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Douze Points: Why does the UK fail at Eurovision?

In this week's column, Josh McGrane gets to the heart of why the UK consistently fails at Eurovision.

Perhaps one of the most unforgettable moments of the 2021 contest was when four countries received zero points from the televote, and the United Kingdom’s entry James Newman had the dubious honour of finishing on the dreaded nul points. Whilst it is, quite literally, impossible for the UK to do worse than this (seeing as they have a guaranteed place in the final due to being one of the Big Five contributors), this was only the most recent in a string of disappointing results at the contest. This, therefore, begs the question: just why is the UK so bad at Eurovision?

Despite being one of the most successful countries in Eurovision, with five victories and a staggering fifteen second places, the UK has often found itself languishing at the bottom of the leaderboard recently, with us having to go as far back as 2009 for its last top five finish. Many in the British media seem quick to place the blame on politics, but this is nothing more than an excuse. To put it simply, too many of the recent British acts have just been down right underwhelming or disappointing.

Take 2015 for example, when the UK electro-swing duo Electro Velvet came twenty-fourth. Now, whilst taking a risk can pay off (think of Go_A in the most recent contest), electro-swing is not a particularly popular genre and the performance itself just felt rather outdated. Similarly, 2016, 2018, and 2019 had similar fates – middle-of-the-road songs with forgettable staging. 

It hasn’t all been so doom and gloom though, as 2017 was a rare moment of success, with the UK finishing in a not too disappointing fifteenth place with Lucie Jones. Perhaps more impressively, she even managed to finish tenth with the jury and received twelve points from Australia (more than the total points the UK has received in the last two contests combined). Her song, Never Give Up on You, was not only performed beautifully, but had quite possibly the best staging of the night; the combination of mirrors, golden lighting and pyrotechnics was nothing short of stunning. This goes to show that when the UK delegation selects a good song, with a competent performer, and stages it well, the UK can deliver some pretty good results.

Detractors will point to Lucie only coming twentieth with the public, and will argue that this is evidence of a political bias against the UK. However, I still maintain this is not the case. Quite often in the contest, ballads tend to perform well with the jury whilst being less popular with the audience: the jury winners in both 2019 and 2021 were ballads that placed twelfth and sixth with the public respectively. 

So whilst it is clear that the UK has struggled with Eurovision, all hope is not lost. All the BBC needs to do is look towards the continent and the example of several countries. Perhaps the Netherlands is the best example of this. Between 2004 and 2012, the Netherlands failed to qualify for the Grand Final on any occasion. Then in 2013 the singer Anouk, best known for her hit song Nobody’s Wife, was internally selected and not only did she bring the Netherlands back to the final, she achieved ninth place. The following year The Common Linnets reached a surprising, although incredibly well-deserved second place; a result that would be surpassed by Duncan Laurence’s 2019 victory. Maybe if the UK followed this route, of selecting an already well-established British artist, we could find ourselves on the left side of the leaderboard once again. 

Although if the UK wants to follow in the footsteps of the two Eurovision superpowers of Italy and Sweden, then the BBC needs to significantly revamp how it approaches its national finals. The Italian national final, the Sanremo Music Festival, has been held since 1951 and was also the inspiration behind Eurovision itself. Nowadays the festival is an incredibly popular event, with the closing night of the 2020 edition drawing in over eleven million viewers – a similar amount to those that tuned in to watch the most recent final of Strictly Come Dancing. 

This popularity is not entirely surprising. Since Italy’s return to Eurovision in 2011, the country has placed in the top five on five separate occasions, and most recently won with Måneskin – arguably one of the most successful Eurovision winners in its history. 

It’s a similar story in Sweden with its Melodifestivalen. The semi-finals are held throughout the country with Stockholm hosting the grand final (although the touring has understandably been impacted by Covid). Sweden has won Eurovision an impressive six times, with only Ireland having a more illustrious record. Even those who don’t make it to Eurovision itself often find themselves featuring on the Swedish music charts and going on to have a successful domestic career. 

Maybe if the BBC decided to implement a national final that reflects the diversity and popularity of the British music industry, then the UK’s prospects at the contest could be improved upon. Spain this year appears to be following down this route with the recent Benidorm Fest being described by many fans as the best Spanish selection in years. 

For the 2022 Contest, the BBC is working with TaP music, a label associated with artists such as Dua Lipa and Lana Del Rey. Only time will tell if this will be a positive change. And who knows, maybe in May we’ll once again be hearing the phrase “twelve points to the United Kingdom”.

Image Credit: Martin Fjellanger, CC BY-SA 4.0

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