Ridiculously camp and kitsch, the Eurovision Song Contest, which takes place on Saturday night, is Marmite for the masses – you either love it or hate it. But how did it end up this way – and is it the same for the other nations involved?
The Wogan effect
As far as the national joke status of the contest in the UK goes, former Eurovision narrator Terry Wogan has got a lot to answer for, claims John Kennedy O’Connor, the author of ‘The Eurovision Song Contest: The Official History’.
“His commentary switched from appreciation with a gentle humour - along with some mockery for the absolutely ridiculous - to complete mockery with some gentle humour for even the very good,” Mr O’Connor explained.
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“I noticed a definitive change in Graham Norton’s first year. He kept saying ‘isn’t this great’ and the UK audience all said ‘wasn’t Eurovision great’ afterwards. When you had Wogan repeatedly saying ‘isn’t this rubbish’, of course that permeated the audience perception, rightly or wrongly.”
Mr O’Connor claims that the rot set in for Eurovision in Britain after 1976 – the year that Brotherhood Of Man’s delightful ‘Save All Your Kisses For Me’ had won the contest for the UK.
After that songwriters were allowed to pick artists to perform the tracks they were submitting to appear in ‘A Song for Europe’, with regional juries then voting for their favourite and a winner emerging to represent the nation.
Mr O’Connor said: “No artist worth their salt was prepared to do it after the first couple of years, so it just became an amateur talent show rather than showcasing the best possible singers.
“It rapidly became a joke when the group representing the nation of The Rolling Stones, The Beatles, Slade, the Spice Girls, Oasis etc, had been put together six weeks earlier from a series of amateur auditions.”
So who does take it seriously?
John Thompson, the creator of Eurovision tribute site www.nulpoints.net, reckons that the contest is taken most seriously by “Scandinavia , the Baltics, and virtually all of the ex-Soviet republics”.
And John Kennedy O’Connor says that countries with a smaller recording industry tend to take the contest more seriously, as a potential stepping stone to a Europe-wide market.
He explained: “It’s one thing to be the biggest-selling artist in Malta, but meaningless in a wider context. To have the opportunity to reach a worldwide audience is important for these artists. Far more so than artists from the UK, Germany, France, Spain, Italy, all of whom would have a good shot at an international career without recourse to Eurovision.”
Is it seen as kitsch abroad?
Unsurprisingly, Britain is not the only nation to have noticed the camp element of Eurovision and many nations now send what can only be regarded as novelty records to compete on their behalf.
This year’s Russian entry by a group of singing grannies is a perfect slice of knowingly novelty pop fun – and nobody could imagine that Russian voters seriously thought it was the best music their proud nation had to offer.
John Kennedy O’Connor said: “There is a lot of kitsch in the contest and even the hardcore fans who take it all very seriously adore the kitsch and camp elements. Every country that has an open selection process has kitsch and camp entries up for consideration, so it would seem they all get it.”
While John Thompson thinks that countries which regard Eurovision as essentially a comedy event are still in the minority.
He said: “I would say it was the same in some other countries, but not very many. This is why we get periodic reports in the media of the likes of Margi Clarke, Nadia Almeida and Russell Grant wanting to represent the UK ‘because Eurovision is kitsch’. D’oh!”