact, leaving aside their gender and configuration, the Blue man group’s song will be the first UK entrant ever to be sent to the Contest, without any public consultation. No need to fill in your postcard, dial a number, reach for your mouse or wait by the phone for the invitation to be part of a regional jury this year. No worries that the UK viewers will steer the chaps towards or away from glory. Not for the boys in Blue anyway. They’ll be ‘representing’ the great British public with a song they’ve chosen themselves (one they’ve actually composed), without anyone other than Phil Parsons and a couple of BBC producers giving the lads and the song the green light.
So ends 53 years of British participation in the contest – a streak longer than any other Eurovision nation – with a song or a singer chosen by the viewers.
There are those, of course, who’ll be mightily relieved that the British citizens have finally been removed from the decision making process. These are the same viewers after all who thought that Black Lace and Vikki had more potential than The Nolan Sisters and Alvin Stardust; or that rap track Love City Groove made a better Eurovision song than the anthemic One Gift Of Love. A quick glance at the top of most recent Grand Prix score sheets from the Grand Finals would certainly give credence to the concept that leaving public opinion out of things can certainly have its rewards.
In the last decade, Turkey and the Ukraine have both won gold thanks to an entirely internal decision and indeed the Turks seem to have settled nicely into the place formerly occupied by the British on the scoreboard; clocking up endless top ten finishes with a sporadic victory thrown in to keep the nation’s viewers happy. The French haven’t been quite so successful with internal determinations and it never really did very much for Spain, but then again, nothing the French or Spanish try seems to be working in modern Eurovision.
Generally speaking, a successful Eurovision song seems to one that has stood the test of domestic public opinion first. Despite all appearances, that in itself has been something the BBC has been avoiding for some time anyway and this year is ultimately a culmination of an approach that took root some time ago.
Following the debacle of the UK’s first ever Euro ‘nul points’ in 2003, the internal post-mortem seemed to have drawn the conclusion that the problem didn’t necessarily lie with the song – it was the performance that was at fault.
For 2004, a brand spanking new format (looking remarkably like the tired limping old one, but better promoted) was rolled out with a much heavier emphasis on the singers than what they were actually singing. Clearly missing the key word in the event they were hoping to win – the Eurovision Song Contest – everyone at the BBC was stumped when their new format threw up another pretty weak result. But not deterred, the process continued for five more years, with tinkering to the voting and the intervention of expert judges thrown in for good measure; the judges helping to remove songs or acts in danger of gaining popular support. Even Sir Terry Wogan was given a say in the matter.
It finally appeared to dawn on the BBC that the quality of the song might actually be at fault, so another Knight of the realm, Lord Sir Andrew Lloyd-Webber was offered the chance to pen the song that would be performed under the union flag in Moscow. Who would actually get the chance to sing his collaboration with Diane Warren was at least still in the hands of the British viewers; albeit apparently safely stage managed to make sure Mi’Lord Lloyd-Webber’s preference came out on top (if the preferred candidate was in the bottom two after the public vote, the final decision, which was left to Lloyd Webber, would be obvious).
A leap up the scoreboard ensued, encouraging the BBC to follow the process in 2010, this time with an even more successful pop hit making maestro, Pete Waterman at the helm. It all went horribly wrong when Josh Dubovie finished last in Oslo, leading to another rethink over in White City.
Britain has generally done best in Eurovision when a well-known singer with household recognition – preferably in houses on the continent too – has gone forth to the final with a song submitted through an open selection process. For many years, the format produced endless top four results, including a couple of wins; with chart glory thrown in as a bonus for whoever was holding the mic. Even Kenneth McKellar’s rather limp 9th place of 18 entries earned something of a positive distinction when “A Man Without Love” became the only UK song in Eurovision’s first 41 years that the Irish thought was the best. Considering how much the rest of Europe clearly disliked it, this was no faint praise. It even gave the Scottish tenor a solitary chart hit.
The BBC choosing the singer and the viewer’s choosing the song resulted in 15 top ten finishes with 15 entries. A nice record. Indeed, it’s even better than that. 13 of those entries placed in the top four and 10 were either first or second. Without scouring the record books, there probably isn’t another country that can claim such success with a single format in Eurovision’s 50 plus years.
On the flip side, the UK has had more winners by NOT using this format than they have by going that route and isn’t it better to win than always come in second?
Additionally, who’s to say that the BBC’s internal choice of artist is indeed representative of either UK music or the UK viewer’s tastes? Leaving Kenneth McKellar and Frances Ruffelle aside, the BBC was usually relying on a chart act that was part of the roster from their in-house light entertainment department for singing glory. Looking back now, it may seem to a casual reader that Kathy Kirby, Mary Hopkin, Clodagh Rodgers and Michael Ball were hardly at the pinnacle of the nation’s pop music polls when offered the chance to sing for Britain. The big hits were there, but they were few and sporadic, sometimes isolated, in nature.
A quick study of the singles chart doesn’t give an accurate snapshot of the stature of these artists. The hits were there – from time to time – but their TV profile was larger than many acts capable of scoring much bigger chart successes. An alien visitor to the UK in the late 60s and early 70s could be forgiven for believing that Lulu, Cliff Richard and Cilla Black possibly owned the BBC. If they weren’t presenting their own shows, they were guests on each others. Lulu seemed ubiquitous on BBC TV and built a solid career as the Beeb’s leading TV singer, with scarce hits to justify her status. Probably no other artist has appeared on ‘Top of the Pops’ more often, performing songs that never even grazed the lower end of the hit parade.
The small pool of artists dominated TV and in turn, the Eurovision selector’s attention. Cliff Richard got two goes at the competition and made sure his good friend got a shot at the title too. But things unravelled shortly after Olivia Newton-John had stumbled home behind Abba in the Brighton pavilion stables. The then BBC Head of Light Entertainment, Bill Cotton Jr., immediately announced he’d be looking for a group to sing for Britain in 1975 and names such as Slade, The Bay City Rollers, Kenny and The Rubettes were all being floated in the media as possible choices. The only time a group had been selected previously, it had been the hugely popular, chart topping combo The New Seekers who had been given the golden ticket.
Had the Internet been around in 1974, doubtless fan anticipation would have been at fever pitch and names of all the top UK groups would have been up for discussion. The final announcement at Christmas 1975 probably sealed the fate of that format once and for all.
The lukewarm press reaction to the news that The Shadows – an aging boy band who’d disbanded six years earlier, having had a barren two years with zero chart success before the break up, were reforming specifically to take up the Euro challenge – met with disbelief in almost all camps. A primarily instrumental group not particularly famed for their singing ability, with three of the four reforming members past their mid-thirties, this was hardly the band to succeed where the dynamic Swedes had so recently triumphed.
And yet, despite a pitifully low postal vote, their song for Europe was surprisingly successful, finishing second in Sweden.
The music publishers got their way in 1976 and forced the BBC to revert to an open competition that allowed the writers to choose their own artists. This short sighted decision at first seemed a wise move as generally star-studded heats led to the biggest Eurovision winner to date, The Brotherhood of Man, followed by second place for another household name.
But then it all began to unravel. The writers couldn’t be relied upon to come up with a singer with any recognition, or indeed, any prior experience. The performers became more obscure and amateurish and soon casting agencies were simply putting together acts to perform short-listed songs; forming groups that disappeared the moment the contest ended. Bucks Fizz bucked the trend, but they stood almost in isolation amongst the myriad of other UK contenders. Even an attempt in 1985 to reverse the trend and bring in a household name with her own TV series, met with a blockade from the music industry and things continued to slide.
Finally, a return to the one singer format was revived briefly, with tangible results, but a mis-step in 1994, (choosing Frances Ruffelle, probably not even known in her own house, let alone anyone else’s), saw the format abandoned quickly when ratings plummeted. Occasionally, a credible act with some prior experience put their head above the parapet, but excepting the glorious Indian Summer of Katrina and the Waves, all were dismissed in the heats or failed badly at Eurovision. The UK were rapidly becoming an also ran in the contest they once dominated.
Yet throughout all the pain and the glory, it was always the people’s choice, either in song or in person, that got to represent the UK at Eurovision. But no longer.
With my full support, the BBC has elected to choose a successful, well-known name to sing in Germany. But Blue will go to Düsseldorf in May via a decision made behind closed doors; to sing a song they’ve chosen themselves.
An aging boy band that broke up in 2004 and haven’t bothered the charts in seven years, recently reunited, taking up the Euro challenge; is this the formula to succeed where a dynamic young German has so recently triumphed? Haven’t we been here before, circa 1975?
If second place – or even one better – beckons, then those Charlotte Church and Katherine Jenkins fans currently feeling decidedly blue, will be buoyed come May 14th. But if the UK’s dreadful run of results continues, I’d suggest that this is a one off experiment, and give the power back to all our friends.
John Kennedy O’Connor