Sweden's Eurovision producer Christer Björkman has criticised the late Sir Terry Wogan's long-running commentary of the Eurovision Song Contest for the BBC, suggesting that Wogan's commentary "always forced the mockery side" and that as a conequence there was a generation in Britain that "didn't know anything better". He blames the UK's recent failures at Eurovision on the attitude engendered by Sir Terry.
Wogan commentated for the BBC for more than 30 years, with fellow Irishman Graham Norton taking on the mantle since 2009. Both share a similar style of gentle ribbing; born of the Irish craic - the kind of good-humoured banter and instant commentary that the better half of Twitter now provides.
With Wogan only recently deceased, it remains somewhat in poor taste to criticise one of the veteran broadcaster's most notable legacies. Nonetheless it is worth pointing out that Wogan's commentary did have some failings: his jokes were repetitive, his targets easy, his basic arithmetic appalling (important when it comes to the last few votes!). Whilst Wogan's view of life may seem somewhat anachronistic to millenials, globalistas or worldly Swedes, his commentary and humour tapped into the majority British (and Irish) view of the Contest: that it was foreign, slightly odd, slightly ridiculous and funny to watch and represented a long-standing humouristic tradition. A humour which was so gentle in its execution, that only the most sensitive of souls could have truly been offended (calling the Danish presenters in 2001 "Dr Death and the Tooth Fairy" came close).
There remains a minority type of UK Eurovision viewer who is genuinely interested in other cultures and wants to learn what little one can about a country from a three-minute song. The majority prefer simply to laugh at the "oddness", "otherness" and "foreignness" of it all. It's like zoo-goers; there's the earnest type, keen to learn about ecology and habitat and then there's the type who want to point and laugh at the monkeys showing their bare bums. Sir Terry was perfect for primate persiflage.
Björkman's view that this humour has affected the UK's chances in the Contest is worth some analysis.
Between 1967 and 1977, the UK placed each year in the top four. Entrants were (and remain) household names: Cliff Richard, Lulu, Olivia Newton-John. For the following 20 years (in Wogan's heyday), the UK placed outside of the top ten only twice (in 1987 and 1999). That's a pretty stellar record. The UK's downfall really began in 2000 in the past 15 years we have reached a top five placing only twice.
Can we put this more recent decline down to Wogan? It hardly seems fair to pin it on one person and the dates show little correlation. However, Björkman's main point seems valid: that if as a country we see Eurovision as frivolous and odd, we're unlikely to send a serious artist (more to the point, a serious artist is unlikely to enter).
Björkman is nonetheless missing some crucial facts: there is likely nobody in the UK who is watching the contest to see or hear The Next Big Thing in global pop music. The last great star to have emerged from Eurovision was Céline Dion (nearly three decades ago) and it's fair to say she was never considered at the forefront of musical tastes nor a vanguard of a new type of sound. Whilst international songs and stars have been connected to - and in rare cases won - Eurovision, they are far too far and few between to suggest that it is a hotbed of boundary-pushing or musical excellence. The UK treats its pop music plenty seriously - Adele, Ed Sheeran, Coldplay and One Direction have all recently demonstrated that. But try as anyone may, Eurovision is not going to produce credible worldwide artists as a matter of course - and the music industry knows that. It may stumble upon them - but Eurovision is no more likely to incubate a global star than a kid in a Bratislavan basement with a YouTube account and great social media. The BBC knows this and is partly why it has struggled of late to attract strong singers and songwriters.
Ultimately, Eurovision remains an (enormously popular) entertainment show, fusing the same sense of friendly competition between nations as the Olympics with the interactivity of the the X Factor or The Voice. All this woven with a strong thread of geo-politics and a healthy dose of camp and kitsch.
Björkman's own Eurovision entry, in 1992, remains Sweden's worst ever placing in a Eurovision final. Whether or not that was his driver, since then he has presided over a renaissance in Sweden's fortunes at Eurovision by cultivating songwriters and artists through Sweden's long-running annual song contest "Melodifestivalen". It has produced four top 3 finishes in the past five years (though no ABBA-like global stars). Nonetheless, in Eurovision terms, a hugely impressive result. This year's excellent Swedish entry is another example of good modern songwriting. I have a feeling though that Sir Terry would borrow from its lyrics if he could, in response to Björkman's accusations: "If I were sorry, I'd take a vow of silence. I wouldn't say a single word. But I'm not sorry."
The grand final of the Eurovision Song Contest will be broadcast live from Stockholm on May 14th at 20:00 BST on BBC1 in the UK.
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