Thursday, 24 May 2007

It’s time for Wales to enter the Eurovision Song Contest


Although it’s now more than a week after the event, the hoo-hah over alleged block voting in the Eurovision Song Contest refuses to die down. The Guardian just published a poll carried out amongst its readers showing that 53% of those who expressed an opinion believe the UK should withdraw from the contest. We’re talking about the Guardian here, not the News of the World.

Intent on showing just how hip they are to the zeitgeist (or rather how much credence they give to the opinions of rabid, opportunistic, self-righteous tabloid editors) some of the Westminster politicians who didn’t make it through the undignified scrum to have their pictures taken with the family of Madeleine McCann, tried instead to show how much they felt the electorate’s pain by venting indignation at the unfairness of the Eurovision voting system.

Four MPs – I’m not going to draw attention to these parliamentary nonentities by naming them - even tabled an early day motion calling on the House to recognise that the Eurovision Song Contest is “a joke, as countries vote largely on narrow nationalistic grounds for neighbour countries rather than on the quality of the song; and that such narrow voting is harmful to the relationship between the peoples of Europe”. They went on to demand that the BBC “insist on changes or quit”.

This begs any number of questions, but prominent among them must be whether these people ought not to have something better to do and what moral authority gives them the right to accuse anyone else of ‘narrow voting’? I’ll deal with the ‘quality of the song’ issue shortly.

Even our own fluent Estonian speaker, Lembit Öpik, the Montgomeryshire MP who should know better given his personal interest in Eastern European pop (through a relationship with the Romanian pop-person – I choose my words carefully - Gabriella Irimia of The Cheeky Girls), added fuel to the fire by pontificating on the subject on Have I Got News For You.

It’s extraordinary how politicians can reduce an item of lightweight entertainment - more lightweight even than Deal or No Deal – to the depths of baseness by trumpeting the simplistic, cynical conclusion that ‘Johnny Foreigner’ must somehow be cheating when all the evidence is actually to the contrary.

You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to grasp what went on with the voting but, fortunately for my premise, Dr Alan Howard of Reading University has been studying Eurovision voting patterns for the last 10 years. His pre-contest survey of 1,000 Eurovision fans in 34 countries correctly predicted that the Serbian entry would win, not for political reasons but because respondents simply preferred the song. His analysis of voting patterns showed that, “The results do indicate some neighbourly voting between countries in Scandinavia, the Baltic, the Balkans, and (of course) Greece and Cyprus, but nowhere nearly enough to significantly skew the outcome of annual contests.”

To confirm Dr Howard’s findings, Derek Gatherer, a man who for no good reason has spent years studying Eurovision voting patterns, maintained that, “less than a third of the total votes for the winning entry were ones which seemed to have been influenced by block voting. It does make it rather harder for [the UK] to win, but that's not to suggest that all the votes are necessarily given out according to these local alliances.”

On the night, the winning song from Serbia received votes from 37 of the 42 voting countries, including votes from every Western European participant except the UK. It should be remembered that Serbia is effectively a pariah state in Europe because of its role in the Yugoslav wars and the fact that it still shelters alleged war criminals. Likewise, Russia in third place gained votes from 39 countries despite the animosity still felt by its former Soviet satellites. Yet it is apparent that each of these countries did receive proportionately higher votes from their neighbours. Why?

Let’s explore ‘neighbourly voting’ in simple terms for the benefit of the politicians and newspaper editors who plainly don’t have much of a grasp of European geography or recent history. What is it that the former Yugoslav republics, the so-called ‘Balkan bloc’, including Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia Herzegovina, Macedonia, and Slovenia still have in common, given that their inhabitants were brutally slaughtering each other over their differences not so long ago? Do you imagine they’ve forgiven and forgotten the ethnic cleansing already? No, it’s that they all either speak Serbo-Croatian or, in the cases of Macedonia and Slovenia, they understand it reasonably well.

What connects Greece and Cyprus? What do Russia and Estonia have in common considering they are virtually at war over the removal by Estonia of a Red Army war memorial? The answer is language.

Helsingin Sanomat, Finland’s leading daily newspaper, under a headline that read, “The Cold War is dead, long live the Eurovision culture-wars”, had the following to say about British attitudes: “What tends to be forgotten in all this griping is that the UK (five previous trophies, but 23rd in 2007) and Ireland (seven trophies and last this year) are guilty of a reverse variant of the football fans’ cardinal sin of ‘only singing when you are winning’”.

“[The British] were never heard complaining very loudly about the perceived injustice of the years when everyone had to perform in their own language, when someone trying to peddle a song in Portuguese or Finnish or Serbo-Croat had a tough fight on his or her hands against the might of Bad English, the lingua franca of the European continent. It is no great surprise that Portugal has never won Eurovision, or that it took Finland 45 years, a song in English, and a lot of latex and fireworks to pull the trick off.”

“In those halcyon language-restricted days from 1966-1973 and from 1977-1999, the UK and Ireland racked up most of the dozen wins they have between them, and it is a moot point whether the songs were so great - Boom Bang-a-Bang, anyone? - or whether instead they were simply ‘more accessible’ by virtue of the familiar language in which they were delivered.”

Helsingin Sanomat also had the following to say about British television coverage of this year’s event, which was hosted by Finland: “That old curmudgeon Sir Terry Wogan, beloved of British Eurovision cynics for his annual sarky remarks about the individual competitors and the contest on the BBC, weighed in even more heavily than usual with the ‘It's all fixed anyway’, ‘Baltic blocks, Balkan blocks, and Russian blocks’, and ‘They hate us, you know’ routine. Is it any wonder the British always seem to send the most rank and vile acts these days - nobody with any talent would stick their neck out to be ritually executed by Wogan?”

The Finns were particularly perplexed by Wogan’s accusation of a Finnish-Icelandic block. What do Finland and Iceland have in common? Language? No. Geography? No. In fact, Helsinki is in the East while Reykjavik is in the West, three time zones apart. The only thing Finland and Iceland have in common, according to Transparency International, is that they are equally the least corrupt countries in the world. Could it be that Wogan is just an ignorant, arrogant bigot who has been corrupted by years of trading in acerbic cynicism? And what does the fact that he’s popular say about us?

Another BBC DJ, Paul Gambaccini, told Radio 4's Today programme he thought about half of the voting was for political reasons. He said, "Britain's votes plummeted with the invasion of Iraq and have stayed in the basement with the occupation”.

Oh really? It has nothing to do with the UK entries being shit then? I admit I’m expressing my personal taste here and that other peoples’ will be different – that’s one of the lovely things about music and, indeed, about people - but by any acknowledged musical and lyrical standard, Flying the Flag was risible.

Actually, the song was so far removed from being amusing that the only appropriate responses were to vomit and make absolutely certain it didn’t get a single point. I was very disappointed when Malta and Ireland (both former British colonies) refused to play the game because it meant the message from the rest of Europe was not delivered strongly enough. Flying the Flag deserved the humiliation of null-points.

Personally, I would have felt embarrassed had it not been for the Finnish presenter referring to Scooch as the ‘English’ entry. Thereafter, I felt smug in the knowledge that millions of Europeans would understand the truth of it.

Who in their right minds would enter a musical pastiche of Euro-pap from 20 years ago and then lace it with camp sexual innuendo unless they were totally taking the piss? I wonder what the line, “Would you like something to suck on for landing sir?” delivered by an over-the-top caricature of a guy flight attendant, might mean to the average Byelorussian.

Have Britons really sunk to such low depths of despondency that they’re determined to show the rest of Europe two fingers, or has the outcome more to do with the BNP marshalling its members so that their prejudices now dominate any BBC phone-in, poll or chat room?

It should be easy to win the Eurovision Song Contest. All you need is a less than half-decent song, delivered with absolute sincerity. That simple formula was what won last year for Lordi, a Finnish heavy metal monster band, and this year for Marija Serifovic, a low-key Serbian singer of worthy ballads. (I must confess that I didn’t watch the contest before it became controversial.)

The Finnish and Serbian winning entries couldn’t be more like chalk and cheese stylistically, which proves my point because 90% of the entries seem to be attempts to guess the prevailing musical taste of the Continent (and a big chunk of the next continent). This approach is doomed to failure when you consider the differences in taste just between Britain and its neighbours, France, Belgium and Holland.

Rather than lobby for a change in the voting system, why not lobby for Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland to enter separately from England? Then we’d have a British block. Judging by the quality of the entries for Can i Gymru this year and the fact that we’d be released from the hostility many Europeans feel towards England, the Land of Song ought to have a chance of winning.

I’ll leave the final point to Dr Howard of Reading University. “Eurovision is a fun contest and those who politicise it are missing the point." Quite.

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