This weekend, Swedish Television broadcast the BBC programme/concert celebrating the 60th "birthday" of Eurovision. And it was lovely. I'm not just saying this because one of the hosts was Sweden's own Petra Mede. Everything about this show was just right. The entries were well chosen (though I could have done without "Hard Rock Hallelujah"). The singers were professional down to their fingertips and gave strong performances, even though their Eurovision successes were often decades in the past. It was affecting to see, for instance, a bearded hippie type who proudly displayed his hairy chest back in the Sixties metamorphosed into a dapper old gentleman. The Herreys have lost their sunny locks - one is completely bald - but they still know their act. The production was lavish, and the audience endlessly appreciative. It was a warm and enthusiastic British tribute to Eurovision.
If you thought that last phrase sounded a bit stilted, it's because once in my life I wanted to put the words "warm", "enthusiastic", "British" and "Eurovision" in the same sentence. Because this is not exactly what we're used to, is it? As a Eurovision fan and an admirer of old Blighty, I'm concerned about how seldom the two go together. The Brits treat Eurovision with contempt; the other participating countries retaliate by hardly giving any votes to the UK, which makes the Brits even more negatively inclined towards the competition. It's a vicious circle.
So why exacty do the British songs fare so badly in Eurovision? They're not as bad as that, surely? Here are a few theories:
The sneering. There are a lot of anglophiles out there. (Yes, we like Scotland and Wales too, though England takes centre stage in our obsessions, I'm afraid. And we're still a bit unnerved by Northern Ireland.) We love Sherlock and Downton Abbey. We love tea and scones, Winnie the Pooh, Shakespeare, Dickens, Austen, the Brontës, London, double-deckers, men in bowler hats and expressions no modern Englishman ever uses like "I say". But we hate, we positively hate the national vice: sneering. Maybe I've been unlucky, but almost every English article I've read on Eurovision has been full of it. Not affectionate irony and leg-pulling which is a stock-in-trade when you report from Eurovision but cold, contemptuous criticism with not a single positive word about any of the songs, the singers or the arrangements. According to these articles, the competition is rubbish, the other participants are rubbish, and the countries they come from are pretty rubbish too.
This is not the way to win hearts and minds. The Limeys may think we don't understand British humour: well, we do (Monty Python is another anglophile favourite). At least we understand enough to know when the joke's on us.
Songs by committee. Remember when the UK invested in a talent show in order to find the right Eurovision participant? It was called Your Country Needs You. The song which was to be performed was written by Andrew Lloyd Webber, who then personally accompanied the winning songbird on the piano. We liked that in Europe. It showed the Brits making an effort. The British entry didn't win, but it did well.
This is what they should do every year. Well, OK, they can't use the Andrew Lloyd Webber gambit every year, but they should have a popular competition not only about the singer/group but about the song as well. As it is, in the latest years some Beeb pundits have thrown together some ingredients which they think might go down well in Europe ("Bonnie Tyler's big in Germany") but which have not been tested on a real audience.
Great expectations. "Is the country of The Beatles really sending this?" is a standard comment in the Swedish TV show that reviews the Eurovision entries beforehand. Sometimes having a great pop reputation as a country is a drawback. We expect the best pop has to offer, which is a far cry from what we get. What is considered a decent number from Estonia would be a lot more critically viewed if it came from the UK. Unfair, but true.
The phone votes. I'm surprised that there hasn't been more said about the fundamental difference between jury voting and phone voting in Eurovision. Back in the days of juries, you could award points for effort. A likeable song that didn't quite make the winner grade could still scrape together a decent result and avoid the shame of "nul points". However, when you phone in your vote, you only vote for the song which in your view should win the whole competition. This is why we Swedes are silly to become upset when we only get four points from Norway. They didn't "fob us off" with four points: a percentage of the population corresponding to four points in the voting system thought our song was the very best. Many of the UK's songs have been quite nice, ever since they abandoned the horrible "jokey numbers". (Remember that aeroplane one? Honestly, what do they take us for?) But with the new phone voting system practiced in most countries, sadly, quite nice is simply not good enough.
I'm not saying that if the UK adopts the Swedish model of a national TV competition, everything will automatically be hunky dory. Apparently, they have had these kind of competitions in the past, and the results haven't always been breathtaking. As for Sweden, for all its careful, popularly approved song selection it hit a bad patch a few years back in Eurovision, though until this day I can see nothing wrong with catchy tunes like Las Vegas, Hero and The Worrying Kind. But if the Brits were to try the national competition way again and honestly tried to select the best song instead of some joke act, at least they can say that they did their best. If they still fail, then they can sneer if they like.