Duncan James was feeling quietly assured, and maybe with good purpose. “All of the bookies have been behind us,” he says. “Paddy Energy had us as favourites to win.” It was 2011, and Blue – a type of uncommon British boybands whose profession was stretching on into maturity – had been tempted out of semi-retirement to symbolize the UK at Eurovision. The band had taken a break again in 2005, James says, “to pursue completely different areas of the leisure enterprise”. However the BBC, which screens the singing competitors every year and helps oversee the UK’s alternative of entry, had come calling as a result of it discovered itself in a decent spot. After a number of years of poor (and generally catastrophic) outcomes, they urgently required a protected pair of fingers. Blue have been already established, and enduringly common. They’d excel, absolutely?
“Effectively, that was the hope,” James says.
The Eurovision music contest is the largest singing competitors on this planet, a deliriously daft sing-off through which nations compete to win the favour of a TV viewers of 161 million viewers, who can vote together with a jury of business professionals. Flags are flown with pleasure, performances err on the facet of kitsch and the entire thing runs in extra of 4 hours. By its climax, for one purpose or one other, everybody appears to be in tears.
The competitors launched in 1956 to assist carry beforehand warring nations collectively by way of the common language of music. In its first 4 many years, the UK did effectively, typically ending within the high 5. Sandie Shaw gained it, barefoot, in 1967 with Puppet on a String. Cliff Richard got here second a yr later with Congratulations. In 1969, Lulu was victorious with Growth Bang-a-Bang, a music whose devotedly simplistic chorus set the competitors’s tone for the following few years. Eurovision bolstered the profession of Brotherhood of Man, who gained with Save Your Kisses for Me in 1976, and launched Bucks Fizz in 1981. The UK has gained 5 occasions, most not too long ago in 1997 with Katrina and the Waves’ Love Shine a Mild.
Since then, aside from Sam Ryder’s triumphant second-place exhibiting final yr, the UK has been routinely unremarkable, and infrequently downright terrible. Within the twenty first century, we’ve positioned final 5 occasions. And after we haven’t come final, we’ve tended to languish close to the underside. In 2006, Daz Sampson, a Stockport-based rapper, appeared with Teenage Life, a music that comprised a freestyle vocal extra Roland Rat than Chuck D; he carried out alongside dancers dressed as schoolgirls and got here nineteenth. Three years beforehand, the Liverpudlian duo Jemini, whose members Chris Cromby and Gemma Abbey met at stage college, have been our representatives with Cry Child, “a really common music with a very horrible efficiency”, based on Paul Jordan, former Eurovision comms man who now gives media evaluation each Might as Dr Eurovision. (He accomplished his PhD within the nation branding of post-communist states, with a concentrate on Estonia’s journey at Eurovision.) Jemini, who sang off-key on the night time and have been awarded the dreaded nul factors, break up up quickly after – although there had been rumours that they have been re-forming for this yr’s occasion.
In 2021, James Newman, a hitherto achieved pop songwriter whose credit included tracks for Rudimental and Calvin Harris, additionally managed nul factors along with his music Embers, regardless of it being a wonderfully first rate up-tempo dance quantity. What went mistaken? “It was a really uninspiring efficiency,” Jordan says. It’s true: Newman didn’t precisely personal the stage. “Different acts,” Jordan says, “placed on a lot larger and higher performances. It typically is so simple as that.”
Again in 2011, then, Blue have been judged to have the chops to make issues good once more with their Justin Timberlake-esque entry, I Can.
“For me, it was a dream come true,” says Duncan James, now 45. “I’d at all times been an enormous fan – as a child, it was the one night time of the yr I used to be allowed to remain up late to observe. I liked it.”
His fellow band members – Antony Costa, Simon Webbe and Lee Ryan – weren’t fairly as eager. “Effectively, Antony was up for it, however the different two much less so. I believe they thought it was a bit tacky. And, in fact, the UK by no means does effectively, does it?” Pals suggested warning, warning that Eurovision was camp, toe-curling and plainly ridiculous – the exact same qualities that followers of the present contemplate to be central to its attraction.
Blue appeared, in the end, due to the present’s world attain. How higher to announce to the world that you just’re again than in entrance of a few hundred million TV viewers? “My perspective,” James says, “was that we already had loads of European followers. So we have been intent on giving it our greatest shot.”
When their second got here, he says, “It was throughout within the blink of an eye fixed: finished.” Then, as they have been ready backstage for the outcomes, nerves descended. James started to rein in his earlier confidence, deciding now that to come back wherever inside the High 10 can be adequate.
They got here eleventh. “We have been fairly upset about that.”
However a dozen years on, there aren’t any regrets. “I liked doing it, however it’s exhausting to symbolize your nation, and also you do ponder whether the UK simply pisses off loads of different international locations. Maybe that’s why we don’t do effectively?”
For a nation that by no means actually accords the competitors the respect bestowed upon it elsewhere, we take it terribly personally after we do badly. We discuss of politics and conspiracy theories. Jemini did badly not as a result of their music was iffy, however as a result of, in 2003, Tony Blair adopted George W Bush into Iraq. We crashed and burned in 2016 with Joe & Jake’s heard-once-and-promptly-forgotten You’re Not Alone as a result of David Cameron had set the ball rolling in direction of Brexit. What different purpose may there probably be, given simply how good, collectively, “we” are at music, our pop stars feted the world over?
However our poor exhibiting, Paul Jordan argues, could be each less complicated and extra basic. Through the years, Eurovision has developed. The UK entrants haven’t. It’s not Growth Bang-a-Bang any extra and entries generally have far much less cheese attraction; 2021 Italian winners Måneskin’s Zitti E Buoni blended metallic and glam rock. They’re now a world sensation.
“For those who take a look at the interval from 2000 onwards, it’s turn out to be larger, extra subtle and more and more credible,” Jordan says. “Numerous the songs are sung in English now, and are literally fairly nice. Ours aren’t, not at all times. However you even have to have a look at the way in which different international locations view it. If an artist from, say, Scandinavia does effectively, for them it’s an enormous alternative. Their songs turn out to be hit singles and the bands do very effectively; they’ve a profession. However right here, fairly often, our entries don’t even make it into the High 40, so why would anybody enter as a critical artist when the entire thing is seen as a joke?”
Jordan gives, by means of comparability, the Estonian strategy. “When Estonia gained in 2001,” he says, “folks took to the streets in celebration. They used it to assist with branding and nationwide id. Their singer, Dave Benton, had moved within the Nineties from Aruba to Estonia, which they held up for instance of a contemporary, multicultural nation, positioning themselves away from a Soviet backwater in direction of a extra Nordic picture. We’ve by no means finished something like that. We simply snigger at it.”
It’s attainable, in fact, that we’ve at all times felt a bit of superior, culturally, to our European neighbours. If Eurovision is in the end a kitsch fest, then we’ll solely ever proffer a bit of kitsch of our personal. That definitely appeared to be the view of Terry Wogan, who supplied commentary for the present for nearly 30 years, and did so with impeccable withering disdain. Graham Norton took over from Wogan in 2009 and Eurovision fanatics, Jordan suggests, imagine him to be a significantly better and extra trendy match. “Norton could be a little bit acerbic, sure, however he’s very witty and seems like he actually loves the present, too, which helps.”
Considered one of Eurovision’s overriding joys is the truth that a lot of it’s misplaced in translation. In 2012, for instance, Russia was represented by Buranovskiye Babushki, a bunch of eight older ladies performing a music that mixed questionable singing with a show of rhythm so rudimentary it could give Arlene Phillips a conniption. They weren’t attempting to be humorous, nonetheless; they have been celebrating their cultural heritage. They completed second.
“I bear in mind one contestant – not from Finland, however someplace like that – who got here on wearing pantaloons,” says Nicki French, a former UK consultant. “He regarded like a courtroom jester. However this was his nationwide gown. He carried out with huge pleasure.”
French was the UK entrant in 2000, three years after Katrina and the Waves’ victory. A former cruise ship entertainer, the then 35-year-old had loved chart success 5 years beforehand with a canopy of Bonnie Tyler’s Whole Eclipse of the Coronary heart, however after that the hits dried up. The chance to symbolize her nation was a dream come true.
“Oh my God,” she says, beaming. “I’m no good at sports activities, so this was like my Olympics!”
French’s entry, which got here with the disastrous title Don’t Play That Tune Once more, was an Abba-adjacent energy ballad and consequently very on-brand for Eurovision. She completed sixteenth. “And I’ll say it earlier than you do: that was the bottom the UK had ever come at that time. I stated to at least one journalist afterwards – I believe he was from the Night Commonplace – that I blamed the British beef disaster. I used to be joking, in fact, however everybody got here again and stated: ‘No, your music was only a pile of poo.’”
Now 58, French hosts an enormous Eurovision occasion in London every year with Radio 4’s Paddy O’Connell; numerous Eurovision alumni attend. “Profession suicide?” she says. “It relies upon the way you take a look at it. At first, sure, it was exhausting. I’d been hoping to enter musical theatre, however coming sixteenth didn’t actually assist with that. Nevertheless it gave me different alternatives – I nonetheless play reveals everywhere in the world. Might is my favorite month, as I’m at all times busy then; the media at all times wish to discuss to me. I’d like to be a part of the TV specials they’re filming now, however nobody appears to be asking. Hey ho, that’s superb. I’m nonetheless right here, nonetheless working. Because it occurs,” she provides, “I’m having lunch with Katrina later at the moment. Guess what we’ll be speaking about?”
Over the years, the UK entrant has been chosen in certainly one of two methods – both by way of an inside choice course of or by permitting TV viewers to vote. The names of the choice reveals have modified: there’s been Making Your Thoughts Up (2004-07, named after Bucks Fizz’s 1981 winner) and Eurovision: Your Choice (2008). By 2009, they have been probably getting a bit of determined, if the present’s title was something to go by: Eurovision: Your Nation Wants You.
Again in 2007, Making Your Thoughts Up fielded hopefuls together with East 17’s Brian Harvey and Justin Hawkins from the Darkness. The viewing public, in its knowledge, selected Scooch.
“We thought that Justin Hawkins had it within the bag,” Scooch member Natalie Powers says, “and we by no means anticipated to win. So after we did – effectively, it was a little bit of a shock, put it that manner.”
Eurovision had by no means actually been on Scooch’s radar. Initially fashioned by the administration group behind Steps, who have been seemingly intent on making them sound as very similar to Steps as attainable, they’d a few hits within the early 2000s earlier than Powers’ unplanned being pregnant derailed them.
“I used to be very a lot given the selection by administration of both hold the newborn however don’t be within the band, or be within the band and quit the newborn,” Powers says. “I selected the newborn.”
By the point the BBC got here calling, her son was at college and Powers was eager to renew her profession. “We simply wished to have enjoyable with it,” she says.
Scooch’s effort, Flying the Flag (For You), was a high-tempo Butlin’s-friendly paean to the purported pleasures of funds airline journey. “From London to Berlin/All the way in which from Paris to Tallinn,” Powers sang. The band have been dressed as cabin crew and danced like planes whereas performing security demonstrations. Intermittently, member David Ducasse requested whether or not passengers would really like a few of his “salty nuts” earlier than suggesting, in the course of the music’s closing descent, they could like “one thing to suck on for touchdown”.
“I don’t assume that kind of innuendo translated notably effectively in Bulgaria,” Paul Jordan notes. He was proper: Scooch didn’t tickle Europe’s fancy. They got here twenty second. (The music did subsequently attain No 5 within the UK charts, “which was fairly an enormous deal”, Powers notes.)
“I’m very aggressive so I used to be gutted to not win,” says Ducasse, 46, who now works for the civil service. “However I really like that Eurovision has given us a sort of immortality. It’s like having a Christmas hit. Each December you’ll hear Mariah Carey; each Might you’ll hear us. I’m pleased with that.”
His Scooch band members Caroline Barnes and Russ Spencer have each since dabbled in musical theatre, whereas Powers, 45, co-runs a expertise academy for kids in Buckinghamshire. All of them stay, she says, “nice mates”. When requested how Eurovision has affected her life, there may be laughter. “I get about £27 a yr in royalties!”
When James Fox was requested to compete for the prospect to symbolize the UK, in 2004, he was 27. “I’d been gigging for the reason that age of 16, and I’d already finished [the BBC singing competitors] Fame Academy,” he says of a profession that had but to take off. He agreed, “as a result of I believed it could put me within the store window. Additionally, I used to be following Jemini’s nul factors. My supervisor stated to me: ‘How unhealthy can it get?’”
Fox’s Maintain on to Our Love, an earnest, no-frills love music, completed sixteenth. In consequence, the deal he’d had with Sony fizzled out. “You go from being the centre of the storm to completely nothing,” he says. “The day after, my world was simply empty. I went dwelling to my flat, and sat on the couch, pondering: ‘What now?’”
After Fox got here Andy Abraham (2008) and Lucie Jones (2017), each from The X Issue. Javine Hylton (2005) had narrowly missed out on a spot in Women Aloud after they have been fashioned on ITV’s expertise present Popstars, whereas Jade Ewen (2009), who hadn’t finished actuality TV, had briefly been a member of Sugababes. Every introduced with them ranges of professionalism, however even they didn’t make a lot of an impression (though Ewen did end fifth).
The BBC, by now probably a bit of determined, prolonged the invitation to legends. In 2012, Engelbert Humperdinck, then aged 75, carried out Love Will Set You Free, a fairly turgid romance that even a voice as massive as his couldn’t enliven. He completed twenty fifth. A yr later, the poisoned chalice was handed to Bonnie Tyler.
This wasn’t the primary time she’d been approached. “Are you aware what?” says Tyler, 71. “The BBC first requested me to do Eurovision again in 1983, however I used to be primary on the time with Whole Eclipse of the Coronary heart. I used to be far too busy!” (An outfit known as Candy Goals appeared in her stead; they got here sixth.) “In addition to,” she provides, “I actually assume the competitors must be about new expertise.”
And but there was Tyler, in her 60s, flying the union jack. Why? “Effectively, see, the BBC had heard this monitor, Consider in Me, from my new album, which they thought can be good for the present. Desmond Baby wrote it, and he’d written for Bon Jovi. I agreed to do it as a result of it was a great way to launch the report.” She carried out in inimitable Bonnie Tyler style. “Among the judges, they stated to me: ‘We love you, Bonnie!’ However they nonetheless didn’t vote for me!”
Tyler survived untarnished – she got here nineteenth – as a result of she had a profitable profession to fall again on, whereas acts equivalent to Daz Sampson or Jemini, for whom the competitors will at all times be their peak, have a tendency to not. That is a part of the present’s beautiful cruelty: its potential to launch you into the stratosphere or, extra seemingly as of late, bury you alive. In 2015, Electro Velvet fell, by way of no fault of their very own, into the latter camp. A duo comprising Bianca Nicholas, who has cystic fibrosis and has since stepped again from the highlight, and Alex Larke, then a 35-year-old session musician, they supplied up Nonetheless in Love With You, a music knowledgeable by swing, the jazz type common in Nineteen Twenties America. “Electro swing, I believe they known as it,” Larke says. “Makes it sound extra trendy.”
In some ways this was very best Eurovision fodder, however they scored simply 5 factors and got here twenty fourth. The music later reached No 114 within the UK charts. “All that work, 5 months of intense preparation and media consideration, solely to come back that low,” Larke says, sighing. “It was demoralising. They paid us, I believe, the princely sum of £5,000, which isn’t very a lot for 5 months’ work. When it was clear that the music hadn’t linked, I simply wandered round backstage for a bit. There was loads of champagne flowing – on reflection, it was most likely cava – and I obtained shit-faced.”
His night time, and by extension his pop profession, was over by the point the clock struck 12. “Your contract ends on the stroke of midnight, and also you’re bundled on to the primary flight again the morning after. My spouse was at work once I obtained dwelling, and I don’t assume I’ve ever felt fairly so alone. The telephone stops ringing. You by no means hear from anybody once more.”
Whereas James Fox went on to have a profitable profession in musical theatre – he has appeared within the West Finish and on Broadway – Larke resumed his session work. He now runs his personal studio in Welwyn Backyard Metropolis.
“The enterprise was going nice till the pandemic hit, after which I used to be attempting to make ends meet utilizing bank cards,” he says. He noticed on Fb that the Solar was in search of lockdown tales through which folks have been struggling financially. Suspecting that Eurovision’s lingering cachet would pique their curiosity, he known as them. “Not my proudest second, however then they have been paying £150. I wanted the cash.” He did bounce again, in the end, and his studio has since reopened.
It is feasible, simply often, to bomb and are available out smiling. On paper, singer-songwriter SuRie was an uncommon alternative in 2018: a graduate of the Royal Academy of Music, who had beforehand appeared in each an Arthur Miller play and a hip-hop musical. Her first style of Eurovision was as a backing dancer for the Belgian act Loïc Nottet in 2015. She jumped on the likelihood of collaborating herself, she says, as a result of current entrants Javine and Lucie Jones had been notably robust.
“The manufacturing values have been getting so good – the standard of singers, too – so I simply thought: ‘Why not?’”
Her music, Storm, fell squarely into massive ballad territory, and he or she crammed it with cinematic anguish. Her efficiency is value in search of out on-line. Midway by way of it, a person invades the stage and grabs the mic. SuRie stumbles again, dazed, whereas the intruder – who had pulled this kind of stunt on different TV reveals – is bundled off by safety. She sees that the microphone has rolled conveniently again to her ft, picks it up and doggedly carries on. The primary full lyric she sings upon its resumption is: “Maintain your head up/Don’t hand over.”
“A good friend texted me afterwards to say: ‘I don’t know the way you deliberate that, nevertheless it was genius!’” the 34-year-old laughs. Initially there was discuss that she’d must carry out it once more, however this was reside tv, and in addition to, she’d been terrific. The gang had gone wild for her.
“Individuals have been telling me I ought to put together myself as a result of I used to be going to win, if solely from the sympathy vote,” she says. She got here twenty fourth. “It was simply dire. There’s a photograph of me with a glass in my hand, trying ashen.”
However the stage invasion went viral and folks bear in mind SuRie warmly. Now a staunchly unbiased artist, she releases a brand new album this month of chic piano-led songs and, like nearly everybody else who has appeared on Eurovision over time, sees solely the optimistic. It’s on her CV for all times, and indelibly on-line, too, and he or she’s superb about it.
“Oh, I can’t stress this sufficient,” she says, “nevertheless it actually was probably the most great factor to have been part of. To see nothing however positivity from nations which are speculated to be enemies – all these flags flying proper subsequent to one another – is a tremendous factor. I’ve by no means seen a group prefer it, one which’s extra inclusive, extra celebratory of everybody simply being themselves.
“Eurovision,” she says, “is one thing I’ll be grateful to for ever.”
What of this yr’s occasion? Ought to we be getting ready once more for the inevitable disappointment? Maybe not – as a result of there’s rising proof that the UK is getting its act collectively eventually. Each 2022’s entry, Sam Ryder, and this yr’s, Mae Muller, have been put ahead by Faucet administration, the group behind Dua Lipa, Lana Del Rey and Ellie Goulding. Is that this an indication that we’re belatedly taking the competitors extra significantly and providing up higher songs and extra credible artists? Maybe, says Blue’s Duncan James.
“I at all times thought that the longer we didn’t win, the extra as a rustic we turned disheartened by it,” James says. “So Sam successful it final yr, effectively, that simply reignited the nation’s love for it, didn’t it? Now, immediately, everybody’s excited once more.”
His mistake right here – suggesting that Sam Ryder gained in 2022 – is maybe comprehensible. Ryder truly completed in second place, behind Ukraine. Liverpool is internet hosting the occasion as a result of Ukraine, in fact, can’t. Final yr’s winners, the Kalush Orchestra, didn’t go on to get pleasure from enormous worldwide success, however Ryder – a person who can resemble a sock puppet being operated by the world’s most excitable hand – has. He’s been the proper ambassador for the competitors: likable, garrulous, maniacally glad. He’s Eurovision in human type.
And so possibly, simply possibly, that quarter-century of damage is at an finish. Again in 1997, Katrina and the Waves rode off into the sundown – and took the sundown with them. We’ve been the butt of the joke ever since, nevertheless it’s time now to cease laughing.
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