Tonight the population of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland will be holding its collective breath in anticipation, fascination and fear of humiliation.
It is the annual Eurovision Song contest, held this year in Düsseldorf, Germany.
Created in 1956 in an attempt to unify a Europe still recovering from the Second World War, its conception was the brainchild of Marcel Bezençon, head of the European Broadcasting Corporation.
Over the years it has had its share of drama and controversy, and far from being a place where Europeans come together in unity and peace, it has served only to bring the grudges of the centuries to the surface.
This is not a competition where the best song wins – it’s an arena where each country has the power to award points to another, based, in theory, on the quality and performance of the song. Like anyone believes that.
The political affiliations and alliances within Europe can be better gauged by watching who votes for who in this TV spectacle, than spending hours listening to the droning of the EU in Brussels. The real European power brokers used to be the judges sat in front of the TV cameras, now the songs are voted for by phone vote in each country with pretty much the same results.
This is not to lessen the power of the competition – Abba shot to global stardom in 1974 from this launch pad. However, over the years the British handling of this music fest has brought a whole new art form to television. The BBC has always been a little more mischievous and kitsch in it’s coverage than other countries – making subtle fun of themselves and their European neighbors.
For 38-years the commentator was the legendary Sir Terry Wogan whose wit and irreverence had audiences watching the show to listen to him, rather than the songs. On retiring he said,’ … it has been nothing but laughter and fun. The silly songs, the spectacle, the grandiose foolishness of it all.’
His charm lay in sending the program up, poking gentle fun without being cruel. Although his comment in 2001 that the Danish TV host looked like a cross between ‘Doctor Death and the Tooth Fairy’ did cause public outrage and a near diplomatic incident with Denmark.
Our iconic Terry had an instinctive understanding of why the program was such a roaring national success – it was our only way to get back at past insults dished out from Europe without firing a bullet.
‘There has always been that general feeling of distrust of Johnny Foreigner, but of course it is mutual. Britain has attacked nearly every country in Europe and people don’t forget,’ Sir Terry has acknowledged.
Unfortunately his witty banter was not so well received by other European broadcasters who took the whole thing rather more seriously. This frisson of having got under the skin of our European neighbours further endeared Sir Terry to the nation, raising him to saint-like status.
Unfortunately the nation’s darkest moment in the competition occurred in 2001, when the UK was not awarded any points – ‘null points’ – by any nation in the competition. It is said this was a political protest against the Iraq war.
In my opinion this was an excuse – it was merely an opportune excuse to give the two-fingered salute to the island off whose coast their small (minded) continent lies. The whole idea was probably initiated by the French with the Germans egging them on and the Italians lending support in the rear. I have no grounds to say this except it would just be typical. Not that I’m biased in any way.
The action was not cricket or in the spirit of the event, but was all part of what makes Eurovision so darn watchable.
Tonight the UK has Blue, a boy band, representing the UK. Even more newsworthy the Irish representatives are Jedward, the ‘so bad they’re good’ twins who shot to fame with their alleged lack of any talent on Britain’s X-Factor show last year. That they are tipped to win gives you the true level of where this competition lies.
Blue are up there with a chance according to the book makers, who generally make a killing on the event. It’s rather like the Grand National – there are so many fences to get over, so many factors involved, it can be a game of chance who actually does win.
Which is part of its watchability and why, despite loathing the show for its appalling bad taste, millions will be sneakily tune in to see it, if they’re not already heading out for a camp, over the top, Eurovision party.