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Remembering Birmingham And The Last Eurovision Revolution Written by on May 8, 2023 | 1 Comment

Every Eurovision Song Contest has innovated on the success of previous years, but the BBC’s hosting of the Contest in Birmingham 1998 saw more innovation than most. Keith Andrew looks back at a Contest that helped define Eurovision for the 21st century.

“Hold it down to a dull roar,” ordered a mischievous Terry Wogan seconds after taking to the huge, sweeping stage at Birmingham’s National Indoor Arena back on May 9th, 1998. “The rest of Europe thinks the British are reserved.”

Wogan’s opening quip was as typical of him as it was completely untypical of the Eurovision Song Contest in the 1990s. As many younger Eurovision fans discovered during lockdown when #EurovisionAgain nights took Twitter and YouTube by storm, the Song Contest was a rather different beast just a few decades ago. Compared to the annual bombastic affair fans are treated to these days, all of the Contests from that era can look a tad tame.

Much of what now seems quintessentially Eurovision in 2023, however, stems from decisions made in 1998 by the EBU and BBC the last time the United Kingdom hosted “the damn thing”, as Wogan put it on the night; Widescale voting by telephone for the first time, visual prompts reminding you just what flipping country’s entry you were watching, a scoreboard that, would you believe it, regularly reordered itself to show you who was actually in the lead, and – perhaps most importantly – an overwhelming sense of fun.

The Audience Is Changing

For the Eurovision Song Contest, the latter half of the 1980s and the bulk of the 1990s had seen the Song Contest slowly transform from the kitsch and camp affair it had been in the decade previous (typically played out in a theatre or medium-sized conference halls, hello Harrogate!) into a night with all the freedom and spontaneity of a trip to a particularly stuffy opera.

Eurovision’s continued insistence on all songs having to be played by a live orchestra saw the Song Contest move away from entries representing the popular music of the day to snippets from an imagined past; while Blur and Oasis were fighting each other for top spot in the UK charts and both dance and hip-hop were an ever-present force within the European music scene, the ‘big hits’ of Eurovision were the likes of Eimear Quinn’s ‘The Voice’ – the kind of track you’d expect to hear playing in a tacky celtic trinkets shop, complete with bead curtains and soul stones with your name on – and the parent-baiting and painfully vintage ‘Rock n’ Roll Kids’ by Paul Harrington and Charlie McGettigan, which had triumphed a couple of years before.

The Contest was now operating entirely within its own private bubble of music; the very concept of a Eurovision winner also turning out to be an international hit completely laughable. The UK music industry – then as much of an international behemoth as it is now – wanted nothing to do with it; in its view, the contest was the sole domain of fading pop stars from a decade previous, dreary and largely tuneless ditties from some unpronouncable former Communist state, and a winning song you couldn’t even find in the HMV bargain bin in the subsequent weeks.

Case in point, both of the aforementioned winners from the mid-90s failed to enjoy significant chart success anywhere but the nation they were conceived in; the ‘all-conquering’ Ireland, who had seemingly found the cheat code for this unique period in Eurovision music history.

Eurovision was a formal affair, with presenters and audience members alike in tuxedos and ball gowns, string-laden but often directionless ballads following one after the other, and little more passion than polite, typically seated applause greeting the end of every entry.

The Era of the Irish

It’s worth noting that during this sleepwalk into musical obscurity, Irish broadcaster RTE was the competition’s driving force. In the decade preceding Birmingham’s Eurovision debut, Ireland had won – and therefore hosted – an unbelievable five times. As such, whether it wanted the honour or not, RTE had a sustained period of serving as the benchmark for the few other countries who somehow managed to break through and snatch a win during this all-but-official ‘Irish era’.

And, though the end result was a competition completely out of touch with the very creative medium it was designed to celebrate, no one can argue RTE wasn’t an absolute master when it came to both competing in Eurovision and, more importantly, staging it. The Eurovisions of 1988, 1993, 1994, 1995, and 1997 were slick, professional affairs without any of the delirium that had tainted Contests both before and after.

Indeed, RTE’s (to date) final year hosting was undoubtedly its finest: CGI-powered opening titles (quite the feat for its time), a stage that wouldn’t have looked out of place serving as a TARDIS set in modern-day Doctor Who, and the warm yet professional hosting duties of Carrie Crowley and why-is-his-shirt-half-open Ronan Keating, then of Boyzone fame, combined to deliver a model Eurovision Song Contest.

It was the pinnacle of getting what was becoming an increasingly colossal production done in the most competent manner possible. Finding the physical resources to dedicate to Eurovision aside, it honestly felt like the EBU was one step away from just handing RTE the eternal broadcasting rights for an easy life.

When compared to debacles such as Rome in 1991, that was no small honour; the Song Contests of the mid-1990s were the very definition of safe. A little dull, perhaps, and appealing to an older and older demographic but, with the Irish at the helm, it had at least graduated away from being a televisual embarrassment. Change tended to hit Eurovision like a particularly slow-moving glacier at this point; the Contest would continue, it appeared, with more and more string-based ballads and, presumably, many more Irish victories as a result.

And then 1998 happened.

E is for Entertainment

From Wogan’s relaxed and self-deprecating presenting style (both Terry and co-presenter Ulrika Jonsson frequently hamming up attempts to string out a single sentence in French) to the warmer richer colour scheme adopted on stage, the BBC treated the Eurovision Song Contest as you would expect; like a Saturday night, big-lights-and-shiny-floor piece of entertainment.

The Eurovision Song Contest 1998 was something to enjoy rather than endure – it was fun instead of purely functional, and it wasn’t afraid to have a laugh at its own expense. Indeed, as Wogan put it at the end of his opening segment, thanks to televoting, the viewers would “only have themselves to blame” for whoever took home the trophy.

(As a short aside, Eurovision 1998’s undoubted high point was a now infamous slip-up where the brilliantly informal but nevertheless authoritative Ulrika falsely appeared to suggest Dutch spokesperson and former contestant Conny van den Bos was somewhat past her prime. Both it and the resulting audience reaction is the kind of clip I can watch on loop for hours.)

A Song Contest that had been wrapped up in process and protocol started to indulge the unashamed frivolity that’s part and parcel of Eurovision today. It also helped that Europe had collectively decided to move on from those aforementioned heavy, 80s-esque ballads that had set up residency; the likes of eventual winner ‘Diva’ by Dana International was the very opposite of that trend, featuring the kind of Euro-pop beat that had long dominated the charts across the continent and, dare we say it, very little in the way of the orchestra.

Indeed, 1998 was the last year songs featured a live orchestra in any form – a decision that would result in the Contest being flooded with poorly thought out ‘Diva’ clones for the next few years – and it was also the last Contest to date where countries had to sing in one of their official languages, opening the doors to English entries dominating the Contest right up to the present day. In just one year, the show shifted from a dull stately affair to – shock horror – a music concert being hosted in an actual arena.

There were, of course, bumps in the road to follow. In Jerusalem 1999, now defunct Israeli broadcaster IBA’s show had all the class of a trip to the local tip to drop off a broken fridge and a leaky air-con unit, and Copenhagen 2001 took the concept of “bigger is better” to painful extremes with the Parken rated for upward of 60,000 people in the audience- but, by the time Eurovision had its now familiar “heart motif” for Istanbul in 2004, the Contest had found its new rhythm: big noise, big staging, big lights and, for better or worse, big vocals.

I must admit to occasionally missing those somewhat more sobre contests of old; they are, of course, the Eurovision I grew up with. Time was running out on those fast stagnating affairs, however, and 1998 was the year that both the EBU and the BBC decided to change course. Without that course change, Eurovision may not have made it into the 21st century at all..

And so, when you sit down and tuck into Liverpool’s undoubtedly fruitful foray into the encyclopedia of the Eurovision Song Contest in a few days time, spare a thought for Birmingham’s bold, brash, and ultimately transformative crack of the whip a quarter of a century back.

A long time ago it might have been, but we’ve been on one hell of a ride ever since.

Thanks, Brum!

About The Author: Keith Andrew

Having previously worked as a journalist for more than a decade, Keith is a long-time Eurovision fan, with successive narrow UK losses to Ireland having been seared directly into his heart from a young age. Oh, and Dami Im was robbed.

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One response to “Remembering Birmingham And The Last Eurovision Revolution”

  1. Simon says:

    Fantastic article, what a great read

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